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Mobile Ad Model Uses Attention As Currency

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Virgin Mobile USA is breaking new ground in mobile advertising by announcing its plan to offer customers a way to earn free talk time on their phones by watching ads – and taking tests afterward. SugarMama, as the program is called, will debut on June 14.

Pre-paid customers, when running low on minutes, will be able to boost their time by up to 75 minutes, earning one minute of talk time per 30-second commercial message viewed. The customers then fill out a survey about the product advertised.

Microsoft’s Xbox 360, PepsiCo’s Diet Mountain Dew, and American Legacy Foundation’s anti-smoking “Truth” campaign are tapped to be the first sponsors participating in the program. Customers will also have the option of receiving SMS advertising with promotions and discounts.

“Virgin Mobile’s SugarMama site brings the value of a viewer’s engagement to a new and higher plateau,” notes Rick Vandervoorn, Ultramercial’s East Coast vice president of sales. “These commercials will be more content-rich and less ad-like, to make a perfect fit with Virgin Mobile’s young user base. And talk about a goodwill bounce — the sponsor buying airtime minutes? What could be more valuable?”

Virgin Mobile says that the advertising model can satisfy both sides of the channel as advertisers look for ways to integrate their messages into the mobile space while soothing mobile users who are wary of cell phone spam. SugarMama is permission-based and rewards customers for their time.

“Everyone is racing to shove ads into the mobile channel,” Howard Handler, chief marketing officer at Virgin Mobile USA. “But the last thing young people want is spam on their phones. This service acknowledges the savvy and free will of our customer base. Our attitude, and that of our partners, is that these customers’ time is valuable. They should get something for giving us something. And that’s what SugarMama is all about.”

American Legacy Foundation views the new program as a two-directional way to reach a younger audience and spread their anti-smoking message that centers on marketing tactics used by the tobacco industry.

“Since day one, our campaign has been focused around enabling young people to interact through peer-to-peer communication, then ask questions and make informed choices about tobacco use,” said Joseph Martyak, executive vice president of marketing, communications and public policy, at the American Legacy Foundation. “So the two-way dialogue on which SugarMama is based will be another powerful way for us to engage teens with life-saving information.”

Not everyone is so sure about the campaign’s effectiveness, however. The New York Times quotes Ovum Research analyst Roger Entner to bring out concerns about the spendthrift nature of the market that would trade personal time for airtime.

“If you’re too cheap to buy a minute of air time, how are you going to afford an Xbox?” Mr. Entner said. The people likely to earn minutes for free “are people who want to avoid costs at any cost.”

But Microsoft representatives say its not all about selling Xboxes. It’s about awareness and feedback.

“We’re always seeking opportunities to learn from our customers how we can deliver the best gaming experiences possible on Xbox 360,” said Director of Xbox marketing Chris Di Cesare. “Virgin Mobile’s SugarMama program provides us with a new way to drive consumer awareness yet gain valuable insight from our customers that helps us continually deliver new breakthroughs in gaming entertainment.”

Customers can earn minutes in three ways: by filling out online questionnaires, watching online video clips at the Virgin Mobile website, or receiving text messages on their phones. Receipt of free minutes is contingent, however, on demonstration by the customer that they were paying attention, like identifying the main idea of the message.

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Mobile Ad Model Uses Attention As Currency
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