MySpace fans get assist from a Baltimore firm

Millennial Media in Canton provides a scaled-down version of social networking site for mobile devices

September 25, 2007|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

Millions of MySpace addicts can get their fix a little easier now: The social networking site has launched a free version for mobile phones with the help of a Baltimore company.

As of yesterday, anyone with a Web-enabled mobile phone or PDA can access a scaled-down version of MySpace while on the move, to update friend requests, post messages or just tool around the site. Users will be subject to advertisements, provided and powered by Baltimore's Millennial Media.

Previously, mobile MySpacers had to pay about $3 a month to access a phone-friendly site. Now the popular site joins other Web content providers in scrapping subscriber fees in favor of advertising support in a race to best deliver content to the small screens of mobile telephones and personal digital assistants.

MySpace parent company Fox Interactive Media said it plans to launch similar mobile sites "in the coming months" for other holdings, including its local television stations and AskMen.com, an online men's magazine. They will join a free mobile version of FOXsports launched last month.

"Mobile is the most personal device that a consumer owns. Next to your keys and wallet and maybe a pen that you walk around with, [people carry mobile phones]," said Millennial Media Chief Executive Officer Paul Palmieri, whose company will provide mobile-ready advertising for all of those sites. "You're targeting consumers wherever they are."

Millennial makes mobile ads, which appear as banners or text links, for companies including Sony, Universal Pictures, Yahoo and Procter & Gamble. And they're published on mobile sites run by companies such as CBS and WeatherBug.

The deal with Fox Interactive Media, terms of which were not disclosed, is by far the biggest for the year-old Canton company, which raised its first round of financing this year - $6.3 million - and has ballooned from a staff of two to 31.

Its ads now have access to a slew of popular sites, including MySpace, which has 70 million users in the United States, about 3.7 million of whom already access the site through their mobile phones, according to a report last month from mobile media researchers M:Metrics Inc. In second place for social networking, with 2 million mobile users, is Facebook, which updated its free mobile version in January.

In the U.S., about 230 million people - or 76 percent of the population - have a mobile phone, and 32 million of them use it to access the Internet, according to market research analysts eMarketer.

Most people are simply checking their e-mail or downloading content such as ring tones and wallpaper. But Fox Interactive Media, or FIM, believes they'll soon be using their phones to surf the Web much in the same way they do at home or on laptops.

"We believe that everybody who's accessing the Internet from a PC will access the Internet from a mobile device. ... It will become a mainstream activity," said John Smelzer, a senior vice president and general manager for FIM.

Any Web site can be accessed by Internet-enabled mobile devices, but most of the pages don't translate well to the small screen, having been designed for computer viewing. That's leading more media companies to create streamlined mobile-specific sites, with many of them - like Zagat's mobile zagat.mobi - supported by advertising.

"I think the world has been ready for this," said David Chamberlain, an analyst with technology research firm In-Stat.

In the early days of mobile content, most providers went for a paid model, selling sounds and images or subscription access to information, like weather reports and directions. It's a traditional way of doing things in the cellular world, which is used to charging for so many minutes or text messages or service plans.

But media companies, which provide much of the Web's content, are used to doing things the advertising way, providing free content supported by marketing. Even newspaper Web sites that have tried charging for certain content have flipped back to giving it away and relying on ads for income.

Still, not every phone user is likely to be pleased with the development.

Chamberlain, who's based in Scottsdale, Ariz., surveyed consumers about their mobile media tolerance in 2005. About 80 percent of those he talked to said they wouldn't stand for advertisements on their cell phones, though most were thinking the ads would come in the form of random text messages. When he switched up the questioning and asked how many would be willing to have ads on their phone if it meant they got premium content for free, 56 percent said they'd take it.

"There are a lot of interesting schemes out there, some real interesting ideas [for supporting mobile media]," Chamberlain said. "The best, most palatable model that I can see right now is associated with premium content, something you're getting in exchange for [the ads]. You'll sit through that commercial on TV because you know that's what's paying for the MySpace gets a little help from Baltimore."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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