Old media got left behind in the race to go online, in part because the prospects for advertising, traditionally the major revenue generator for newspapers, magazines and television, seemed unclear on the Internet. Then online advertising took off, and old media are still playing catch-up.
Now, with the next iteration of the Internet, the mobile Web, spreading around the world, publishers and other content providers are trying to keep up, lest they get in late on another advertising bonanza.
Last week in London, the Online Publishers Association released a study showing that use of the mobile Internet is on the rise, along with acceptance of mobile advertising.
The survey, conducted by TNS Media and Entertainment in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, found that 76 percent of cellphone owners in those countries now have access to the Web from mobile devices. The researchers, who polled about 1,000 people in each country, found that more than a third of those with mobile Web access used such services. The Web-using population ranged from 34 percent in France to 54 percent in Britain.
Studies commissioned by trade organizations are sometimes just disguised marketing exercises, and indeed the publishers' group's numbers seem surprisingly high, compared with other recent surveys of Web access by mobile phone users. According to M:Metrics, a research firm based in Seattle, 14 percent of British cellphone users accessed the Web for news and information in the fourth quarter. In Germany, a mere 3.2 percent did so, according to the firm.
Still, even if the lower estimates are right, mobile marketing could be a big thing, simply because the numbers are enormous. Some oft-repeated measures: Around one billion mobile phones will be sold around the world this year. Globally, there are more cellphones than PCs.
"I always hear about the cellphone as being the 'third screen,' but I think about it as the first one," said Bob Greenberg, chief executive of R/GA, an agency based in New York that specializes in digital advertising, speaking at a conference sponsored by the publishers' association. "It's with me all the time."
In advertising terms, however, the mobile remains very much the third screen, behind television and the PC. Outside Asia, where mobile advertising has grown rapidly in markets like Japan and China, activity is still dominated by "text and response" campaigns that ask users to send text messages for more information on a product, or to enter a contest, for example.
The personal nature of the link between cellphones and their users has made marketers tread carefully. Some kinds of mobile advertising — unsolicited text-message spam, for instance — are illegal or against advertising regulatory codes in many countries.
The online publishers' survey indicated that consumers remain wary. Only 18 percent of respondents in the United States said they were receptive to the idea of watching ads in exchange for free mobile content. The percentage was higher in Europe, where 37 percent said they would do so.
But the study also showed how effective mobile advertising could be, if the personal space can be entered deftly. Sizable percentages of respondents said they had visited a Web site, for instance, or requested more information about a product, as a result of a mobile ad.
In an effort to get more marketers into mobile, Nokia last week announced two new services that aim to stimulate the development of mobile advertising. One of the new programs will help digital advertising specialists roll out campaigns for cellphone-based media applications like music players and navigation systems. The other will help agencies adapt digital campaigns for the mobile web.
With mobile media embracing an increasingly diverse array of devices and formats, from video game players to portable newspaper readers, that may be no easy task. But, if you believe the marketing, the payoff could be sizable.