Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Challenges of Mobile Advertising

Mobile phones are intensely personal devices we carry with us pretty much everywhere. As such, it is hard-to-resist medium for advertisers. However, this platform can be a double-edged sword. Mobile advertisements are perhaps the most intrusive form of marketing, just a rung below telemarketing calls. So, there is a high potential for turning off prospective customers.

In this post we will examine some of the challenges of advertising on the mobile phone.

Limited Screensizes

Unlike TVs and computers with ever increasing screen sizes, the size of mobile phone screens will always remain small. Every millimeter of space on that screen is valuable. There are no convenient side bars, header banners and footer spaces where ads can be shown without too much distraction from the main content. So, where to squeeze some ad space without encroaching on content and irritating the user? One way of increasing screen space on mobile phones is to make the entire face of the phone a screen, with a touch interface, like the popular iPhone.

Reduced Receive-only Attention Span

By its very nature the mobile phone is a device for active interaction, whether we are talking or messaging. On every other platform, be it print, TV, radio or the computer, the amount of time we spend in non-interactive, receive-only mode is much higher compared to the phone. Receive-only mode is when we are only reading / viewing / listening to something, as opposed to interacting with it by providing our own inputs. Most of today's ads are geared towards audiences who are in the receive-only mode. These are passive ads.

Mobile phones are used in receive-only mode, only for short durations when we are looking for specific information or when we are passing time when waiting for an appointment or to reach a destination, etc. This substantially reduced receive-only attention span of mobile phone users presents another challenge for presenting ads.

This issue can be addressed in a couple of ways: a) Provide content which encourages people to spend more time in receive-only mode on the phones. b) Come up with clever interactive ads / marketing campaigns. These are active ads which require the audiences to play with them or provide inputs.

The one thing you do not want to do is interrupt the user with an ad when they are in active interaction mode - be it communicating with somebody or looking up information.

Rewards for unsolicited ads

The state of mobile devices and connectivity today is that showing ads on the phone involves a cost to the end-user. The ads may drain more power from the phone's limited battery source and it may increase the data usage for which the user may be paying by volume. In addition, the user will also be paying with her/his personal time and attention, which s/he might consider to be even more valuable than the battery power or data usage costs. As such, users will be loathe to consume unsolicited ads on the phone without being rewarded in return with something more than the information presented in the ad. Such rewards could be free voice or data connectivity, free phones, etc. As the market matures, I'm sure marketers will think of other innovative rewards with which to win over customer's attentions.

The rewarding of users with free stuff in exchange for viewing ads happens more often than we realize. Eg: Programming on many TV netword channels are available to us for free viewing, subsidized by ads.

Solicited Ads or Ads as (Search) Results

The most effective presentment of ads is as a response to a user request or search. I am not talking of contextual ads shown alongside search results. These contextual ads are still unsolicited ads because they are shown without the user asking to see them. Suppose, the user is looking for a store or a business via a search service or directory calling service on the mobile phone. The service would then show mostly (or perhaps exclusively) businesses which have paid to be listed as results of that search. This, of course, goes against the principles of fair and unbiased search results and such a service cannot strictly be called a search service. Nevertheless, if the results are of high quality and relevancy, it will be used by the people. Just Dial in India is one such directory service which charges businesses to list them as search results.

Advertising on mobile phones is not an easy proposition due to the scarce screen space, reduced attention span of users and risks of antagonizing the user by being too intrusive, or worse, costing her/him time and money to merely view the ad. However, the rewards are enormously high for anyone who successfully cracks this puzzle as effectively as Google cracked the contextual ads puzzle.

In a future column, we will explore some of the possible options for displaying ads on a mobile screen with the least intrusion to the user.