AzoogleAds CMO on the State of Online Mobile Content Marketing

Michael Sprouse, AzoogleAds’ ( Chief Marketing Officer, speaks out about the state of mobile content marketing, details what recent announcements mean to marketers and gives ten do’s and don’ts of mobile content marketing. Also contributing is Alex Krylov, AzoogleAds’ Compliance Manager, who plays a leading role in the company’s Integrity Assurance Program.

There has been much written lately regarding the online marketing of ringtones and other mobile content. Various settlements and cooperative agreements have been reached between government agencies and companies. What can marketers, publishers and networks do, and equally importantly, not do if they market mobile content to consumers?

Let me first provide some pertinent background information: at AzoogleAds, in mid-2005, we commenced a broad effort to establish clear best practices on integrity assurance issues, initially around the email marketing of ringtones, and later, effectively banning adware in early 2006. In late summer of 2006, on our own volition, we became the first company in the sector to adopt a Mobile Acceptable Use Policy and to ban the use of the term “Free” in cases where the offer was not, in fact, free. When the Florida Attorney General (FLAG) commenced a broad-based investigation into mobile content marketing in 2007 – an ongoing investigation, focusing on nearly every mobile content marketer in the business – the FLAG relied heavily on our existing policies, which had been in place for well over a year, when we jointly drafted our Assurance of Voluntary Compliance. The idea was to create a Code of Conduct for the industry overall – a Code of Conduct with the teeth of the FLAG to back it up. Why is this all important? One, it illustrates that mobile content marketing and marketing-related compliance issues are not “new” despite the recent rash of announcements. Two, it illustrates the comprehensive knowledge we have uniquely built up for over 3 years relating to mobile content marketing.

To be clear, this article applies to mobile content marketing, and not to incentive marketing. Certain industry observers have incorrectly tied these two together because they may sometimes be used in tandem. However, Mobile content marketing refers specifically to selling some type of mobile device content – e.g., a ringtone, a text service, etc. Incentive marketing is generally a process whereby a consumer is offered something of value – say, an iPod – in exchange for completing a number of offers which are displayed on a series of web pages referred to as an incentive order path or a “Co-Reg” path.

Now, numerous other companies and ad networks are carefully examining their own marketing practices in this sector, as well they should. However, there remains significant confusion around what companies can and cannot do when marketing mobile content. Despite the wave of regulatory action, there are still plenty of players that fail – through ignorance, laziness or willful neglect – to embrace legitimate marketing practices. As a result, consumers remain at risk and suspicion will continue to hang over the sector (ironically, the neglectful players are quite well-known and easy to find, and sometimes stoop to trying to poke holes in the truly “above board” players to mask their own malfeasance).

Hence, we’ve compiled a list of marketing guidelines for publishers and ad networks that can benefit you in many ways. Heeding these guidelines will keep costs associated with chargebacks and fraud down, help to protect your business legally (and avoid regulatory risk), and allow you to maintain a profitable, and more importantly, sustainable relationship with advertisers and consumers.

“Top 10 list” for Online Publishers and Ad Networks

10. DON’T mislead consumers with deceptive language
Restrict the use of FREE and FREE-like language in ad-copy. Displaying FREE and its derivatives (“Bonus”, “Complimentary”, “Gift”, etc) are allowed so long as these keywords are not being deceptively applied. What does this mean? Publishers may not imply that ringtone offers carry no monetary obligations on the part of the consumer when in fact they do. The intent and spirit of this position remains in sync with that of the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) – marketers may not use language that a reasonable consumer would interpret to mean “no charge whatsoever”. Moreover, if a marketer uses the term FREE or FREE-like language, when the program DOES contain a cost, that language must be modified adjacent to the FREE claim with the relevant material terms of the offer (price and billing period) – i.e., if you use FREE in a search title, the search description must provide the disclaimer, “with 9.99 per month subscription”.

9. DON’T promote content that is not offered by the Service Provider (Advertiser)

Not all artists, shows, albums and songs are licensed by Advertisers. Not all Advertisers carry the same content and publishers shouldn’t assume so. Check the Advertiser’s sites for new content, subscribe to their RSS feeds, and take advantage of content catalogues when they are made available to you.

