Zen & The Art Of Mobile Advertising (Part 1)


ADOTAS — Steve Jobs famously declared that mobile advertising sucks, and three years later, I submit we might have an answer that would please him.

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” novelist Robert M. Pirsig’s thesis is that to truly experience “quality,” one must both embrace and apply it as best fits the requirements of the situation. According to Pirsig, such an approach would avoid a great deal of frustration and dissatisfaction common to modern life.

To avoid the frustration and dissatisfaction common to mobile advertising, I submit that for a truly quality mobile advertising experience, we must embrace platforms that provide the “right context” and the “right content” to an ecosystem of advertiser networks, mediation layers and publishers to get to the Zen of Mobile Advertising.

First, let’s take a look at what marketers are advertising on mobile, and how.

Advertising of Apps, By Apps, For Apps

There are really just two kinds of mobile advertising: brand advertising and performance advertising. In both cases advertisers can use the mobile web or mobile apps to advertise. I personally think advertising within apps is taking over. Here’s why.

According to Nielsen data, U.S. smartphone consumers spend about 87% of their time on mobile apps, and only 13% of their time on the mobile web.  Let’s face it, mobile apps are much better experiences than the mobile web and users have figured that out.

Thus, mobile advertising is going to rely heavily on ads in apps, because that’s where users’ eyeballs are. For example, take ads in the newsfeed in the Facebook app where mobile users are spending up to 3 hours a day in the Facebook app and maybe that’s why Facebook killed their earnings estimate, while Google, who is the king of mobile web, didn’t?

Back to the two types of ads: performance ads have a direct call to action, and in-app performance ads are usually a call to action to download the advertiser’s app.  For example, you might be in the Facebook app, and you see a newsfeed item, which advertises a newsreader app.  You click on it, and you are taken to the app store to download that newsreader app.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, referred to two types of mobile ads on Facebook’s last earnings call — direct response and app installs — that were driving Facebook’s mobile advertising revenue, which by the way was 41% of Facebook’s revenues. Both are great examples of performance ads.

Brand ads focus on brand awareness and lift versus a direct call to action.  There need not be an app being advertised. However, Nearly 50% of marketing agencies polled in a recent survey have used a mobile app in their campaigns or have plans to launch one in 2013, according to the Mobile Marketing Survey from Chief Marketer, a marketing consulting firm.

So even brands are leaning toward advertising apps, at least as part of their campaigns. It certainly looks like the action is moving to advertising of apps, by apps and for apps!

In-App Advertising: Frustratingly Slow User Experience

To fully understand how the mobile app advertising experience sucks, let’s imagine a contrasting and hypothetical thought experiment around the mobile web experience.

Let’s say you see a link to Adotas on a website. You click on it. You are taken to site called webstore.com where you see a couple of screenshots of Adotas.  Want to actually try the website? Well, that’s more work. Read on.

You are told to “install” Adotas on your device. You say “OK.” You are then asked for your “webstore password,” and the install process starts. After a few minutes the Adotas website has been downloaded to your device. Now you can truly check out Adotas… but wait, there’s a link to another website you might want to check out: aol.com. Rinse, repeat.

Forget the mobile web — would the PC web have taken off if this was the experience we were given 15 years ago? Nope. But this is exactly the frustratingly slow experience we are given as users of mobile apps.

In fact I’ve just highlighted one aspect of the broader problem in mobile advertising: the content problem.

The Content Problem in Mobile Advertising

The right content is supposed to be “native,” i.e. it should feel like the content within which you saw the ad. That’s one reason why web advertising was native.  It was web links inside web pages. In mobile advertising, especially in app advertising where the action is moving, the content, a display ad, is a lousy jpeg image/text combo.  Now compare that to a beautiful mobile app experience in which this not-so-native ad shows up.

In some cases the content is a cool video. Yahoo Living Ads has done some innovation here. Okay, that’s better, but still not an interactive mobile app experience: video is a “lean back” experience, and apps are an interactive “lean forward” experience. Plus it’s a lot of work for the advertiser to make mobile videos just for an ad on mobile, which doesn’t have the ROI that TV or the web has.

How about Rich Media or HTML5 ads? Interactive experiences for sure, but again, HTML5 has lost the battle to native app experience quality. And like video, if the advertiser were to make an HTML5 ad for your app, well, that’s a bunch of code that has to be written to match your native app.

Bottom line, mobile ads in apps today are simply not “native” interactive app-like experiences, and users have to wait minutes to even try the app being advertised to see if it’s mildly interesting. This is the heart of the content problem.

The Context Problem in Mobile Advertising

Regardless of what happens after a user clicks on a mobile, in-app ad, the context problem is about showing the ad to the right user, at the right time, in the right place. Even before they take an action.

In mobile, display banner ads are at the bottom of the totem pole.  They are in the wrong context and annoyingly so, because they are shown to virtually all users, not just the “right target user.” They don’t know which of multiple screens the user is using at any given time, and then they take up an important part of a small screen, and they seem to show up regardless of the “right time” for the user.

Interstitial banner or videos are slightly better. At least they try to solve the “right time” problem, by appearing at appropriate “cut” points in the app.

Regardless, even the interstitial banner and video face the problem of targeting the right user, and understanding the multi-screen experience to show the ad in the right place.

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