iMedia Connection

A marketer's guide to mobile display advertising

Andrew Ettinger

Mobile is a big word. It is only six letters, but still manages to strike fear into the hearts of many a media executive. Few people completely grasp mobile advertising because it involves so many disparate elements that constantly change. In fact, it changes so quickly that even an introductory presentation that I wrote three years ago is laughably out of date. The most significant development is that smart phones are now "feature phones." According to Nielsen, 50 percent of Americans now have smartphones and predicts 70 percent of cell phones will be smartphones by the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, in just three years both tablets and apps have once again reinvented the mobile space. Apple did not invent the tablet computer, but its iPad (introduced January 2010) reinvigorated the category. Since then, more than 40 million tablets have been sold in the US. If nothing else, tablets have accelerated American's love of apps. Similarly, Apple's 2009 App Store launch thrust apps into the mainstream. More than 450,000 apps have been launched on Apple's App Store alone. According to the CTIA, the average smartphone has 22 apps loaded. App usage is accelerating; over 600 million apps were downloaded last month. It is a virtuous circle -- smartphones and tablets drive app usage, which in turn drives more people to smartphones and tablets. Indeed, mobile advertising is totally new again. No wonder the media community approaches mobile with some trepidation - by the time the plan is live, the marketplace has changed again.

Every year the advertising industry jokes that next year is the year of mobile. That time has come: 2012 is the year of mobile. However the space poses many challenges and considerations for new display advertisers. Here are some things to consider.

Browser

Mobile web browsing is slightly different than the traditional, "desktop" internet. Whereas the desktop web is served via an internet browser, there are many ways of serving mobile websites and advertising. Mobile advertising exists across a number of platforms. Ads can be served on WAP sites, full websites via mobile devices and inside apps. Each requires a slightly different perspective.

Mobile devices use Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) browsers that automatically load a mobile website, sometimes called a WAP site. WAP sites are built to accommodate a variety of devices -- both powerful smartphones as well basic cell phones; those with less computing power. Out of necessity, WAP sites are less graphically heavy than their desktop counterparts. As well, they are built specifically with smaller screens in mind. WAP sites can be identified by the "m." at the start of their URL. However, the newest, most advanced devices can access both the WAP as well as the full desktop website. Compare the home screen of Yahoo.com from a desktop browser with that of m.yahoo.com viewed from the iPhone.

Advertising in apps has further complicated matters. All apps are not created equal. Each is a different experience for the consumer. There are no standard layouts or user interfaces to make it easier for developing ads that run across many premium apps.

Before you commit to a mobile campaign, decide which of these platforms suits your needs.

Ad size

Creating ads for desktop campaigns is positively simple compared to mobile. While desktop campaigns rely heavily on three sizes (728x90, 160x600, 300x250) the mobile web uses many more variations. The plethora of mobile screen sizes dictates a wider variety of ads. I recently received these specs for a single mobile proposal: Android, iPhone: 480x75, 320x50, 240x38; Android Tablet: 768x96, 704x80, 480x75, 320x50; iPad: 768x96, 704x80; iPhone: 320x50; and Blackberry 460x68.

On cellphones, ads are typically limited to two lines of text with 16 characters per line. However the actual size can vary a great deal. According to Greg Stuart, the CEO of the Mobile Marketing Association, the industry currently uses over 60 unit sizes. The MMA is trying to reduce that to a smaller, more manageable number. The MMA recommends nine sizes ranging from 120x30 to 320x50.

To further complicate matters, magazine publishers have adopted print sized ads for tablet apps. Publishers like WSJ and Barron's offer sizes more akin to print than traditional digital. They offer both two column and full page ads. Clearly, many publishers hope to re-capture print budgets that have gone digital. This can be a headache for digital producers who need to crank out many sizes for each campaign. Some publishers can dynamically re-size creative to match a device's screen dimensions. However, this is not always the case. One size does not fit all.

Screen time

Consider how long the ad will be shown. Normally, banner ads live on the webpage for as long as the page is live. Most publishers equate the pageview with an impression. As long as the page is on screen, the ads can be viewed. However this is not always the case with mobile apps. Some apps exhibit ads as pop-ups with only brief screen time. Those ads appear only for a few seconds then disappear from view. This is particularly true for gaming and news apps. Savvy publishers want to monetize their audiences but not overwhelmingly distract from the experience. Others simply want to run as many ad impressions as possible. Timing obviously has creative implications. Understand how long the ad will be viewable, don't assume it will appear on the page infinitely.

Flash

Adobe Flash powers the majority of desktop advertising. For the most part, GIFs and JPGs are relegated to backup units. However the reverse is true with mobile. The majority of mobile websites do not support Flash. In fact, this past November, Adobe announced it would stop developing its mobile version of Flash. This means that mobile devices cannot read websites built in Flash nor view Flash ads. Mobile sites must be built in HTML to be WAP accessible. For all intents and purposes, mobile advertising is limited to GIFs and JPGs. While GIFs can contain some animation and JPGs are ideal for static images, neither is as robust as Flash.

Rich media

The ability to serve rich media (RM) is both publisher and device dependent. While Flash is a nonstarter for mobile, there are ways of building RM ad units. Companies like Vdopia and Celtra specialize in developing mobile RM. Like their desktop counterparts, these ads can be expanded and run video. However, many major WAP sites still do not allow RM. Those that do usually will allow RM only on select devices, most often the iPhone. In this regard the Android and Blackberry platforms are still second-class citizens. Remember, while the iPhone is the popular phone, the Android platform actually holds more market share than Apple's iOS. Furthermore, while Blackberrys are losing ground, they still remain de rigueur within parts of the financial community. Thus, buyers need to be cognizant which devices their RM reaches.

Rich Media can be used in-apps too, although this is even trickier. The biggest hurdle is the lack of comprehensive coding standards. Apps do not share a single coding standard thus the ads requires different code too. This particularly applies in development as each app has different RM ad specifications. This creates a great deal of frustration for agencies since ads cannot simply be re-purposed. It is not easy to make RM work for all apps across all devices. The IAB is beginning to address the issue. Hopefully they can establish a standard framework that the major publishers and RM providers can agree upon. The complexity of RM within apps will keep it from growing as fast as it should.

Andrew Ettinger is director of digital media planning and buying at Doremus.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Cover image: "Red button on white" image, ""Funny cartoon boss" image, and "Telecommunications industry" image via Shutterstock

Slideshow images: "Group of dogs different sizes" image, "Smart hand touch the clock" image, "Glittering background" image,  and "Telecommunications industry" image via Shutterstock.