Content Is King: 5 Mobile Advertising Trends You Need To Know Now

Though we're spending more time on our mobile devices, mobile ad rates are anemic. Here are 5 brilliant trends that could change the future of mobile advertising.
October 01, 2013

Here’s a brilliant example of mobile advertising done right. 

A Brazilian car insurance company created a fake car ad that ran in several iPad magazines. The ad was cleverly disguised. It looked like a regular, glossy car ad. But when readers swiped the screen to turn the page, their finger instead crashed the fancy car into the side of the screen. A message popped up: "Unexpected events happen without warning. Make a Bradesco car insurance plan."

The ad won the Brazilian insurance provider, Bradesco, a top prize at last year’s prestigious Cannes Lions advertising festival; the first time the festival had recognized mobile ads. It was joined by a dozen other clever mobile ads, none of which looked anything like traditional website banners. There wasn’t a single IAB banner ad among them.

Mobile advertising is in trouble. Although we’re right in the middle of the biggest shift in technology history—from desktop to mobile—the advertising industry is lagging way behind. 

We're spending more time than ever on our mobile devices, but ad rates are anemic. Pew says that more than 56 percent of U.S adults now own smartphones, and with Apple selling 9 million iPhones in a weekend, mobile penetration is only going to increase. We spend on average an hour a day on our mobile devices, according to Experian, and check them up to 150 times a day, Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers reports.

We spend an awful lot of time on our smartphones and tablets, but mobile ads are worth just a paltry $0.75 per thousand views (CPM) compared to $3.50 on desktop sites, according to KPCB’s Mary Meeker’s annual study of Internet trends. Print ads, by comparison, still command rates of as much as $100 per thousand impressions. At a moment in history when print seems to be dying, it’s ironic that digital publishing can’t yet capture a decent share of advertising revenues.

One of the big reasons is that tracking and analytics tools for advertisers haven’t matured yet. Mobile ads can’t be sliced and diced the same way desktop ads can. The online advertising industry has spent 15 years perfecting tracking and cross-targeting technology that serves ads to consumers in clever and interesting ways as they jump around the Internet. But the mobile experience is much more fractured. Mobile users spend as much time in the individually walled gardens of their apps as they do on the open Net. In addition, Apple blocks data-gathering technologies like third-party cookies in Mobile Safari, the most popular mobile browser.

The advertising industry is lagging behind a big trend in commerce. Mobile devices have changed the way people shop. According to research by Google, 96 percent of smartphone users have researched purchases on their devices. And nearly a third have actually made purchases on them. The smartphone is already a key shopping tool, and it’s becoming a significant purchasing channel in its own right. It’s not that advertising is ignoring mobile: Gartner has estimated that mobile advertising will grow to more than $20 billion worldwide by 2016; but what form that advertising takes is still very much in flux. Still, as the Brazilian insurance ad shows, there are some very good ideas bouncing around.

Responsive Ads

There are some brave efforts to make banner ads work on mobile. 

Google launched a new responsive AdSense unit designed for responsive websites. Just as responsive websites adjust themselves to different screen sizes, Google’s new unit also adjusts itself to fit the size of the screen. If the viewer is on a desktop, a traditional leaderboard banner ad is served. If the reader is on mobile, a smaller smartphone-sized banner is shown. 

The system is pitched as an easier way for publishers to manage ad inventory and website design. The ad unit adjusts itself just like the site. The system is in beta and has a few limitations. For now, it only shows standard IAB ad sizes, which are served up according to the particular break points set by the host site.

There are several companies jumping into this space, including Responsive Ads, a company that offers a “stretchable” advertising unit that automatically resizes itself according to the reader’s device. Responsive Ads’ system is somewhat more flexible than Google’s right now. Ads created in HTML 5 can “stretch” beyond the standard IAB sizes in Google’s model.

Both models are an attempt to make traditional banners compatible with the fast-growing movement of responsive design. It's backwards compatible with banner ads and a model that’s familiar to ad buyers, networks and agencies. Vogue UK claims to have had some success using responsive advertising with some big clients, and shares some examples

Snap Banners

Another interesting experiment is “Snap Banners,” a new format invented by People Magazine that make banners a little more fluid and interactive for mobile.

