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How have we got mobile advertising so wrong?

by Olly Robinson , 05.04.2013

Last month, we spoke about some key trends and challenges for mobile advertising at this year’s Media Playground event in London. Here’s some of what we covered.

Technology has dictated the pace of change and we've done our best to keep up - but there's a strong argument that mobile advertising is failing. So what next?

Mobile's important. There's an abundance of data available that illustrates just how important, but all you really need to do is wander on to a commuter train and look around you; it is obvious we are now a truly plugged-in, always-on society.

This transformation didn't quite take place overnight, but certainly happened quickly enough to feel like it. Moore's law - whereby computing power doubles approximately every two years - dictates that technology improves at an exponential rate. If this has made it hard for observers to predict change in the past, then it's no surprise that industries tasked with planning for it have found the going equally difficult.

Put simply, technology has dictated the pace of change, and we've done our best to keep up.

There's a strong argument that mobile advertising hasn't kept up.

There are good reasons why this might be the case. Tracking and measuring impact remains problematic on mobile, and is probably the key barrier to greater investment. However, mobile advertising's cause also hasn't been helped by how hard it is to get right in the first place.

The key difference between mobile and any other form of consumption is context. That is, we use mobiles in a far wider range of contexts than any other device in history. This presents a problem to marketers: how to present ads in a way that will be effective regardless of whether the audience is relaxing at home, on a crowded train, or anything in-between. These are fundamentally different emotional states, and require fundamentally different advertising approaches.

There are also fundamental differences in what we're trying to achieve on the device. We know from behavioral data that people typically use their mobiles in a far more focused, goal-orientated manner than their desktop or laptop predecessors.

We log in with a task in mind, execute it, and then log off again. This is a far cry from traditional browsing; people sat down at desks, cup of tea in hand, and happy to follow links at their leisure. Not only do mobile ads face a greater challenge in interrupting this new, goal-orientated mobile behavior, but also a greater risk of annoying consumers if they do so to negative effect.

Perhaps most importantly, this negative effect can be of a different order of magnitude to other forms of advertising. When we speak to consumers about their mobiles, a recurring theme is their emotional engagement with the device. Somewhere between their continuous physical proximity, and the frequently emotive tasks we use them for, they've become more than just a tool. We treat our mobiles as extensions of ourselves, and the stakes are high for anyone wanting to trespass onto them.

All of this isn't to say that mobile advertising is fighting a losing battle. We have access to more data about consumer behavior than ever before, which if analysed intelligently can provide near-infinite insight into when and how to use mobile advertising to best interact with consumers.

But unfortunately, there's still a long way to go. Not only are we presently failing to make use of this data to make better ads, but we're seemingly failing to even consider the mobile experience when implementing existing ones.

At the MediaTel's Media Playground event last month, Simon Andrews presented a great rundown of the current shortcomings in mobile advertising; bad optimisation, bad links, and bad consumer experiences.

These weren't failings of insight, they were failings in execution. Until we start treating mobile advertising as seriously as consumers treat their mobile devices, no amount of data will provide a solution.

Consider this a call to arms: mobile advertising isn't the only industry struggling to keep up with technology, but it's better-placed than most to do something about it.

This article was originally published on MediaTel’s Newsline on 3rd April 2013.  For more information on this, get in touch with me.