Thursday, June 19, 2008

What's holding mobile advertising back?

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2008

In the digital world as we all know, every year is going to be the year of the mobile. The networks haven’t forgotten the £22 billion spent on 3G licences, and they’d love to see the mobile ad market take off like the web did – growing almost 14,000% since 1998.

With estimates of the current market varying between £10m and £20m, if there’s one thing most people agree, it’s that there’s not a lot to go around.

But with flat-rate data tariffs and usable devices like the iPhone well established, it looks like some of the key obstacles are starting to disappear. Though whilst many observers feel mobile is set to take off at last, their optimism may still be premature.

Because whilst the industry’s focus remains on the high-level reasons why mobile has been slow to take off (consumer understanding, technology uptake) there are five simple hygiene factors that are blocking progress right now – exactly as they blocked progress ten years ago for web advertising. Fix these, and the market could be ready to go – fail to address them, and it’ll be pushing water uphill for the foreseeable future.

First, standardising banner ads. Before the IAB standardised banner sizes for the web, production costs often outstripped media – often making online campaigns uneconomic. Resolving this helped online advertising become a manageable proposition, rather than a production black hole – and mobile really needs to fix this. Although the Mobile Marketing Association published some standards in April, uptake has been very slow, and this area is still confusing and expensive.

Second, audience size. The lack of critical mass in the mobile market continues to be an obstacle, with mobile campaigns remaining too small for many agencies to be able to work on them. On the web, this was cured by networks forming to aggregate media sales into buyably large chunks. In mobile, we’ve seen some progress recently with Nokia forming its own sales network, but the market is still too fragmented and will benefit from further consolidation of sales channels.

Third, pricing. If you’re selling media in mobile you’re not going to like this, and you’ll probably say that I would say this. So here goes anyway. You’re too expensive. Right now, cost per thousands in mobile are absurdly high – supported more by ‘experimentation’ budgets than by real commercial demand. Coupled with high production costs, mobile advertising struggles to be cost-effective – certainly next to the web.

There’s every reason to believe that rates should be high in the future (quality of audience, interaction, location) – but right now there’s no research to justify it, and rates are going to have to come down before they can go up.

Fourth, and this is just the order they spring to mind, third party adserving. It’s hard to overemphasise how important this is. For web advertising it is fundamental to agencies’ ability to do their jobs. It enables them to distribute advertising copy (without needing to check manually that it’s running correctly), to target it at individuals and to measure success.

Without it, web advertising would never have proved the case for its cost-effectiveness to advertisers – and just as fundamentally, agencies would never be able to manage the administration that derives from running billions of banners every month.

But adserving still doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense in mobile. And until it does, mobile advertising will remain a largely manual process – restricted both in scale and transparency.

Finally, surely the easiest to fix. Just as with web advertising ten years ago, delivery is terrible. Campaigns start late, finish late and fail to deliver. Without these basics, the marketing community is never going to take mobile up – no matter how attractive the audience.

There isn’t one of these five factors that couldn’t be fixed. But if the mobile business is going to enjoy the boom it’s been looking forward to for so long, it needs to get the basics right first.