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Tech Forecast

Would You Pay Attention To Mobile Advertisers If They Paid You?

A startup called Aquto offers to increase your data plan if you interact with mobile advertisers. Here's how it works.

Most people find mobile ads even more annoying than television commercials, according to a study by Forrester research released last year. But would that change if advertisers paid them to pay attention?

A startup called Aquto is testing that theory using mobile data as a currency. Partnering with mobile carriers and advertising networks, it rewards users for watching branded videos, making purchases, and completing other interactions with advertisers by loading free data directly onto their mobile plans. Filling out a survey, for instance, might earn a customer 100 free megabytes. Signing up for Netflix might earn more than a gigabyte. Advertisers pay Aquto for each interaction, and Aquto takes a cut before buying mobile data to give away. The exchange only costs Aquto tens of cents, but it could save users tens of dollars on their phone bills.

"[Users] can almost treat it as an insurance policy," says Aquto founder Susie Kim Riley, whose previous company, Camiant, sold to Tekelec for about $130 million in 2010. "If you happen to go over a month, you don’t have to worry, because that insurance is there to make sure you don’t have to pay overage."

Aquto began rolling out to customers of British telecommunications company Vodafone last month, and it will launch with an unannounced "major U.S. carrier" in August. Users have two options for earning free data. The first is to come across an ad that notes the option. They don’t need to set up an Aquto account because the company, through its mobile carrier partnerships, already knows to which account a mobile device is tied. The second is to download an Aquto app specifically for the purpose of interacting with advertisers.

Though an app for ads doesn’t exactly have the appeal of Angry Birds, Riley says she thinks the latter will be appealing to people who are concerned about going over their data limit. According to a survey of about 1,000 AT&T and Verizon users by Aquto, that’s about 66% of us. The same survey, which recruited respondents by running ads in apps, found 63% of subscribers were curbing their data usage in order to avoid overage charges. Mobile carriers would rather sell more data than see their customers cut back, and Aquto helps them do this. On the ad side, as Riley puts it, "All advertisers care about is that there is something out there that will improve the effectiveness of their campaigns. They almost don’t care that it’s mobile data."

Users, meanwhile, are by one estimate already expected to increase their mobile data usage by 300% in the next four years. "It’s almost like air," Riley says of the mobile Internet. "You’re giving them more air so they can keep going on the mobile device."

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