Consumer Costs of Mobile Advertising

All advertising imposes costs on the consumer. For example, TV commercials interrupt shows, outdoor ads sometimes obscure or distract from prettier views, and the sheer weight of the ad pages in the September issue of Vogue has undoubtedly caused a fair number of arm strains and Prada bag collapses over the years. But because of consumers’ close relationships with their mobile devices, the consumer costs of mobile advertising may be more visible and less tolerated than those of other media. The industry is only beginning to pay attention to the consumer costs of mobile advertising, and if it doesn’t proactively address these, there’s at least a chance that a mobile ad apocalypse could occur.

Time, Money, Battery

Consumers face three interrelated costs from mobile advertising.

  • Time. Downloading ads takes time, especially over slower connections, and ad loading times may impose on consumers’ abilities to complete desired tasks or get desired information.
  • Money. Unless people have unlimited data plans, each byte in each ad downloaded contributes toward their monthly bandwidth allotment. Enough ads viewed in a given time period could thus lead to overages – and once a consumer goes over the cap, each ad downloaded causes incremental, additional charges.
  • Battery life. Not only does downloading mobile ad content consume time and money, downloading and interacting with ads also incrementally reduces the charge on the battery, leading to a possibility that the device will run out of juice just when it is most needed.

Granted there are caveats to these costs. First, for most mobile ads today – the basic banners common on mobile websites and apps – the size of the ad is trivial relative to the content. And second, even heavy ads downloaded while a smartphone or tablet is connected via Wi-Fi are generally both fast and free.

But as we start to see bigger, richer ads – and especially ads with video – incorporated into smartphone and tablet content, the odds will only increase that someone doing the math will quantify the time, money, and/or battery costs of mobile ads, and they won’t like what they see.

Thwarting the Mobile Ad Apocalypse

It’s not certain that 2012 is going to be the year that sees consumers rise up against the costs of mobile advertising. But it should be the year that the industry addresses the issue, preventing the mobile ad apocalypse before it happens.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has a role to play here. For example, the IAB’s ongoing Mobile Rising Stars project will identify and promote exciting, branding-friendly smartphone and tablet ad formats. The IAB will unveil finalist ad concepts at its Annual Leadership Meeting at the end of February. As the Rising Stars effort moves from ad concepts to actual buildable ad formats, it’s imperative to make sure that maximum ad weights are defined and kept to reasonable sizes. (Disclosure: I work for the IAB.)

From a technology perspective, it’s important that mobile ad servers be able to identify devices connecting via mobile networks versus those connecting via Wi-Fi – and serve creative appropriately. Many ad servers can do this, although campaigns don’t always provide different creative for faster and slower connections. Making light and heavy versions of a creative execution is more work, but potentially an important best practice.

Third, ad servers need to make it easier for apps to pre-cache heavy creative while a device is connected via Wi-Fi, for later delivery when the app is used offline or when it’s connected to a slow network. Of course, more pre-caching of ads leads to complications on the metrics and reporting side – but an ongoing project of the IAB, the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA), and the Media Rating Council (MRC) to establish measurement guidelines for in-app ads should offer clarity and best practices here.

U.S. web advertising evolved in a world of plenty: lots of bandwidth, at flat rates, delivered to devices with unlimited electricity. Scarcity of these traits is yet another way that mobile is not simply the web without wires. The more the industry can identify and develop mobile-specific solutions to the unique challenges mobile presents, the more we ensure that the mobile ad apocalypse will never come.

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