Mobile Advertising Is Flawed

How Marketers Are Pushing the Wrong Button on Mobile

Mobile advertising is flawed when it interrupts and spies on users

Mobile advertising is flawed because it interrupts. CMOs’ continued use of such outmoded marketing tactics isn’t pretty, like bursting market bubbles or parties at which one has stayed too long. Screen-hogging banners or tricky apps are unnecessary for those who understand the mobile experience and how to add value; however, they are very effective for alienating clients and customers. As Stan Rapp puts it, “Don’t do things to people (do things with them).” In the interest of doing mobile right, I’ll juxtapose the mobile experience with advertising to show how inappropriate much of it is before suggesting how marketers and brands can add value and avoid destroying trust.

Everybody hates digital ads.” This is a refrain I’ve heard forever, and I have never heard anyone say that they like them. People don’t even like big screen ads. What most marketers may not know is that even application makers and telecoms hate advertising, too. When I covered Digital Hollywood a few years ago, speaker after speaker spoke about failed revenue models and the necessity of defaulting to hated advertising.

Why Mobile Advertising Is Flawed

TV is entertainment. Mobile is life.

Let’s delve into how mobile is especially questionable for advertising and advertising-within-apps. This will help us understand how to do it right and engage on mobile. The original context of invasive advertising was leisure, thumbing through magazines, relaxing in front of the television, going to the cinema. Advertisers, like telecoms today, subsidize the service (magazine, TV, film, mobile handset), so marketers justify interruptive advertising a little self-righteously: “If not for us, people would pay far higher [cable bills]!” That is undoubtedly true, but from a customer viewpoint, interruptive ads are easier to accept during moments of leisure, when their time is inherently less valuable.

Mobile is wonderful because it’s everywhere, not only in the living room, but interruptive mobile ads are far less tolerable when people are trying to achieve outcomes that are important to them. Just reflect on your own mobile experience. You are trying to: change the flight.. negotiate with one of your kids’ teachers.. make a point by sharing a link during a key negotiation. In mobile, there are so many variables that interrupters are far more likely to subtract value than to add value. The user is interacting with the world, and the range of his/her experience is so vast that it is very difficult to introduce appropriate “content.” Marketers who work with sneaky apps or vendors incur huge privacy backlash risk once they or their vendors are outed.

Mobile advertising aficionados trumpet that screens are larger and high speed access give them more opportunities, but, although these things are true in theory, let’s look at real experience:

  • On the ground, 3G networks are overburdened, and 4G networks have spotty coverage in most places, so many users’ experiences are under slow bandwidth conditions. This makes interactive ads problematic.
  • Mobile phones will remain small for most people, so display ads take too much space if they want to be legible.
  • The human factor: I can’t remember anyone ever telling me that s/he liked pushy salespeople because they are focused on themselves, not the customer, and interactive ads often come across this way. In mobile, advertisers are trying to show how their brands are relevant, or they are doing direct response, which is especially irritating because the ad often links to a bandwidth-hogging screen. It interrupts.

None of these things will change soon. I predict that networks’ ability to provide fast access will lag adoption and demand for services in the foreseeable future, and mobile phones will remain small due to the size of the human hand.

By the way, the iPad may prove to be the exception to these arguments because, although I have not seen user experience research, I’ll hazard that it is less “mobile” than phones; people use iPad when they are seated, it’s a quasi-desktop, where the phone is open everywhere.

How to Do Mobile Right

Apps are software, ads are software.

You have a golden opportunity to create trust with and unusual impact on users by working with them in a new way. Very few brands understand that ads are software. All you have to do is look at them differently. Software works with people, ads currently work against people. Ads can help people do things that are important to them. Here’s how to do it.

One of the most useful tools I learned while working with world class enterprise software engineers is the “use case.” Marketers will succeed in adding value more often when they learn to think like software developers, who focus on the user and what s/he is trying to do when s/he uses the software. Developers think in terms of a workstream. What range of things was the user doing before using the software, and what kind of outcomes does s/he desire by using the software? Obviously, there is a range of variables on either side, but developers manage this by studying user experience and designing features to empower users.

