• SHARE

If in recent days you happened to visit the Mobile Game Town community, a social networking site for cell phone users, you may well have bumped into a character named Fanta.

There’s no mistaking Fanta — not with her big strawberry-shaped hat and the sugar-sweet “Konnichi wa!” (Good afternoon!) greeting the digital damsel directs at everybody she meets.

But as courteous as the virtual 14-year-old may be — she probably offered you a strawberry hat for becoming her friend — Fanta is perfectly blunt about her commercial motives.

In her online profile, Fanta says she is spreading the word about Coca-Cola’s new strawberry-flavored soda, the latest addition to the Fanta lineup. Her job title: Student/Fanta promoter.

Fanta is actually the avatar, or virtual persona, operated and managed by an advertisement agency hired by Coca-Cola, and as such, she represents a “profile ad” — or advertisement designed to actively engage members of social networking sites. Profile ads on SNSs are already proliferating in the United States.

Although figures from advertising giant Dentsu Inc. indicate Internet ads represented only 6 percent of overall ad spending last year in Japan, it is rapidly increasing.

Total spending in Japan on online ads, including those viewed on mobile phones, totaled 363 billion yen in 2006, or 29.3 percent over the previous year, and is expected to more than double by 2011, according to Dentsu. Advertising for newspaper, magazine, radio and TV meanwhile has been dropping.

Behind the trend, of course, has been the rapid adoption of new media, as consumers flock to Web sites and other digital content.

Among the most promising features of the Web, say experts, are social networking sites, which offer sophisticated online tools for making new friends, staying in touch with old ones and gathering information on everything from job offers to cake recipes. Members can publish diaries combined with photos and video and use search engines to find people with similar interests.

Packaging ads with what marketing experts call user-generated content is an effective way to create word-of-mouth publicity.

When Fanta gets people to talk about the new soda on an SNS, those people effectively become free sponsors for the product. And experts say recommendations made within a peer group are perceived as less obtrusive and more trustworthy than the pitches made in conventional ads.

DeNA Co.’s Mobile Game Town is the most popular cell-phone-based SNS. When publicity spreads by word of mouth among its 4.4 million users, it’s like shouting through a digital megaphone.

“It’s sharp strategy,” said Isao Shinozaki, a spokesman at D2 Communications Inc., a company that specializes in mobile-phone ads.

While DeNA uses profile ads to avoid the use of overt advertising, mixi, Japan’s top nonphone-based SNS at 8 million members, does just the opposite. It presents members with ads specifically tailored to their shopping tastes — a technique called behavioral targeting.

Mixi knows many of its members are wary about being monitored. So the company had to find a way to direct ads at members without infringing on their privacy.

Mixi discovered that many of its members happened to be frequent visitors to impAct, an online Japanese network of some 120 Web retailers where consumers can find information on — and sometimes buy — such products as cosmetics, autos and sporting goods. The network is operated by Tokyo-based i-Media Drive Inc.

Frequent visitors to impAct get cookies that allow i-Media Drive to monitor their browsing and shopping history.

When an impAct regular visits mixi, the SNS uses data from his or her consumer profile to select ads for the session. The advertisers pay a service fee to i-Media Drive, which splits it with mixi, said i-Media Drive Vice President Jun Tsuruta.

So, for example, if a teenager who viewed 20 cosmetics ads on impAct for a week then visits mixi, she may well be shown ads for lipstick and mascara during her session on the SNS, without mixi keeping direct tabs on her behavior.

“Behavioral targeting has become an invaluable tool to help us provide highly relevant ads to buyers,” said Tsuruta.

The relationship between mixi and i-Media Drive proved to be a highly symbiotic one. Tsuruta wouldn’t disclose revenue figures, but he did say that sales accelerated sharply after the company offered its services to mixi, where advertisers were itching to have a presence. Plus, they will pay about three times more for behaviorally targeted ads than for the conventional variety, he said.

Tsuruta is confident that the outlook for behavioral targeting in Japan is as bright as it is in the United States, where New York-based marketing firm eMarketer predicts spending on such ads will grow from roughly $1.2 billion today, accounting for 7.6 percent of all online ads, to 10 percent in 2008.

To be sure, as promising as new online ad strategies appear to be, the challenges they face are many. For one, even if their sharp growth continues, behavioral ads will still represent only a tiny fraction of all advertising for years to come. What’s more, visitors to impAct can avoid being tracked simply by clicking on the Opt Out button on i-Media Drive’s Web site.

Meanwhile, when it comes to profile ads, customers are free to reject the advances of Fanta or other avatars from her world.

Still, with waves of new online ad strategies coming from the shores of the U.S. — from handy little software applications bearing corporate logos, known as “widgets,” to interactive promotional campaigns launched around brand-specific “microsites” — experts say there is little doubt that Web-based advertisement will achieve ever greater prominence.

And social networking sites, said Taro Nakagawa, a senior information-technology researcher at Yano Research, will be the main forums.

“The market has not taken hold yet, but efforts are being made to maximize profits from ad revenue. Ad customization will deepen.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

PHOTO GALLERY (CLICK TO ENLARGE)