By Thomas Crampton International Herald Tribune
SUNDAY, MAY 7, 2006
Sometime in the next few weeks, French billboards will be able to speak to your mobile phone – but only with your permission.
People with certain kinds of phones who download a special software program and say they want to participate will receive digital advertising when the phone is near the billboards.
It is the latest twist in the budding niche of mobile marketing, wherein the cellphone becomes a conduit not just for communications but also for commerce.
Advertisements most common on mobile phones now are self- promotional text messages sent by phone companies to subscribers, according to Farid Yunus, a telecommunications industry analyst based in Malaysia for Yankee Group, a market research firm.
Under early experiments for more sophisticated marketing, the user has to key in a code to receive a text message that can be used as a discount voucher or some other enticement – or in the case of one garden center advertisement in Germany, to have a billboard squirt water on passersby.
The difference with the new project, said Albert Asseraf, director of strategy, research and marketing at JCDecaux, the outdoor-advertising company behind the project, is that consumers consent to receive alerts about digital advertising as they move through the city.
“We are switching from a one-time active response to the user’s blanket acceptance of many digital messages,” he said. “We will, of course, need to be careful in making certain that users get only advertisements that interest them.”
When participating users are near an active advertisement – it could be part of a billboard or a bus shelter poster – their phones will automatically receive a notice that a digital file can be downloaded. The information could range from a ring tone or short video to a discount voucher.
“With this project, we are really starting to create the personalized digital city,” Asseraf said. “We eventually will see a rich dialogue running between mobile phones and what are now uncommunicative objects.”
Fabien Beckers, chief executive of Kameleon Technologies, a company based in Paris that is using similar mobile phone technology to market ads for movie theaters and retailers, agreed. He forecast – “with a hope and a wish” – that such mobile marketing messages will be nearly mainstream in some urban European areas by the middle of next year.
That may be a step ahead of the normally market-leading technologies in Asia. “Even in South Korea and Japan, the most advanced telecom markets in the world, location-based advertising has not yet arrived on mobile phones,” Yunus said.
Citing a confidentiality agreement intended to maximize the effect of ad campaigns using the technology, Asseraf declined to identify the locations or the brand that would inaugurate it.
JCDecaux, for an undisclosed amount, purchased the exclusive license to the technology, which was developed over the past decade by the government-run French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control, known by its French initials Inria.
Jean-Paul Edwards, the London-based head of media futures for Manning Gottlieb OMD, a media buying agency, said the scale and style of the French project pointed to the direction that urban advertising would go.
“Just the involvement alone of a company as large as JCDecaux in such an effort makes this project very interesting,” said Edwards, who has no affiliation with the project. “They are taking permission-based marketing to a level and scale we have not seen before.”
The system is meant for cellphones that have a built-in wireless technology like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, but the system can be configured for less sophisticated phones. It requires users to volunteer demographic and personal information and to specify the sort of advertisements they will accept, he said.
Users may, for example, say they want only video ads about new cars and ads with discounts on fashion accessories. It is critical to the system, he added, that users can adjust the settings on their mobile phones at any time.
A cautious and permission-based approach is vital when using technologies that touch consumers so directly, Edwards said.
“When you bridge the gap between something so public as a street poster and something so private as a mobile phone, there are inherent dangers,” Edwards said. “It is extremely powerful to get into somebody’s pocket, but you also take the risk of annoying them.”
The potential shortcomings would be apparent in any large public space that might have many digitally enabled posters close to one another.
“You can imagine a nightmare scenario where someone’s mobile phone fills up with half a dozen advertising messages each day as they walk across Waterloo Station,” Edwards said. “The most powerful way to use this technology will be offering people something of value that they really want.”
Examples of valuable items could be a free track of music from a favorite artist, a movie trailer or a discount coupon.
The original concept for the shoebox-size transmission units that JCDecaux will mount inside billboards came from the French computing institute’s efforts to help handicapped people.
“We started with the idea that objects themselves could become an intelligence system that helps people navigate around the city,” said Michel Banâtre, head of the team that developed the technology at Inria.
The first project was the Ubibus system, never actually deployed, to help blind people take the bus.
While working with JCDecaux, the research institute broadened the concept to embrace public service announcements, tourist information and advertising.
“Once you know about someone’s interests and their exact location, you know a lot about the kind of information they might want,” Banâtre said. “Also, when you can constantly update tourist information like a historic marker, it becomes possible to say what nearby museums are open right now or a restaurant that is now offering a discount.”
Banâtre’s team has developed other concepts based on identifying mobile phones within a small area.
He said they also were developing airport signs, called UbiBoards, that will show information in the language spoken by a majority of the people nearby.
“If mobile phones near a sign say that the majority of people are Chinese, the sign will show information in Chinese,” Banâtre said, adding that such a system would require registrations much like the ad system. “Those who do not speak Chinese will receive the same information in their phone via SMS message in their own language.”
Another application, called UbiQ, is being developed to allow people in a location like a bank, cinema or fast- food restaurant to give information by cellphone about what they want before getting to the front of the line.
“Think about it and you realize how much time is spent giving the same start-up information for a transaction,” Banâtre said, citing the time it takes for a teller to enter banking details. “The intention with UbiQ is to speed up the exchange of information through mobile phones.”
Because of the widespread availability of phones with short-range wireless standards like Bluetooth, Beckers of Kameleon said, “this is no longer a technology play – it is a marketing play.” Others in the business of “proximity content distribution” include Hypertag in London and Wideray in San Francisco.
The most likely Bluetooth users, Beckers said, are 15 to 34 years old, a group attractive to retailers and entertainment companies.
For them, “the means to interact with the world will be your mobile phone,” he said.
In terms of practical applications, however, Asseraf of JCDecaux said the principle of letting the consumer decide was foremost.
“If we abuse this system, it simply will not work, and people will turn off the function,” Asseraf said. “It is a question of personal liberty that people should decide what they receive on their mobile phone.”
Victoria Shannon contributed reporting for this article.