The MySpace of Mobile?

New startup Mozes is trying a new model to captivate advertisers and consumersoffering its platform for free. Will its gambit work?

Among marketers, mobile has been hailed as the next big thing for years now, but in the U.S., actual adoption has lagged behind the hype (see, 4/23/07, "The Sell-Phone Revolution"). With the exception of a few big brands, most advertisers have taken a wait-and-see approach when it comes to mobile marketing campaigns. Now Mozes, a 14-person startup from Palo Alto, Calif., with $5 million in venture funding, is hoping to give both advertisers and consumers an incentive to experiment, by offering up its text-messaging platform for free.

While its service is available to anyone from individuals to school groups to small businesses, Mozes is targeting the music industry, promoting its Web-based platform as a free tool that bands can use to connect with fans on their mobile phones, notifying them when concert tickets go on sale, for example, or running text-to-win contests. When the Plain White T's—a band that topped Billboard's Top 100 singles chart in July—ran a backstage pass giveaway with Mozes during their tour last fall, around 50% of audience members participated each night, the company says.

1,000 bands with 20,000 fans

Unlike many of the other Web startups targeting the music industry (see, 3/26/07, "Close Harmony: Bands and Web 2.0"), "Mozes does not want to be a community," Porter says. Instead, he wants to create "a branded network." Porter says that addresses one of the thorniest issues for both consumers and marketers—privacy—because fans can register their information on Mozes just once for multiple bands, knowing they can easily opt out at any time.

If the concept catches on, texting the name of a band to the Mozes short code (66937, or M-O-Z-E-S) will be as familiar to music fans as typing it in a MySpace URL. Once the audience is there, Mozes, like MySpace (NWS), can charge advertisers for the same tools it gives away to bands for free, while also making money from the sale of premium content like music downloads and from on-site advertising.

The company has already done small mobile campaigns with a few advertisers, including Microsoft (MSFT), Mozilla's Firefox browser, and Dippin' Dots ice cream. And since the Mozes beta launch in April, 2006, Chief Executive Dorrian Porter says he has signed up more than 1,000 bands, which have amassed mobile lists of as many as 20,000 fans.

So far, the artists with the biggest mobile fan lists, or "mobs," on Mozes are mainstream stars like Fall Out Boy and R. Kelly, but big-name indie acts like the Postal Service have established Mozes accounts, too—a result of Mozes' strategy of reaching out to individual band managers and smaller indie labels at the same time it went after partnerships with majors like Disney's (DIS) Hollywood Records and Universal/Motown (VIVEF.PK).

"Personal touch"

"For us, it's really a no-brainer. It's just another way to reach people without spending any money to do it," says Jordan Kurland of Zeitgeist Artist Management, who established Mozes accounts for several of the bands he manages, including the Postal Service. The cost consideration is an especially strong draw for indie bands that wouldn't be able to launch mobile marketing campaigns on their own.

One of the first artists to sign up for Mozes, Porter says, was an independent singer-songwriter from Los Angeles named Ernie Halter. Since October, 2006, his more-than-200 fans have joined Halter's mob. The text messages Halter sends to his mob every few days border on the inane ("i broke my g-string during a live radio performance today in portland. lol what are the odds?"), but fans like Mallory Bishop, 23, say that's exactly the point.

If it's information she's seeking, Bishop says, she already has plenty of places to turn: Halter' official Web site, his profiles on MySpace or Facebook, his Flickr photostream, or his channel on YouTube. But there's something fun and exciting about getting a text on her phone from Halter like the ones she gets from her friends. "It adds that personal touch," she says.

But as enthusiastic as she is about receiving text messages about the daily minutiae of her favorite musicians, Bishop says she doesn't feel the same way about more commerce-driven text messages. "It would worry me if Gap (GPS) said 'we'll text you every time we're having a sale.' I don't think I'd want my in-box clogged up with that stuff."

Click here for a slide show on five ways tech startups are targeting bands.

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