Is native advertising the saviour of mobile for publishers and marketers?

I’m going to be totally honest and say that I had originally planned to fill this this article with a diatribe about mobile display advertising. I was going to criticize the misleading stat that click through rates  are 15 times higher on a mobile, (50% of which occur in error I might add), especially in view of the fact that we don’t measure standard display ads based on click through rate, since it is not a valuable brand metric.

I then had a rethink. Facebook’s recent decline in fortune has happened in part because more people are accessing the web on their mobile phones. In fact 10% of media consumption now happens on a mobile device and yet only 1% of ad revenues go to mobile.  A lot of optimistic pundits see this as an opportunity, in particular Mary Meeker’s 2012 Internet trends. The more cynical discerning minds have criticized this belief. The Guardian has gone so far as to say that “If the industry hasn’t cracked the mobile advertising code after five years of energetic and skillful work it’s because there is no code to crack. Together, the small screen, the different attention modes, the growing concerns about privacy create an insurmountable obstacle”. We all know that mobile screens are too small for display advertising and people only spend 68 seconds on a web page, so how can you possibly ‘engage’ anyone in that time? It’s easy to become inclined to agree with the Guardian’s conclusion.

Throwing my cynical hat off, I thought it might be worth exploring how the mobile advertising riddle might be solved. After all, getting mobile to work is everyone’s problem, not just publishers; ad revenues are what fuel innovation and development in this industry whether some like to admit it or not.

Searching for solutions I recently read that the majority of Twitter’s ad revenues come from mobile. The main reason for this is that Twitter ads are native to the experience; they are not interruptive (or so small as to render them useless like mobile display ads). Native advertising is not new or clever, many brands have been creating content that is part of an experience for many years (see example of Jello in 1900 for more details). Google of course is the pioneer of native advertising online, sponsored links are (increasingly) like organic links on the search results page. For many other content discovery sites native advertising is par for the course (e.g. Foursquare’s promoted locations and Itunes promoted playlists). Are native ads the key to solving the mobile advertising riddle? Facebook spotted this trend (perhaps a little too late) and followed Twitter’s example by making their mobile ad formats posts in the newsfeed. There are still many questions surrounding the effectiveness of Facebook advertising, perhaps promoted Tweets are so easy to digest, so ‘snackable’ that they are perfect for mobile devices, unlike Facebook’s sponsored stories which are a bit too long and increasingly numerous so as to be interruptive, native or not.

Forgetting Facebook for a moment, how might other publishers capitalise on native advertising for mobile? Many “companies like Outbrain and Disqus power recommended content widgets on publisher sites like Mashable and USA Today, which enable marketers to promote their links through native ads”. This model is perfect for mobile, by making advertising part of the content discovery process and at the same time overcoming the challenges around smaller screen and attention span. There are some massive challenges for marketers of course, in many ways we lose the power of being able to buy reach, instead relying on our advertising being discovered and then enjoyed enough to be shared. This isn’t a world media planners are ready for. It also presents numerous challenges in terms of creative. Instead of banners, we have a plethora of native ad formats including posts, articles, locations, videos, all requiring a slightly different approach. Planners are already thinking about how their brands can live and breathe in different online environments, this complexity becomes ever more apparent when considering native advertising for mobile. The major challenge is measurement, being native does not necessary make you effective, display advertising will have the same challenges in terms of effectiveness whether it is native or not. We are still working out how to measure standard display correctly (by introducing new metrics like the viewable impression) and changing the formats so they have more impact. Native mobile ads will face the same challenges if not more complex ones, in terms of measurement and effectiveness that standard display ads have over the last 10 years. My colleague, David Midgley (CTO, VCCP Media) is sceptical about these emerging forms of native advertising, observing that there is a ‘distinct lack of data’ around the new models, and that transparency to the user should be a big consideration, “I just worry about a backlash from users complaining of ‘stealth’ advertising in a similar way there was one about retargeting”.

These are challenges for us all but this much I know to be true, push media does not work on a mobile device, whatever stats you throw at me. If the last five years has taught us anything about mobile, it’s that we can’t do things the old way any more. The post advertising era has arrived. It’s time to get native.

  • Frank

    Interesting post… now how am I going to get my creative agency to produce native ads when they struggle to produce a decent banner?