Dispensing with video, interactivity and other sources of creativity just because we can’t adapt them to mobile formats feels like a surrender too far, writes BBC Advertising’s Tom Bowman.
Business models designed for one era of technology tend to struggle when they find themselves surrounded by another. Just ask Blockbuster or Kodak. Now something very similar is happening to desktop advertising formats in the era of the smartphone.
As anyone who’s suddenly found their mobile screen taken over by a video ad can tell you, our standard desktop ad interfaces become worryingly unfit for purpose on a platform that people navigate by touching and swiping.
The problem is simple: whereas a traditional desktop scrollbar exists outside the content space, smartphone navigation borrows the same piece of screen real estate as the content and ads that you are navigating around. And no smartphone screen has yet been designed that can distinguish between a finger that wants to expand an ad or click-through to a website – and one that just wants to swipe down to the next story.
The result? Lots of people with steam coming out of their ears, jabbing away at their iPhone or Samsung as they try to figure out how to return to the page they were navigating before an ad took over their screen.
When clicks actively undermine your brand
The mobile user experience is not something that any industry can take lightly – and the biggest players in digital media certainly aren’t doing so.
Google is piling investment into the concept of Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), working with partners including the BBC to cut down load times on phones. It’s partly a response to Facebook’s Instant Articles initiative, which prevents mobile users having to sit and wait for the links they click on to open.
“If we can’t crack the user experience of advertising on mobiles, we’ll find ourselves increasingly out of touch with it on other platforms as well”
We all know about the interest shown by iPhone owners in ad blocking technology, the main promise of which is to make the process of using the internet on a phone less irritating. Yet, despite all of this, we continue to serve ad units that mobile users repeatedly click on by accident, interrupting their experience and sending their fingers twitching towards the ‘install ad blocker’ icon.
There was compelling evidence for just how widespread this experience is when the Swedish publishing giant Schibsted released data showing that click-through rates on mobile ads actually correlate negatively with ad effectiveness. In other words, people mistakenly click through on an ad, interrupt the content they were consuming and seethe inside about the brand responsible. Not exactly the result we are looking for.
Why this isn’t just a smartphone issue
This can’t go on. Online advertising needs to react a heck of a lot quicker than Blockbuster and Kodak did if it’s to survive the transition from reaching people through one type of screen to reaching people through another.
The mobile experience of advertising matters not only because the number of smartphones and the proportion of digital experiences that take place through them is increasing exponentially, but also because the desktop and mobile experiences are themselves converging.
Tablets have far more in common with smartphone navigation than they do with navigation on a desktop. And just ask anybody with a Mac laptop how often they use a scrollbar (if they can even still find it). If we can’t crack the user experience of advertising on mobiles, we’ll find ourselves increasingly out of touch with it on other platforms as well.
First do no harm?
What’s the solution? We could follow the conclusions of the Schibsted report, which found simple, static banner ads to be the most effective mobile ad formats in terms of increasing brand preference and purchase intent. This is very much the ‘first do no harm’ approach: formats with less capacity to interrupt, which come with shorter load times, are far less likely to irritate audiences and therefore have far more opportunity actually to do their job.
We could take things a step or two further, dispense with traditional ad units altogether and integrate everything, native advertising-style, within content feeds. Making marketing a part of the content experience comes with both technical advantages (as Facebook well knows, ad blockers can’t block ads that are embedded within the content rather than routed from ad servers), and attention-related ones. If marketing messages are an intuitive part of the content navigation system then people are potentially less likely to click on them by accident.
Don’t surrender on mobile ads before we’ve even tried
If you ask me, though, neither of these approaches represents a solution in itself. Rebranding digital advertising as content may make it less visually annoying but only at the risk of disrespecting the time and attention of the audience, and lessening the appeal of the content stream itself.
Research carried out for BBC Storyworks, BBC Advertising’s in house content marketing agency, shows that 63% of audiences are happy to engage with branded content – but only if it matches the quality of the editorial content around it. Pretending your ads are suddenly content won’t cut the mustard.
“We need methods of opening and closing ads that are designed for the swipes of a touchscreen user rather than the precise clicks of a mouse”
Similarly, dispensing with video, interactivity and other sources of creativity just because we can’t adapt them to mobile formats feels like a surrender too far. Marketers need a diverse range of strategies and tactics for digital platforms – and that means we need a concerted effort to adapt those strategies and tactics to mobile.
An obvious starting point is the simple acceptance that the current advertising interfaces aren’t up to scratch. We need methods of opening and closing ads that are designed for the swipes of a touchscreen user rather than the precise clicks of a mouse.
How about ads that wait for a distinctive double-tap rather than any form of touch before considering themselves clicked on? At a stroke it would send click-through rates from mobile devices plummeting – but it might just start to correlate those click-throughs with actual interest and engagement. Sounds like a step in the right direction to me.