All Ads, All the Time

A couple of years from now, where won’t there be digital advertising?

Online advertising is immense, and immensely robust. But new ad channels are streaming down the digital pike fast and furious. There’s the iPhone, along with reports this week that Google is eager to develop an ad-supported mobile device of its own (subscription required). EBay and others are playing with ads on voice-alert phone calls. And talk of pushing ads onto applications and desktops (which Microsoft discussed back in 2005) is heating up for real this time, or so it would appear, what with Google Apps, Microsoft launching new ad-serving patents, and a seemingly mandatory acquisition quota for any Web player of stature of one ad-serving network per day.

Bottom line? The future in which anything you own that’s connected to a network of any kind will feed ads at you is rapidly becoming a reality.

More Questions Than Answers

This rapidly emerging new reality will soon force advertisers and publishers to confront questions about digital advertising that are nearly as complex and untested as the Web was as an ad medium in the early ’90s.

Take publisher Web sites. Precious few are mobile-enabled now. Five years hence, Web sites will have to render on handheld devices, or else.

What are the ad inventory implications of all those teeny-weeny .mobi (define) sites? It’s highly unlikely the existing banners are just going to shrink down to peewee versions of themselves. Publishers will want to monetize new forms of media, and advertisers expect their money’s worth from a media buy.

No wonder CBS this week teamed with no less than four mobile ad vendors: AdMob, Millennial Media, Rhythm New Media, and Third Screen Media, to gear up for mobile ads that go as far as banner and video formats for its own content, as well as for the mobile content networks the company sells media for.

Data, Data, Data

Loathe as search players may be to utter the ultra-loaded b-word (“behavioral”), there’s plenty of evidence behavioral-like ad targeting is coming into play. While Google has disavowed any intention to compile user profiles, the mind really does boggle at the near 360 degrees of data afforded (theoretically, at least) from search, Google Apps, and a potential mobile account. In this respect, Microsoft could be fast on its rival’s heels.

Privacy implications here are enormous. Even the most laissez-faire users can easily be creeped out when contemplating potential Big Brother consequences.

Consumer Acceptance

Even consumers who don’t give privacy a second thought may balk at a world of all ads, all the time. Content providers, ad networks, and the search portals are, of course, promising a pie-in-the-sky advertising utopia in this brave new world. Ads will be so personalized, so relevant…they’re all but promising end-user gratitude for every commercial message served.

Sales pitches aside — and whatever turns out to be as rosy as advertised, anyway — the industry will have to do some long, hard thinking about formats, frequency, and degrees of user acceptance. Mobile advertising is embryonic in this country. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s consensus on what works. Heck, video advertisers are still debating pre-roll.

Best practices are still evolving and largely unknown. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s certainly a point to be aware of.

Luckily, unlike the all but unendurable years of whack-the-monkey pop-up ads, this next generation of advertising will be ushered in by more mature, responsible players. We’re talking phone carriers and major corporations here, not individual and often rogue Web sites. The hope is they’ll be better at developing formats, frequencies, and targeting methods quickly — and sustainably.

While search advertising has skyrocketed, it’s imperative to bear in mind most searches aren’t purchase-oriented. Neither is most mobile phone behavior, nor is using a Google or Microsoft network application to compile the quarterly sales report.

Network and mobile advertising doubtless hold future promise, but that promise isn’t infinite. All ads, all the time? It’s a model that just isn’t going to work.

Nominate your choice of technologies, companies, and campaigns that made a positive difference in the online marketing industry in the last decade. Nominations end August 3 at 5:00 pm (EDT).

Meet Rebecca at SES San Jose on August 20-23, in San Jose, California.

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