The problem with mobile advertising isn't mobile. It's advertising.

July 9, 2013 | by Doug Stephens

In a recent article for Adweek David Gianatasio asked the question, “Why Does Mobile Advertising Stink?” And it’s a great question, because it really does. And one can’t help but wonder why, if everything is truly going mobile, advertising on mobile devices remains so ineffective? How, if as studies suggest, we are almost never without our mobile devices, can advertising on those devices be so bad?

Some would argue it’s simply a user-interface problem. Mobile ads are often so small you need eyes like a hawk and fingers like knitting needles to interact with them. Some of this can certainly be improved through mobile optimization of websites and “responsive” design, which lays the ad out differently depending on the device it’s being viewed on. But I think we can all agree that if all we do is shrink a webpage down to the size of an smartphone screen, we haven’t really solved the mobile ad problem at all. Similarly, the evolution toward more native advertising is likely to make some positive difference in efficacy, but I don’t think these things alone addresses the real problem – which is that we still treat mobile advertising like advertising. And the truth is, that just can’t be.

Mobile is ME 

With other media channels like television, it was understood that the advertiser – not the consumer – owned the channel of communication and therefore, they also had permission to interrupt and annoy us anytime they wanted with advertisements. It was up to us to change the channel. The same is not true of mobile. Consumers have an intimate and personal relationship with their devices which are often highly customized with apps, skins and settings of their choosing. When our device is hijacked by an annoying or cumbersome piece of advertising, we hate it and the poor impression we have of the offending brand can linger.

Mobile is NOW 

Secondly, advertising, as we know it today, was never built for the mobile reality. It was a media form built for passive and sometimes even subliminal absorption – often while the user was doing nothing else. TV, magazines and newsprint worked well for advertising because the media was entirely location and context agnostic. Most had no situational relevance at all, only a degree of demographic targeting. Advertising wasn’t about consumer context but merely consumer consciousness of the advertisers' product or service.

Mobile isn’t like that at all. It’s…well…it’s mobile! And that means in a high percentage of situations, people are on the go and busy doing something else while consuming your content. And within that, the structure of information they need from brands, retailers and institutions needs to be entirely different. It has to have new properties:

Location awareness: The communication should come to the consumer because they are in a very specific place. This can be as specific as a particular location within a given place. This is achievable over a number of platforms like geo-fencing or Wi-Fi. An emerging breed of technologies are getting better at combining location and behavioral data to more accurately target content to users based not only on where they are but also on what they’re likely doing there.

Contextual relevance: The communication should be relevant to the place and the intended user response has to be appropriate given what the individual is likely doing in that place. For example, Butterball recently ran mobile ads leading people to recipes for turkey. I don’t know about you but when I’m out and about, I’m rarely in the mood to pore over turkey recipes.

Ruthless editing: Forget pages of content of elaborate designs. Communications should be incredibly simple, elegant and navigable at a glance. SMS ads were highly successful for a reason and most agree the reason was simplicity and clarity. The same should be true of any mobile ad. I’m stunned by the number of ads that are barely visible on my device.

Action Orientation: The communication ought to promote immediate consumer action, as opposed to simply consideration toward future action. The goal is to have the participant do something of value to them right now, up to and including making a purchase…now. Think impulse over information.

Valued Communication: Unlike most ads which are regarded as a nuisance, the mobile ad should be regarded as helpful, and non-intrusive. Acting on the message needs to either reduce consumer friction or add consumer value somehow. Either way, customers should leave welcoming future communications from your brand.

Cross-Platform: Mobile advertising doesn’t always mean delivering the entire experience on mobile a device. The mobile device can simply act as an enabler. A sign, a song or another screen in proximity, could all be catalysts for an experience tethered together or brought to life by my mobile device. A good example was Tesco’s QR code shopping installation in Gatwick Airport. In essence, the ad was the store, offering a new level of convenience to travelers.

Most mobile advertising that I see hasn’t made these adjustments – particularly when it comes to location, context and relevance. For example, every time I arrive at the airport in Toronto, I log onto the airport Wi-Fi and I’m presented with the exact same message – it’s an ad for a credit card. Now, I suppose it could be argued that at any given time, a small percentage of travelers might be interested in getting another credit card but it’s hardly an offer you need to target on a location-specific basis. That ad could be anywhere. 

I can’t help wondering why the ad isn’t something that gives me instant and true incentive to act on an offer right in the moment, like a coupon to save money on noise reducing headphones for my flight – that I’m taking right now. A voucher to save at the duty-free store…right now or even customer reviews of the restaurants adjacent to the gate I’m sitting at…right now.

Moreover, the fact that I log onto that Wi-Fi network an average of three to four times a month, could be taken to suggest that I’m a business traveller, which should trigger an even more relevant level of messaging tailored to my travel needs. But a credit card? We have to be able to do better than that.

It’s not just a different device, it’s a different language 

Mobile advertising requires a completely different approach to anything that’s come before it. It’s not just a new channel, it’s really a completely new format of spatially and contextually driven communications – a new marketing language. It’s not well suited to shot-gunning for attention or awareness. It’s about serving relevant information to consumers based on where they are and what they’re doing. They should be welcomed bites of information or offers that seem completely congruent and welcomed in the moment.

I suppose the riddle here is that in order for your mobile advertising to really begin to work, you need to stop advertising.

Topics: Consumer Behavior , Marketing , Mobile Retail , Omnichannel / Multichannel

Doug Stephens / Retail futurist, Doug Stephens is an in-demand speaker for private and public sector audiences across North America on the mega-trends shaping a new era of retailing and consumerism. His thinking has influenced many of North America's best-known brands. Doug is a regular guest expert on the CTV television series App Central TV and media contact on trends in the retail landscape.
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