CELLPHONE SERVICE PROMISES TO ANSWER ANY QUESTION

Start-up AskMeNow.com Delivers Ads With Answers

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Say you’re at an airport debating with your boss over who won the 1995 World Series. You pull out your cellphone and SMS a message asking the question to a number you’ve programmed into your phone. The answer comes back: The Atlanta Braves beat the Cleveland Indians. You score points with your boss -- or lose points for being a know-it-all.
Questions can be asked by dialing a toll-free number or by text-message. Answers come back to the handheld device via SMS. Basic questions on topics such as weather, stocks, directory assistance, directions or sports scores have automated answers programmed in and are free.

In any case, the answer is coming from an advertiser-based service launched last week called AskMeNow, which claims to answer questions -- from the mundane, like “What’s the weather like in Detroit?” to the more esoteric, like “What are the ingredients of plum pudding?” Text ads appear just after the answer on the user’s cellphone or BlackBerry.

Hybrid technology
A hybrid of Internet and mobile technology, AskMeNow hopes to build its service on the burgeoning expectation that information should be available at consumers’ fingertips. It enters a crowded field of companies providing specific sorts of information to handheld devices, including directory assistance services, Yahoo, Google and Vindigo.

But Jeffrey Mahl, chief revenue and content officer, thinks what sets AskMeNow apart is that it is the only service in which the user can ask any question on any topic that can be researched on the Web. “Everyone likes to ask questions, but going on the Web is not always the most convenient thing to do from your cellphone,” he said.

How it works
The way it works is a user registers with the company’s Web site, Askmenow.com. Questions can then be asked by dialing a toll-free number or by text-message. Answers come back to the handheld device via SMS. Basic questions on topics such as weather, stocks, directory assistance, directions or sports scores have automated answers programmed in and are free. There are 1 million of these in the company database.

For more involved questions, the user can choose the AskMeAnything feature and pay 49 cents. Questions come into a call center where representatives look up information. AskMeNow can answer “virtually any question,” the company Web site claims.

AskMeNow takes for granted that consumers are so used to seeing ads as they view information on the Web that they will accept ads on their mobile devices following the answer they asked for. Users opt-in to view ads during the registration process.

Irvine, Calif.-based AskMeNow has enrolled about 25,000 consumers and inked deals with about 25 advertisers, such as 1-800-Flowers, Progressive Insurance, Hotels.com, Pacifichomeloans.com, and Spafinder.com, Mr. Mahl said. He added that the company is also in discussion with well-known financial-services brands. Users’ response rates are tallied when they click on the ad or call an 800-number embedded in the ad.

Pricing is determined on a cost-per-acquisition, revenue-sharing basis, with CPA costs ranging from 6% to 50% of the cost of the product, Mr. Mahl said.

Target audience
The target audience is business executives. “They are a great customer,” said CEO Darryl Cohen. “They are more likely to use Askmenow because of time limitations and their propensity to travel, which causes the need for information about their location.”

Mr. Cohen has plans to start an advertising bidding system during the 2006 first quarter. They also plan to target ads based on data gathered from users. Registrants hand over their name, land address, e-mail, cellphone number, cellphone model and manufacturer, birthday, occupation and gender.

During the year the service has been in beta, random trivia queries have been the most common the company has fielded, followed by questions dealing with travel-related issues. Also, in an inexplicable and rather sad need for guidance, people ask questions like “Should I wear my blue sweater?” and “What should I have for dinner?”

Ahead of its time?
The idea is worth attempting but may be a bit ahead of its time, said Julie Ask, senior analyst, specializing in wireless at Jupiter Research. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” she said. “People just aren’t accustomed to using their phones that way.”

One hurdle is that many people are suspicious of ads on their cell phones, primarily because they are worried about being charged for each message. But they also worry about privacy, Ms. Ask said.

Another is that the ads, much like ads on Google, are restricted to text, no graphics and can only be 160 characters.

The main hurdle, though, is that SMS is a practice that has only caught on with about 40% of cellphone consumers, Jupiter Research said. And when asked why they use SMS, those consumers say communicating with friends, making plans, dating, flirting and getting help with homework. “Finding information is way down the list,” Ms. Ask said.

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