AOL gets Third Screen Media - The Big Boys & Mobile Advertising

It heats up but remains VERY fragmented: After Microsoft snatched up Massive and bought Screentonic, AOL now acquired Third Screen Media. Google has been invisible on this front but powers ahead with integrating many of its products onto mobile - and they (can) come with ads (see article and interview with their Director of Product Management, Deep Nishar, here). Yahoo! as well is getting its search products onto more and more carriers, a step to keep doors and screens open... Mighty Nokia announced its own service... Various carriers do it on their own (e.g. Sprint as per the report here). And then there's a few first-generation "indies", such as Greystripe and Actionality (indies for how long though?), Exit Games and IDG try the partnering approach - there is certainly a lot going on!

Is this all sensible or is it the silverbacks trying things out and some of the smaller players dressing up for a beauty parade and a big-buck exit by acquisition and/or running after the flavour of the month? AOL seems to think the former: their Chairman & CEO, Randy Falco said that "AOL is one of only four at-scale advertising businesses on the Internet, and the acquisition of Third Screen Media gives us a very strong position in the fast-growing mobile space. It also lets us offer advertisers a more complete set of solutions, from display advertising to search and now a superior set of mobile solutions."

At the moment, the sector is all talk and little money. According to traditionally buoyant analysts Informa, 2006 saw $871m in ad revenue on the mobile platform (and they didn't even tell what was comprised; I assume this includes SMS-based services which we can probably agree are pretty crude), others put it to half that (also see the overview on the fine GigaOM blog here). There is little doubt that the sector will grow exponentially but when, how and through which players is pretty much wide open.

Today, for MSFT, Google, Yahoo! et al, these acquisitions are largely insignificant as regards their impact on the P&L but they may well equip them with a much needed spearhead (and knowhow) in the new ad sector, mobile advertising.

If more and more players try to assert themselves, the question will arise which type of advertising model we will see: will it be syndication-driven as it is on the web or will you need to book your ads with every single media owner (as it is in print and TV). At the moment, even though one would/could argue that the mobile is merely a different iteration of online, it would seem as if they're choosing the latter but then it is very early days.

The big issues are still somewhat unsolved as yet and they will arguably hinder quick implementation: white-listing of data services, so that the end user does not actually have to pay for the delivery of ads to his/her phone, is a big issue that will only be solved once data plans are truly open and not capped at [X] MB (as a few carriers now introduce, e.g. Orange). Many other issues, such as targeting users (relevance) and balancing ads (e.g. in-game; see interesting report here) need more robust solutions, too.

So at present I'd say: congrats to the likes of Massive, Third Screen, Screentonic, etc who have found a deep-pocketed corporate home and good luck and perseverance to all the others.