With Thousands of Permutations, Mobile Ads Can Get Complicated

Photograph by Kevin Balluff

Creating a mobile ad campaign can be far more complex than other forms of advertising.

For many companies wanting to launch a mobile ad campaign, it’s not that simple.

As I wrote about in a CEO guide to technology this week for Bloomberg Businessweek, ads could be displayed alongside search results, like Google provides, or within a Facebook news feed, or appear while someone listens to a song on Pandora — all of which are measured differently.

Maybe a company goes the marketing route instead, where people get a deal when they check into locations on Foursquare or receive a coupon notification from Shopkick as soon as they walk into the store.

Now throw in the different phone carriers and variety of devices, the ability to target specific geographic areas, as well as the option for interactive features using a consumer’s camera, and it’s not unusual to have a mobile ad campaign with several thousand permutations, said George Bell, chief executive officer at mobile ad network Jumptap.

Compare that with your basic TV commercial or web ad, and some companies don’t know where to start. Most are tiptoeing in. Mobile only took up 1 percent of U.S. companies’ ad budgets last year, according to eMarketer, even as half of American adults own smartphones. The majority of mobile ad spending is still in online search and display, mirroring what works on desktops.

Even then, there are more simple problems to solve, said Mike Afergan, senior vice president at Akamai. A consumer who clicks on a mobile ad may have to wait 8 to 10 seconds for the next web page to load, a slowness many users haven’t dealt with on desktops for about a decade, he said.  On desktops, they ignore ads after two seconds. Afergan is trying to help companies make their sites faster, tailored to different devices and networks, so that people who click on mobile ads follow through on purchases. If companies had more time, it would be best to make “thousands of different versions” of their mobile website.

But big brands need to experiment if they’re going to reach customers.

“In one sense, you’re imagining these programs before they’re doable,” and before you know they work in different environments, said Wendy Clark, senior vice president of marketing at Coca-Cola. The company makes a mobile social game in Japan where users compete for points by going to places that sell Coke, such as 7-11, and using the app’s augmented reality software to collect virtual bottles.

To take an ad experiment in a market where smartphone use is sophisticated and launch it in other countries, where consumer behavior and technical options are different, could involve complex conversations with phone makers and carriers that want features designed differently, Clark said.

“Our biggest challenge, for a company like ours, is if we scale the wrong thing perfectly,” she said.

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