Mobile portals searching for sound revenue models will draw few users and disappoint firms looking for them to drive traffic, according to a new report by Forrester Research B.V. (Nasaq: FORR). Instead of relying on portals for traffic, firms will link up with sites that orbit user activities to form what Forrester calls “mobile activity networks”.

“The 40 WAP site owners that we interviewed believe that they know how to drive WAP traffic — by placing links at mobile portals,” said Carsten Schmidt, analyst at Forrester’s European headquarters in Amsterdam. “However, the 20 mobile portals we interviewed don’t aim to drive traffic to other sites. On the PC-based Web, portals drive traffic because users need them, but in contrast, portals won’t play the same role in the mobile Internet because user circumstances differ sharply. Mobile Internet users have no time, interest, or need to spend time surfing from WAP portals.”

Driving little traffic, mobile portals will not be able to tap advertising fees or revenue sharing to make money. Instead, they will have to cover their costs either by selling premium content or driving indirect revenue like boosted operator airtime and reduced customer churn. This reality will affect all four categories of mobile portals — operator portals, Web incumbents, mobile pure plays and white labels. Only the biggest operator portals will survive, Web incumbents will keep costs low, mobile portal pure plays will disappear and white-label players will be swallowed.

Instead of placing links and buying ads on mobile portals, firms will most effectively drive traffic by teaming up with one another to form “mobile activity networks”, which Forrester defines as “Mutual links between a group of mobile sites that orbit specific user activities.”

One push service — such as soccer scores — will sit at the center of users’ activities. Other closely related services, such as booking match tickets, will serve as satellites that receive user traffic either from the center or from one another. Also, mobile activity networks will focus on very specific user activities like booking a business flight or checking stock quotes, rather than browsing broad-based travel or financial services sites. Network participants will partner with less than a dozen firms and propose only a link or two at a time. And as mobile Internet technology matures with WAP 1.2 and GPRS, sites will be able to seek users at relevant times instead of the other way around.

Forrester advises firms to proactively build their own mobile activity networks today, as there are no existing ones to join and no intermediaries to set them up. To get started, firms must map user activities, identify when to deliver links, and embrace the Microdesign principals of obvious navigation, concise content and automatic integration.

“As mobile activity networks blossom, operators will emerge to manage partners in return for a fee per click,” Schmidt added. “Technology expertise will give eCommerce integrators an early edge, but they will give up or spin off this practice when they feel pressure to move beyond their client list and run the effort like a line of business. Ad networks and affiliate networks will see mobile activity networks as a natural extension of their current Web business. But to succeed, they must cultivate relationships and develop pricing models that don’t depend on the massive volumes they’re accustomed to on the Web.

“City guides will also realize the opportunity of mobile activity networks as travel, event, and retail firms need good local knowledge to build their own networks. Finally, with their existing partnerships with airlines, hotels, and car rental firms airmile networks will develop mobile activity networks that focus on travel activities. But with limited local knowledge, these players must link up with city guides to fill content gaps.”