Do something smart, not just something mobile

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Mobile ad buying vs. traditional online
While mobile ad buying resembles traditional online ad buying in many ways, there are also important differences. Tracking is a perfect example. With online advertising, buyers expect certain key pieces of data to make their decisions, such as the number of unique visitors, whether and how many times they return, time spent on site, how deep into the site they went, etc. These are enabled by persistent cookies that uniquely identify an individual.

By contrast, most mobile phones can not use cookies, and due to the way the wireless carriers have set up their gateways to the mobile web, it is not possible to acquire a unique IP address or mobile number. Instead, hits to a mobile site only appear to be from the originating carrier. There may be some primitive web browser and same-session information, such as the pages visited or how long they stayed; however, a consumer re-visiting a site will look like two separate users. So online buying assumptions can not quite apply.
There are some clever ways to tag and track consumers, such as having consumers sign-in to a portal or embedding users' mobile numbers into the URLs, resulting in a user-specific version of the mobile site. But most mobile sites and mobile ad networks can't and don't take advantage of this. Even Google has a prominent disclaimer in its mobile advertising FAQ, stating that it cannot track any details beyond simple counts of hits, and can't track click-to-call at all.

Pricing and tracking
From a financial standpoint, the basic pricing models are different as well, with most mobile ad networks using a throwback to past strategies. While leading online ad networks have moved towards pay-for-performance revenue models, where advertisers only pay when consumers click on their placements (CPC, or cost-per-click), the prominent mobile ad networks charge based on number of impressions served (CPMs, or cost-per-thousand impressions). CPMs were used in the early days of banner ads, where advertisers paid for impressions whether or not the user clicked.

In the case of mobile, the number of impressions could be highly variable (depending on how consumers use their phones), not to mention any engagement or even seeing the mobile ad at all. Another approach is more of a sponsorship model, with prominent placement on the "carrier deck," which is the homepage on a phone when the user first launches the browser. However, many of these deals are done as "one-offs" or "pilots" with varying price tags. With no consistency across vendors or even carrier decks, mobile advertising's arbitrary pricing is like the wild west compared to the online ad networks where market forces actually determine cost and placement (e.g., Google Adwords' auction style system).

Tips for mobile ad planning and buying

  • Do use browser sniffers to deliver the right version of the site (mobile vs. traditional) and Do give consumers a choice. If they are accessing the site with a smartphone and prefer the full version of the website, let them have an easy way to switch. Google does it and so should you -- "classic view | mobile view."

  • Do draw information from the same source as your full website. Recently, the Food Network launched its own mobile site. While in theory it should let mobile consumers search the company's vast database of recipes, say from the grocery store, the site instead offers a search of a significantly pruned-down recipe list. So matching the online recipe a consumer found at home to a mobile shopping list may not be possible, and therefore frustrating. There is no technical reason for this, and it may have duplicated existing processes by creating a second database, all to the detriment of the user.

  • Do ask your mobile ad network rep any questions you have, and don't make assumptions about their capabilities. You now understand that it is difficult to track individual consumers on mobile, so when presented with a staggering number of "uniques," challenge the statement. It is your first red flag that something is not right. Also, understand precisely where you are buying, as impressions on low-traffic niche sites may cost you the same as on premier sites with network buys. Since the magnitude of reach on mobile can vary greatly, you may end up with an under-performing ad placement.

Without specifically addressing the mobile ad world as a different animal from that of traditional online, buyers can use the wrong assumptions and criteria to make their decisions. Or worse, they could regurgitate the seller’s incorrect statements and accidentally mislead their own clients. Mobile is a powerful medium for brands to get in the flow of a consumer's everyday life. But it is essential to understand the needs of a consumer in this environment and the true fundamental analytics to make good buys. The days to just "do something mobile" are over. Money can be spent well to enable marketers to excel in smart mobile.

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Jordan Greene is principal/mobile media at Mella Media.