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Why your mobile in-app ads may never be seen

Why your mobile in-app ads may never be seen Jason Cooper

Brands today have a strong incentive to reach and engage their audience on mobile devices as consumers have enthusiastically embraced mobile technology. Mobile usage has overtaken desktop in terms of time spent online. Many marketers have dedicated substantial portions of their digital advertising budget to this rapidly growing channel.

In-app advertising presents a unique opportunity to capture a consumer's attention. However, there are instances when consumers don't see the mobile-app ads that marketers purchase. The online advertising industry must wake up to this and gain a better understanding of why in-app ads are not reaching their audience. First, let me explain why this is happening.

Mobile app developers offer their apps at little or no cost to consumers in order to spur adoption. To accomplish this adoption goal, they rely on in-app advertising to monetize their apps. It's a win-win-win scenario for the developer, their customers, as well as the brands that are interested in reaching these audiences.

In order to best monetize their apps, developers often install Software Development Kits (SDKs) -- a piece of technology that provides a platform to bring the buy- and sell-sides together to trade mobile inventory -- from multiple ad vendors. When a consumer opens an app on their device and an impression becomes available, the app's SDKs will contact advertising vendors to request a banner for the ad slot.

So why install multiple SDKs? The more SDKs, the greater access to buy-side demand. App developers are keen to monetize every available impression, and one way to accomplish this is to ensure that they have access to ample buyers who are interested in their audience.

The developers may also then find themselves with too much demand for a single ad placement, which for the most part mobile in-app offers space for just one banner at a time. So, why would mobile app developers knowingly overbook, so to speak?

Developers have a strong interest in maintaining a positive user experience, ensuring as few interruptions as possible to engagement. When consumers use their mobiles and tablets on the bus or in the streets, the Internet connection may be weak, which can affect the performance of the app. In other words, the user experience can suffer if the consumer is forced to wait a long time for an ad to render on a mobile screen. To prevent these poor experiences, mobile ads are sold and pre-loaded in advance, ready for showing at intervals dictated by the logic of the app, such as between game levels.

That begs the question: what if the consumer never advances to the next level? Or abandons a function where an ad was slated to appear? These ads, sitting in a pool with other ads, have been sold (and to state the obvious, someone has paid good money for them), but a consumer will never see them.

These unseen ads are an issue that those in the industry with greater technical knowledge are aware of, but not the people who have media budgets to spend, and who are anxious to reach a certain audience through mobile. I think this is a huge knowledge gap that needs addressing today. For example, if an advertiser pays for five million impressions and a material amount of these never have the opportunity to be seen by a user, then they need to be aware of this.

It is possible for some ad servers to track when mobile in-app ads are rendered and viewable, but this functionality isn't universal. If the app developer can't report on this level of viewability detail, then the advertiser will be left in the dark, and is potentially paying for ads that are never seen.

So what can be done to address this issue? The first area to be addressed is education -- many brands and agencies are simply not aware of the potential that their ads may not be seen. Advertisers need to be educated in order to ask the right questions of their media buying partners. Often media partners are plugging into multiple sell-side (SSP) sources, whose SDKs will all function in slightly different ways. Advertisers need to ensure they are being billed only on ads that have the opportunity to be seen.

Secondly, advertisers should explore using a third-party verification vendor whose technology can detect when in-app ads are in view. Running with a verification partner across mobile media buys provides an independent audit of the campaign and will verify the ads billed for.

Ultimately, advertisers must be informed if there is any risk that their in-app advertising may not reach its intended mobile audience. Trust is essential to a thriving digital ecosystem, and if advertisers can't be confident that their ads are seen, the entire industry will suffer. So by simply being aware of this issue, understanding the buying behavior of media partners -- and their SDK sources -- will go a long way to clarifying these unknowns.

Jason Cooper is the general manager, mobile at Integral Ad Science.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Jason joined Integral in early 2014 to manage the overall development and strategic direction of Integral’s mobile product offering. Jason is also responsible for spearheading the integration of Simplytics’ (a recently acquired UK based...

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