Virgin Mobile USA trades free air time for eyeballs

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

Virgin Mobile in Canada says its looking at starting the same service this fall

Gillian Shaw

Cellphone users in the United States can earn free airtime by looking at online ads or responding to text-based advertising, and Virgin Mobile Canada says it plans to launch a similar service in Canada starting this fall.

Trading talk time for eyeballs, Virgin Mobile USA announced Tuesday that under its new program SugarMama customers can opt to watch streaming video ads or SMS messages in exchange for topping up their air time.

And in case the ad watchers think they can cheat to run up their free minutes, they must answer questions to prove they were paying attention.

Correct answers can earn minutes of free airtime, up to 75 minutes a month in the program which starts June 14.

“This is truly a win-win situation for everyone involved,” said Dan Schulman, chief executive officer at Virgin Mobile USA, said in a release announcing SugarMama. “Through this multi-faceted service, Virgin Mobile customers will earn free minutes as well as exclusive access to unique content and offers.

“Our partner brands will be able to enrich the lives of Virgin Mobile users while customizing how they engage with our base — all while adding a smart and targeted mobile channel to their media mix.”

The program, billed as a first for North America, is being watched with interest by Virgin Mobile Canada, a 50/50 venture of Bell Mobility and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, and separate from the U.S. company.

“We are really interested to see how they do with the program, and we are currently testing the idea with our existing customers,” said Paula Lash, spokesperson for Virgin Mobile Canada. “You could definitely see us launching this kind of program sometime in the fall. That’s the current goal.”

Lash said while the company is only testing the concept now, the next phase would probably involve a test of the service as a lead-up to rolling out a full program.

“It is incredibly innovative and pretty new,” she said. “Everyone is interested in how people are marketing on mobile phones, so this is an interesting program.

Virgin Mobile USA has partnered with Microsoft’s Xbox, Pepsi-Cola North America, will initially feature Diet Mountain Dew, as well as The American Legacy Foundation’s national youth smoking prevention campaign.

“We’re always seeking opportunities to learn from our customers how we can deliver the best gaming experiences possible on Xbox360,” said director of Xbox marketing Chris Di Cesare said in the release. “Virgin Mobile’s SugarMama program provides us with a new way to drive consumer awareness yet gain valuable insight from our customers that helps us continually deliver new breakthroughs in gaming entertainment.”

Virgin Mobile USA customers must be 13 years of age or older to use the program.


Virgin Mobile USA’s new program SugarMama allows U.S. customers to trade time spent watching ads for air time. The formula is thus (although the same will not likely apply

to future Canadian customers):

30 seconds of ad-watching time earns 1 minute of air time.

75 minutes: Maximum of free air time that can be earned each month.

Five minutes spent answering an online survey equals five minutes of free talk time.

One text message sent gets one minute of talk time, with a maximum of two minutes gained per week in the initial months of the program.

3.5 cents to 10 cents: Typical cost of a minute of air time, down from more than 25 cents a decade ago, according to Charter Equity Research.*

*all prices U.S.

© The Vancouver Sun 2006


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