Why Mobile Ads Fall Short

Recently, I sat down with a group of industry professionals to hammer out a pressing issue facing the advertising industry. Creative and technical leaders from digital and traditional agencies came together with other mobile experts to judge submissions to the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Mobile Rising Stars competition. What was clear is, we on the advertising side are already playing catch up.

Mobile advertising is still in its infancy. Plunking in static backup images for mobile ads (since Flash doesn’t work on mobile) is all too often the norm, and it isn’t adequate for marketers, nor is it engaging to consumers. Advertisers and agencies need to take advantage of all of the features that smartphones offer, such as their awareness of location, motion and touch, and take seriously the opportunity to intimately connect with consumers. We can, and should, do more — and we’re not doing enough.

In the summer of 2010, at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, Steve Jobs demonstrated a new Nissan iAd execution; it’s probably one of the more innovative and immersive iAds. After clicking on an in-app banner, consumers could watch an entertaining 15-second video about the Nissan Leaf, swipe through a menu that actually spun the car to display all angles, interact with a chart demonstrating its fuel efficiency compared to other cars, and enter a contest to win a Leaf, shaking the phone to select the desired car’s color — all without leaving the app. A year and a half later, it still stands out as one of the more immersive and inventive mobile ad experiences.

A recent honorable, but flawed, attempt came from one of the Yellow Pages publishers. I was standing in the 10014 zip code, and the ad knew it. But instead of telling me everything that it could help me find in the area, it inexplicably gave me a list of nearby doctors. It wasn’t remotely contextual to my moment of need.

Many marketers aren’t even dipping a toe into mobile yet. They intend to, but haven’t. One concern I’ve heard is this: “Where do I take someone when they click on my ad?” Oftentimes brands opt not to advertise in mobile since they haven’t built their mobile-optimized websites yet. But marketers don’t need a full mobile website to provide an engaging experience. A rich media ad unit with location-based content, video and interactive features that are tied to the mobile experience, like in the Nissan iAd, will provide a compelling experience — and the consumer might even thank you for it. In November 2011, eMarketer reported that 67 percent of individuals who preferred ad-supported apps, preferred in-app advertising that didn’t take them out of the app to the browser.

A harder to solve barrier is fragmentation. Advertisers and agencies needing to work with multiple ad networks to buy media at scale is one thing. But producing ads that can scale is another. Device proliferation has resulted in distinct mobile and tablet browsers that support significantly different HTML5 capabilities. This detailed table illustrates the compatibility constraints agencies must navigate when attempting to create an ad that works across browsers. It’s literally like when Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer were battling it out in 1997. Remember the “best viewed in Internet Explorer” notices? It’s difficult to adopt something if you can’t buy and produce it at scale.

To avoid missing any more opportunities in mobile, we as a group need to first do two things: standardize and elevate. If production costs provide the primary barrier, then marketers will not buy in. And if we don’t support richer mobile ad units, then brand dollars will never be there. This is where the Mobile Rising Stars can help, in both standardizing units to ease production of great display ads and in elevating mobile display so that branded immersive experiences can be realized and widely available. Then it’s up to us, the agencies, to bring the great creative to the fore. I look forward to the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting at the end of February when the winning Mobile Rising Stars will be announced. It’s a step we all need to take.

David Levin is president of creative and technology at 360i, a New York-based digital agency.

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