Think Globally, Act Mobile-ly

The rise of the mobile Internet is a worldwide phenomenon with distinct local manifestations. Significant differences from country to country argue against imposing a monolithic, global approach to mobile media – tactics or practices that work well in one market may not prove optimal in others. However, there is much to gain from comparing the evolution of mobile in different markets and from cooperating and sharing information across countries. With that in mind, last year the Interactive Advertising Bureau (where I work) established the mobile committee-global.

Consisting of staffers from IABs around the world working on mobile media in their markets, this group holds calls every two months to share information and insights, provide project updates, and facilitate mobile coordination between the various international IABs.

As a kickoff project, the IAB has published a global mobile anthology providing insights into different countries’ experiences with mobile media, contributed by about a dozen of the global IABs. A few key themes emerge around adoption of voice and data and the state of basic and advanced mobile media.

In most countries, mobile adoption is growing rapidly. IAB New Zealand points out that for many years, their country was known for having more sheep than people. Now they have more mobile phones than people, a nice achievement. In 2011, mobile phones provided 80 percent of all telephone lines in Mexico. Ninety-five percent of Danes have a mobile voice connection. Smartphones topped 50 percent penetration in Sweden last year, and 90 percent of new phones sold there are now smartphones. The United States (which has long had a mobile inferiority complex) compares favorably on the mobile adoption league tables: the CTIA reports about 323 million mobile subscriptions in 2011, and according to comScore about 55 percent of U.S. mobile users used mobile data in 2011.

For mobile data, price emerges as a key factor driving or impeding adoption. IAB Brazil predicts explosive mobile data growth in 2012 because mobile operators introduced pre-pay data plans making the mobile Internet cheaper than the Internet cafés where many Brazilians currently get online. By contrast, despite New Zealand’s robust adoption of mobiles for voice, mobile data adoption remains very low there due to high tariffs on connectivity.

In terms of mobile media, text messaging remains very important in many countries, for example Mexico (where feature phones still figure significantly in the market) and China. Where texting is endemic, it may take longer for consumers to migrate to other forms of mobile media. Conversely, in the U.S. the fact that other channels – notably email and social media – became available relatively early in Americans’ mobile data adoption means that there was less messaging inertia to overcome before jumping to those other, richer ways to communicate. The Interactive Internet Advertising Committee of China (IIACC) (China’s equivalent to the IAB) notes that 2011 was the first year with negative growth in messaging, which they interpret as a positive sign of mobile web acceleration.

Regardless of the state of mobile media, mobile advertising remains nascent globally. The U.K. has one of the most advanced mobile media markets in the world, and IAB U.K. has had a focus on mobile for years. And yet, even in the U.K., mobile advertising revenue totaled £82 million – about $130 million – in 2010, a small piece of the total advertising pie. IAB Denmark concludes that even with Denmark’s high voice and mobile data penetration, no form of mobile advertising is important yet. IAB Australia, too, notes a “marked lag between consumer behavior…and advertising expenditure.” Even in advanced mobile markets, then, mobile advertising is still in its infancy.

A medium in its infancy is a fair description of mobile data just about worldwide. It’s impossible to identify the next great trend in mobile – the market is too young and dynamic. But that’s what makes it so exciting, and it’s one of the things that makes the international conversations that the IAB’s mobile committee-global fosters so valuable.