8. DON’T use artist & album images without consent from the Advertiser
Even though Advertisers may offer hundreds of artists and albums as part of their value-added services, it is they who license the rights to use artist likeness, album covers and other intellectual property. Although publishers and ad networks are given the ability to market this content through some programs, the licenses themselves do not extend automatically. All publishers and networks should obtain special written permission from Advertisers to use copyrighted content. This is not an arbitrary requirement, it is the law.

7. DON’T spam users on social networks

Restrict the use of social and community sites for the distribution of your marketing. This includes blogs, forums, social networks and any other virtual environment not meant for commercial use. Yes, it’s a good idea to do legitimate media buys with these types of sites in order to market, but it is not a good idea to use profiles, comments and internal messaging for the distribution of ads. Why? Because the social networks literally say so in their Terms of Use, and will use all legal means to enforce their policies. Remember, all unsolicited electronic messages violate applicable anti-spam and resource abuse laws.

6. DON’T use high risk or prohibited distribution methods
Incentivized, “limited time” and other bait & switch tactics are not sustainable in the marketing of off-deck mobile content like ringtones. Forced clicks, referrer obfuscation, and domain targeting are also examples of nefarious practices. If an ad network, vendor or traffic broker has a reputation for running spyware-generated traffic, think twice before partnering with them.

6a. DO check out and for more information on Adware, Spyware and related commission fraud.

5. DO take care in the choice and placement of your keywords
Normally, bidding on a variety of keywords is fine so long as it meets the requirements of an ad network’s T&Cs and applicable search engine-specific guidelines. Trademark restrictions and some other concerns may apply, but there is no general prohibition against bidding on the term “FREE” (though Advertisers may have additional per-program requirements) – as long as it is modified as described above. It is the display that truly matters. Help yourself run compliant campaigns through the use of negative keyword lists, keyword permutation generators, and restrictive match settings. More likely then not, Advertisers will have offer-specific keyword blacklists that you should be mindful of when bidding.

4. DO practice White-Hat SEO techniques when running non-paid search campaigns
Because of their commercial nature, “organic” (non-paid) search results are subject to the same scrutiny as paid results. The messages you convey to consumers through site content (body, headers, titles, etc) influence the perception of the offer. Just as their paid counterparts, organic results can in no way deceive the consumer through false claims. Search engines frown upon keyword stuffing, cloaking, and content spam. Search engine crawlers like “clean” code.

4a. DON’T make mistakes that will bring down your quality score or ban you from an engine.

3. DO familiarize yourself with relevant regulatory guidelines
Despite some opinions to the contrary, ours’ is a heavily regulated industry. Government agencies such as the FTC, advocacy groups such as the Mobile Marketing Association (“MMA”), and State Attorney Generals oversee behavior in the online advertising space just as they do in the world of traditional media. Not surprisingly, the FTC’s “Guide Concerning the Use of the Term ‘Free'” and other special language have been around since 1971. Some links to become familiar with:

3a. FTC on ‘FREE’:
3b. FTC Rules of the Road:
3c. MMA Best Practices:

2. DO read an ad network’s terms and conditions
Why do Terms and Conditions matter? Not only are these T&Cs a legally binding contract signed by you when you join an ad network, they reflect US Law and applicable Best Practices for a particular ad network. The FTC Act’s prohibition on “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” encompasses internet advertising, marketing and sales as much as it does to TV and Radio. In addition, many Commission rules and guides are not limited to any particular medium used to disseminate claims or advertising, and therefore, apply to all commercial online activities.

1. DO ask questions and communicate with your ad network staff and account managers
Communication and collaboration is critical. Work closely with partners and professionals at ad networks to understand offer-specific requirements and familiarize yourself with the regulatory aspects of the industry. When in doubt, put yourself in the consumer’s shoes and look at your marketing campaigns from the user’s perspective. And finally, realize that state and federal agencies have enforced and will continue to enforce relevant consumer protection laws. Offline or online, they will act to ensure that products and services are marketed truthfully.