Time to Fix Mobile Targeting

From a media planner’s perspective, mobile should be the most targeted medium in the world, only that’s not the case.

The dark secret of mobile advertising is while it’s all about the targeting, the targeting is so complex and difficult to do that it’s sometimes not worth the effort. Most networks offer an exhaustive list of targeting criteria, but most of it is only available on their carrier inventory. And while carrier data reveals everything from your household income to your exact location, carrier portals generally reach only feature phones and low-end smartphones. Touchscreen smartphones and tablets tend to bypass the carrier portals altogether, robbing you of the chance to reach the most active and engaged users.
Most networks also offer mobile website and application inventory with high smartphone and tablet traffic and some level of targeting, but exactly what you can target varies radically from publisher to publisher. So finding enough off-deck inventory to reach the users you want with the targeting you need is a challenge. What’s more, for every element of targeting criteria you add to a network buy – gender, age, DMA – your addressable audience shrinks significantly.
There’s always the option to work directly with a single publisher that offers the targeting you want, but managing these individual relationships is labor intensive and the odds of getting sufficient inventory are still slim. Behavioral targeting presents its own headaches. Many networks offer cookie-based behavioral tracking, but there’s still a catch. Apple’s iOS is set by default to reject third-party cookies making it very difficult to accurately target the most popular mobile OS.
In either case, advertisers are left with a fragmented ecosystem for mobile ads. So how do we get around all this and create targetable inventory that reaches all relevant platforms while respecting privacy? Clearly, it’s a tall order. Digital fingerprinting is exciting given its ability to track behavioral and demographic data across multiple devices for single users. The targeting it supports far surpasses cookies, and consumer awareness (i.e., propensity to opt out) is still quite low. But any brand that uses this technology now without full disclosure to their customers is risking a huge backlash down the road.
In the end, the solution isn’t the responsibility of any single party. Ad networks, analytics vendors, content owners and handset OEMs all have a role to play in developing a successful mobile ad ecosystem. And we all have a part to play in educating consumers and offering them options. For consumers, the choice now is cookies on or cookies off. But if we could offer an opt-in tracking solution that is preference-based and educate consumers on the benefits of disclosing some personal data, then things could really get interesting: allow me to share, for example, my age, gender, household income and presence of children in my home but not my location. It wouldn’t be an easy place to get to — we’re conditioned to believe that given the choice, users will always reject targeting of any kind, but putting the power in the consumers’ hands just might work.
Rachel Pasqua is vp of mobile at iCrossing, a digital agency owned by Hearst. Follow her on Twitter @rachelpasqua.