"Free" is a four letter word. However, unlike the expletives often deleted, free is an "f" word that is embraced and enjoyed by millions of mobile content consumers who regularly download free music, videos, images, apps and games on their phones. Free content, supported or sponsored by advertising, is hardly a new concept. We have all grown up in a world where the "commercial break" is commonplace on TV and radio, and the American media consumer inherently understands that those commercials, like them or not, are facilitating the availability of quality entertainment, free of charge.
With the rapid rise of the rich-media-capable smartphone -- on course to soon comprise 50% of the U.S. mobile phone market -- we are consuming more and more of our entertainment directly on our mobile devices. Faster processors, larger, sharper screens, better networks, more data storage and the convenience of having it as a constant companion have made the modern smartphone wildly popular as a wireless entertainment hub. The smartphone is a true extension of the content-rich (read "free" content rich) internet we have come to rely on for entertainment as well as information. Thus, it is only natural that ad-supported mobile content is a viable and growing market.
Relevance vs. interruption
While mobile phone users are inclined to download free content rather than paid, they still don't necessarily want to be inundated with ads. Therein lies the rub for brands and mobile marketers. How can you subsidize mobile content in ways that consumers will accept, embrace and still value and act upon the advertisements associated with mobile content delivery?
One approach that has met with success for the ad-supported delivery of mobile music downloads, including MP3 full-tracks and ringtones, as well as images and videos, is to place relevant mobile ads within the SMS messages containing an item's download link, and put mobile banner ads on the mobile web download pages. These ads can be highly targeted and contextual, but they do not interfere with the actual content the user is downloading, and they do not add any steps to the download process. Such ads can reinforce a brand through association with the content and allow for click through, click-to-call, and other calls to action that don't prevent the user from obtaining the free content they desire.
Branded mobile content can also be ad-supported in a similar fashion, benefiting by targeting those consumers who already have an affinity for the brand, as expressed by their desire to download the brand's mobile content. Brands including Geico, Hefty, Skittles, Orbit and many more have effectively used branded mobile content to engage with consumers in ways that are lasting, impactful and easily shareable. In addition to the ad-supported delivery of branded content, the downloaded content itself remains on the user's phone as a reminder of the brand, and even as a conversation starter. A survey of Myxer users indicated that 81% keep downloaded content on their phones active for at least one week, and 52% for at least two weeks.
Knowing your target audience and their mobile behavior can also be useful to best leverage free mobile content for marketing and advertising purposes. For example, in an April 2010 study conducted by Myxer and issued in the BoomBox Report women accounted for twice as many mobile content downloads as men, and each female visitor to Myxer downloaded 17% more content than the average male. In general, campaigns around free mobile content have successfully increased brand awareness, brand favorability and purchase intent, while leaving consumers with downloaded content they could enjoy on their phone long after the "campaign" was over.
Share and share alike
Not only do consumers enjoy "free" themselves, but they also enjoy sharing "free" stuff with their friends. With that in mind, campaigns around free mobile content lend themselves well to a wide range of social sharing. Content items can be easily "liked" and shared on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter directly from mobile download pages.
In addition, rich mobile ad units can easily and directly interact with a brand's mobile social pages, making "free" mobile content both interactive and potentially viral. Conversely, free mobile content can also be offered within a widget directly from a brand's Facebook page, extending mobile beyond mobile and broadening the reach of free branded or sponsored content as well as the advertising around the delivery path.
For brands looking at ways to engage with mobile consumers, "free" can be a small price to pay for a successful mobile campaign.