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Mobile ads are all the rage but where to invest?

It seems that there is a mini-boom going on with mobile marketing companies. There are acquisitions taking place left and right and there are tons of start-ups jumping into the space.

In May of this year, AOL acquired mobile-ad startup Third Screen Media and Microsoft (MSFT) bought French mobile-ad firm ScreenTonic. Last year VeriSign (VRSN) bought m-Qube. This week, Nokia (NOK) bought Enpocket.

As we have written in previous posts, Google is moving rapidly toward mobile search ads while Yahoo is rumored to be eyeing several startups and has already launched mobile display-ads.

It reminds me of the buy-out activity we saw recently where online advertising companies were being purchased by some of the same acquirers listed above. I thought it might be a good idea to look for public companies in the mobile advertising or marketing space that might be good acquisition targets.

Three themes emerge --

Here are the main points of what I found:

1. The pickings are slim in the public stock markets with few companies big enough or mature enough to be publicly traded. Those that are listed tend to be quite small.

2. There are tons of start-ups out there working on delivering ads, creating ads, matching ads to users and content, creating mobile social networks, etc.

3. There is so much activity and excitement around mobile ads some players are starting to experiment with ad-supported content.

Public Companies --

Let's start by looking at the (short) list of public companies in the mobile marketing space:

WireMedia (WRMA) develops location-based Bluetooth advertising solutions. Its Bluetooth applications enable retailers, shopping malls, movie theaters, convention centers, event coordinators, promoters, small businesses, and public space operators to engage in location-based Bluetooth advertising and messaging as cell phones users come within the service's active zone. This is a process that is in its infancy but there seems to be some interest in Europe. WRMA is essentially a penny stock that trades on the pink sheets. It is not profitable and its stock price has been falling steadily over the last year.

NMS Communications (NMSS) is a broader technology company. In the mobile communications space, they offer two main products: MyCaller (a ringback tone solution) and Mobile Place. The Mobile Place Customer Content Relationship Management software (CCRM) suite provides content management, subscriber management, and selling tools. CCRM's opt-in module also allows carriers to offer content bundles and promotions to targeted subscriber segments based on their past preferences and transaction history. It also includes resources needed to launch and manage marketing campaigns. The firm has more than 25 mobile operators as customers. NMSS is also not profitable though the slide in its stock price seems to have slowed lately. For US investors, this is probably the stock to watch.

Velti (LSE: VEL) is a small company that trades on the London Stock Exchange. Interpublic (IPG) announced in July that it has formed Ansible, a dedicated mobile marketing agency, in a joint venture with Velti. Velti is a pure play in mobile marketing, providing services for ad creation and placement, marketing and loyalty initiatives, wireless carrier connectivity and billing, etc. Though small, Velti's stock price has been moving up nicely lately and it is probably the best of the
public companies currently available.

Small Companies and Start-ups --

You may want to keep an eye on the following companies. With all the ferment in the mobile marketing space, there could be a rush to take some of these firms public. Some will fail and some will succeed. Herewith, in no particular order:

Millennial Media, a Baltimore startup, focuses on reaching young wireless users.

AdMob, based in San Mateo, Calif., runs an online mobile ad marketplace.

AirG develops mobile communities for carriers such as Sprint and Canadian operators Robers and TELUS. AirG offers advertisers banner ads, but some of its most successful campaigns involve contests and other loyalty-building initiatives.

Amobee is one of the early companies trying to bring about ad-funded content and services. The company works with cell phone carriers to offer free games that are accompanied by ads.

4INFO distributes ads through text message alerts and search requests. 4INFO has worked with content providers including the NFL, USA Today and Major League Baseball to provide free alerts and updates when a customer signs up for them. 4INFO also works to find relevant ads to place at the end of the text.

Mobile-specific advertising agencies include Kikucall and ipsh.

Aggregators provide mobile SMS delivery, multi-operator connectivity and mobile billing capabilities to businesses and advertisers. Included in this category are mBlox and SinglePoint.

Mobile application service providers (MASP) include iLoop Mobile, Vibes Media, Air2Web and Soapbox Mobile.

And here is a list of still more start-ups: OTAir, Gold Mobile, Telescope, Vidiator Technology, Aegis Mobile, HipCricket, Mobile Marketing, U-Turn Media Group, Zingy, MobileLime, Boost Mobile, Vantrix, PlayPhone Inc., Helio, The HyperFactory, JumpTap, Inc., Connect121 and Greystripe.

Ad-supported content on your phone --

Hands-On Mobile of San Francisco, one of the top mobile gaming companies, is looking to boost market share by releasing seven of its games, including World Poker Tour Seven Card Stud and Top Gun, on GameJump, which inserts ads at the beginning and end of each game.

MobiTV, which has a base of 2 million subscribers for its live television packages, worked with Sony Music earlier this year to create an ad-supported mobile Internet site to promote artist Avril Lavigne's latest album.

Follow this concept to its logical extreme and you come to the conclusion that even cell-phone calls could be ad-supported. Woo-hoo! Free phone service for all!

Disclosure: author owns none of the stocks mentioned in this article

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