Like responsive ads, snap banners are seen as a stopgap between traditional banners and something else. Snap banners are attached to the bottom of the user’s screen when they first visit a site. As they scroll down to view content, the banner goes with them, attaching itself to an allocated space between the posts. If it's clicked, it expands to fill the entire screen. 

This is a clever way of giving brands “above the fold” placement on a device where ads are quickly swiped by. It’s also attention grabbing, but not as intrusive as an interstitial or a floating banner that’s impossible to dismiss. 

Native Ads

BuzzFeed is being closely watched for experimenting with a business model that dispenses with traditional banners in favor of so-called “native advertising” that blends sponsored content closely with the site’s trademark image galleries and listicles.

The key to BuzzFeed’s success is sharing. The site judges the success of content and ad campaigns not on pageviews or impressions, but how frequently posts are shared across social networks like Twitter, Facbook and Google+. 

Likewise, native ads must also be shareable in the same way that a site’s content is. Whether on BuzzFeed or Facebook, a native ad must be liked, shared or commented on the same as a regular post or update. Native ads also tend to look like the site’s main content and is usually included in the main content stream. Native ads on a site like BuzzFeed appear as part of the stream of posts; and on Facebook, paid posts appear on a user’s news feed the same as a cute cat picture does from a friend.

Native ads have been hyped as the savior of mobile publishing, but a couple of examples from BuzzFeed illustrate the strengths and weaknesses. A recent high-profile campaign for the Toyota Prius contained a gallery of 20 Coolest Hybrid Animals that was intended to highlight Toyota’s sense of humor as well as the Prius’s hybrid drivetrain. It attempted to connect with youth culture by including the Liger from “Napoleon Dynamite.”

However, the brand association is tangential at best. I don’t think the Liger is easily associated with the Prius. A more successful post to my mind was The Best Cities for Commuting, a gallery of average commute distances in various cities around the country. Comparing Providence, Rhode Island (the best, with an average annual commute cost of $406) versus Austin, Texas (the worst; $854 a year) better communicates the Prius’s low fuel costs. It effectively links a specific attribute of the hybrid car with a interesting piece of content that’s likely to be shared.

Another good example of sponsored content that aligns well with a site’s regular content is a Q&A on Quartz, a sister site to The Sponsored by Colloquy to advertise its business conference, the Q&A was an interview with Google’s digital marketing evangelist Avinash Kaushik, titled, appropriately "Marketing without shouting."

The Q&A reads like a regular interview but was carefully crafted by Colloquy’s conference marketing team. It was slotted neatly between Quartz’s posts in its editorial stream, although such posts are clearly marked “sponsored” and distinguished with a subtlety colored background. It’s an effective piece of advertorial that advertised the business conference while closely matching the site’s regular editorial fare.

And yet while most metrics say native ads perform much better than traditional display ads, they still don't demand much higher CPMs than banners. This is likely to change. The format is still relatively new and untested, plus it’s labor intensive; native posts are often tailored to particular sites, and can’t be published across networks or publishers yet the way banner ads can be.

It’s also unclear if BuzzFeed’s model scales down. BuzzFeed’s sponsored content is usually paid for by Fortune 500 companies, which can afford expensive, experimental content campaigns. 

Uncrate: Sponsored Products

Uncrate, a gear and gadgets site aimed at men, successfully runs sponsored product campaigns that fit well into its stream of content. For a fee, brands can publish posts that highlight new products or services. It’s a good fit, because the sponsored content is often indistinguishable from the site's regular editorial content. All the products are clearly marked as sponsored or featured. 

Uncrate’s sister site Devour has had similar success with paid video promotions. Devour is a simple site that curates the best new video posted online every day. The site's video ads are integrated with the grid of curated videos on the site’s front page and clearly marked as an "Ad." The brand gets the same placement as the curated spots, and the content is often complementary.

Mobile Ads That Are Mobile

One of the most interesting trends in mobile are ads that take advantage of location. A good example is a clever banner campaign by Adidas that drove visitors to a special promotional event in New York City. Introducing a new soccer cleat at New York's Penn Station, the event featured soccer star Lionel Messi and a groovy light show. On the day of the event, Adidas published banners to thousands of people within 3 miles of Penn Station who were engaged with relevant apps. “Adidas and Messi—After Dark Tonight,” the banners read, and invited users to the event. According to Adidas, the campaign was a wild success, attracting thousands of attendees from the surrounding area.

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