Virgin Trades Cell Minutes for Ad Attention

NEW YORK Virgin Mobile later this month will offer its 4 million subscribers a new way to gain free cell phone minutes: watch Web video messages from advertisers.

The wireless provider is calling the service “SugarMama,” in order to invoke the spirit that advertisers will reward consumers for their attention, in much the same way Virgin Mobile allows consumers to get cell phones without signing long-term contracts through its “Pay As You Go” program. Howard Handler, Virgin Mobile’s chief marketing officer, said company research showed its 14-24-year-old subscriber base is willing to have an open exchange with advertisers that reward them.

“They often view great advertising as great content,” he said. “It brings a more honest one-to-one approach to the equation.”

Through the SugarMama service, which is set to launch June 14, existing Virgin Mobile subscribers can earn up to 75 minutes of additional airtime by watching video ads from advertisers like Microsoft’s Xbox, Pepsi’s Mountain Dew and the “Truth” anti-smoking campaign. The ads are “Ultramercials,” a service also used by as an alternative to charging users for subscriptions.

To earn the free minutes, Virgin Mobile users visit its Web site to watch short Web videos. They can also gain minutes through text messaging, signing up for a service that sends them advertiser messages periodically.

In order to make sure users are paying attention, Virgin Mobile gives a short quiz after the video ads, asking the consumer, for instance, to name the key feature for a digital camera advertiser. Consumers are also required to answer three questions about the ad, such as whether the ad was compelling. Virgin will share the feedback with the advertiser, Handler said.

“I want to know my prospects are paying attention,” he said. “I want to know that they’re not just in a room when my message was there.”

After watching the ad and providing feedback, users will trade about a minute of their time for a minute of airtime, Handler said. Will Virgin Mobile users, who can pay as little as 3 cents a minute for calls, think this is a worthwhile tradeoff? Handler thinks so.

“A minute of me engaging with your brand is worth a minute of me talking to someone I care about,” he said.