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4 flaws to avoid in mobile ad design

4 flaws to avoid in mobile ad design Michael Davis

I've been waiting for my first opportunity of the year to drop Steve Jobs' name. As you likely know, Apple will release the iPhone 8 this year, celebrating 10 years of iPhone mania. One of my favorite Steve-isms is, "Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works."

Steve Jobs said that around 2003 -- and he knew how relevant it would be for a mobile phone. He waited five more years to launch the iPhone. What he said at the launch encouraged developers and designers to create their own experiences within their apps and products. And he would have been voraciously vocal today about the messy and often counter-intuitive designs that followed.

I've written many times about right and left brain, beauty and functionality, brand expression and user experience. Somehow, we've strayed from being able to tell which side of the brain designed the strategies that are completely confusing to just about everyone on a mobile device (i.e., your customers).

I often peruse mobile web and in-app advertising to see how well my paid-media colleagues are mastering the form. We're not all masters every time. For each brand using mobile execution to its fullest, there are dozens that miss the mark. Just like with desktop design, while there may be some loose industry guidelines, it's the wild west again.

Here are some head-shakers I've found recently in mobile ads. If a little more attention were paid to both sides of the execution -- the brand expression and user experience -- each experience could've been something great.

Ads that try to do too much

While reading an article on the NBC News app, I saw a house ad (an ad for NBC News) that was trying to check off a lot of boxes at once. It rotated through three different frames, each with a different image, headline, and call to action. A simple carousel execution.

I don't like to single out NBC News. I have fond memories of working there -- my very first job. Plenty of other brands run the same kinds of ads. I've seen mobile interstitials slide in from the right and hold me hostage for four to five transitions before they let me get back to what I was doing. A takeover is fine if it's adding value to the experience, such as a retailer letting me know I can save 15 percent by submitting my email address, or providing me an option for something absolutely relevant to the products or stories I'm viewing.

Ads only succeed if the audience appreciates the break from the content. Try to do too much, and you're just getting in the way. Especially in the mobile environment, where ads are literally in-your-face. Give us a quick message that tells us everything we need to know in a split second. The shorter and more succinct, the better. And even better: The content of your message should compel me to do something, now or in the near future. Why else pay for the media? For a false click?

Ads that aren't crisp enough

On an especially cold day this Chicago winter (there aren't many these days), I saw a mobile ad for Key West tourism that had all the elements I should've needed to indulge in an escape fantasy. Palm trees, white sands, a beachside paradise. But the image and logo were fuzzy. Instead of thinking about planning my next vacation, I was thinking about wasted ad dollars.

I'm happy to debate with you whether or not this is a bad ad. Many advertisers allow subpar remarketers to promote their brand, instead of paying for a best-in-class remarketer that works directly with the brands. This poor resolution is just one example of what happens when some media companies devalue remarketing to claim absurd viewablilty and click-through rates.

Hi-res mobile display is the norm. You should demand it. All assets must be optimized to account for the highest resolution, across video, fonts, and imagery. Otherwise, ads will be memorable for all the wrong reasons. An individual seeing the Key West ad unit may think it's just a typical loading error, but then again, there was nothing about paradise in the sun worth viewing.

Ads that don't give people a reason to care

Last week while on a music site, I saw a mobile banner featuring a couple of McDonald's items. On a tap, it expanded to show me bigger product shots. The media placement was perfect -- why not? There's never a bad time to see an Egg McMuffin.

However, the banner didn't have any copy or call to action that would encourage a customer to engage with the ad. At the time I wasn't hungry. Could the media strategy really be, "If people are hungry, they will click"? I thought the banner should have had a compelling question about music and make me tap to see the answer, or introduce a game I could play to get a quick reward. If the media budget didn't include that type of execution, still provide me with copy that engages me.

You had me as a McDonald's fan (high school job) and a late-to-work fly-by, but it's no effort to personalize these banners for those who are on the site for music. Personalized messages go hand-in-hand with the user experience. I see this as a big miss for a well-liked brand. One reason that ads are not personalized is due to trading desks just blasting these out, rather than selecting specific messages for individual publishers.

Ads that leave mobile functionality on the table

When advertisers build out their mobile executions by just shrinking down the size of their desktop units, they're missing out on a big opportunity. Consumers don't use their smartphones like tiny desktops. Phones have their own UX and functionality. In 2017, somehow this is still happening, and you're losing a lot of money and getting very little value in return.

Advertisers create memorable experiences by taking features that are unique to mobile devices and turning them into easy, engaging interactions that you can't have on desktop. Is this 2009? How could you not use an accelerometer for native actions like tilts and swipes, instead of making your audience tap and scroll? Combine those with ghost indicators to provide navigation that doesn't obscure the content, for the clearest interface possible.

Consider my previous example, the Key West tourism ad. If I could have tilted my phone right to left to see the whole unobstructed horizon, what impact would that have had on the next subzero day? It's not a stretch to remember "Key West."

I don't understand how details like these get overlooked. If the bigger advertisers are going to spend millions of dollars to launch campaigns, they should demand from their partners indispensable value and perfection for every ad unit. One of the perils of well-intentioned trading desks is the rush to get a campaign out the door. This wastes valuable media budget, or worse, damages brand perception.

Consumers have personal relationships with their mobile devices in ways they don't have with any other electronics. You know that. If we're going to create trust and value -- leading to transactions -- your ads should be designed to attract a real person's attention, encourage engagement, and leave them with a positive brand experience.

To close this out, I leave you (as always) with a thought from Marshall McLuhan, the fabled Godfather of Media. He said in many ways that the content of the old medium is "roughing us up" as we consume content on the new medium (McLuhan Lecture series: "The Medium is the Message," 1977). His point being: The message is of more value than just the technology of the device. We've had a decade of mobile to figure this out. I see value wasted on desktop and tablet as well, but on mobile, it's truly roughing me up.

Michael Davis is a creative leader with more than 25 years of experience as an artist, strategist, technologist and agency business leader. As Head of Creative at Conversant, the leader in personalized digital media, he is responsible for directing...

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2017, April 10

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