Start thinking about how you can empower the people you want to engage. Most marketers don’t know much about their users beyond demographics. They rely on ad networks to place their ads in sites that cross demographics with interest. You need to get more granular to amp up your relevance; luckily, digital social venues make it relatively quick and inexpensive to determine, study and monitor workstreams. I write this from personal experience, as I do it all the time on client work.

You need to understand intention, so you can empower the user. When you do this, you are no longer a hated “advertiser.” Think in terms of their workstreams. Let’s refer to the two common goals mentioned above: you want to show how your brand is relevant to the user or you are doing direct response, which invites the user to follow a link or do some other action.

  • You can magnify brand impact by making sure your message is relevant to the workstream; you are supporting the user in what s/he’s trying to do
  • You dramatically boost clickthrough by being relevant to the workstream; your call to action should not interrupt; it should offer relevant assistance to that workstream

Specific Recommendations

  • Mobile advertising is flawed because most brands don’t understand that mobile is fundamentally different; they are using questionable or inconsiderate mobile marketing tactics that weaken trust, and many marketing measurement and reward systems incentivize such tactics. But they alienate users (customers, clients and prospects). Follow the links in this post; I have many more, too, so contact me if you’d like to see more to improve your peripheral vision.
  • Contact your CIO to get his/her recommendations for someone on staff or via contract can come in and educate you and a small team about use cases and workstreams. You need to understand the concept, what they look like and how developers use them, so you can, too.
  • Plan to encounter resistance from some members of your team, especially those who benefit from the status quo. You can ease perceived threats by saying that this initiative is “only a pilot.”
  • Create a pilot to develop workstream models for two or three types of users (erstwhile targets). Analyze digital social data to determine and test workstream models. By the way, this does not mean getting a Radian6 report or two. Social media monitoring platforms are not nearly sophisticated enough to create workstream models; they are still grounded in “brand mentions,” which is brand-centered, not user-focused. Ask yourselves:
    • Considering users’ workstreams, what information is likely to help them accomplish what they are trying to do? During the pilot, experiment with sharing types of information, and measure the response. Now you know what the user wants.
    • Now consider your organization. What kind of unusual information do you possess that could help users in a distinctive way? Moreover, qualify it for how easy it is for you to share; you have to be able to create very efficient sharing processes, or it won’t work. Test these, too.
    • When you have figured that out, experiment with scaling; measure rabidly at all stages of the pilot. Experiment with measures, too.
  • Evaluate your current mobile “marketing campaigns.” Identify those that “do things to people.”
    • Evaluate digital social conversations and look for signs that users don’t like your mobile marketing tactics. Realize this is a “loaded question,” and ask someone you trust to look at it with an open mind.
    • Assume users are under low-bandwidth conditions unless you have significant data for that user and use case that indicates otherwise. Also assume users have small screens unless you have real data that suggests the contrary.
    • Plan to stop the most egregious offending campaigns as soon as possible.
    • Right away, kill campaigns that involve nefarious vendors or apps. By the way, even if they are hired by an ad network, your brand’s name will still be in the headlines; you are ultimately responsible for paying and using them.


* Photo credit: Eye spy … Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, by Mark Wallinger, at the National Gallery in London. Photograph: Graeme Robertson [via The Guardian]

1 comment to Why Mobile Advertising Is Flawed

  • […] Interruptive mobile advertising is a 20th century tactic that is out of place on the small screen, but many firms continue to do it. Even worse are pop screens and apps that scrape users’ credentials for subsequent email marketing later. Interrruptive display has never worked terribly well online even though it’s been exptensively used, because interruptive is less tolerable when people are active. Interruptive ads original context was passive users who were being entertained, so their time was less valuable. People using smartphones are usually interacting intensively with the physical world, and ads often sabotage their workstreams. For more see Mobile Advertising Is Flawed. […]

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