Mobile Advertising: Four Categories to Consider

Despite ongoing hype and continued growth, mobile marketing remains a complex and highly fragmented ecosystem that can be difficult to navigate at best. There’s no shortage of opportunity, and sometimes the biggest challenge is just figuring out how and where to get started. That can be a complex question to answer and heavily depends on your audience and objectives, so I won’t be able to provide a universal answer here.

But I can try to address one piece of the puzzle: mobile as an advertising medium.

Mobile ad media today bears a lot of similarities to online advertising in the early days. It’s mostly banner and text placements, but with no third-party ad serving and no cookies. Rich media is beginning to show up on the mobile Web, with expanding ads being offered by a few publishers and third parties. But mobile also has its fair share of differences from the PC Web: it’s a smaller screen, and the user typically has no keyboard or mouse. CPMs (define) and CTRs (define) tend to be higher, as well.

Multiple categories of inventory exist, and each inventory type is typically consumed at different times of the day and by consumers who may be in very different mindsets from one type of inventory to the other. So it’s important to understand the full context of the medium. Through a careful analysis of consumer behavior in these various segments, a marketer can begin to draw conclusions about what is most appropriate for certain objectives. Here’s one way to break down the available inventory down.

SMS/Text Messaging

Text is the lowest common denominator in mobile marketing. It’s supported by nearly all recent phones and the vast majority of U.S. mobile subscribers use text messaging. Publishers such as,, and MTV offer opt-in SMS (define) alerts, providing a consumer with immediate, on-the-go access to content of interest.

The advertising opportunity is typically a very short text ad with one of several calls to action: (1) click to visit mobile Web site, (2) click to call, or (3) reply with keyword to opt in to alerts from the advertiser.

The medium’s nature brings with it a sense of urgency and immediacy. It’s also a more intimate connection, and the immediacy and intimacy can create active engagement. But the key is to keep the ask short (and the value sweet), and let the consumer choose when and how to continue the engagement.

Mobile Display Ads, On-Deck

“On-deck” refers to the carriers’ mobile Web portals, which are the primary access point for many mobile Web consumers, especially those not using smartphones. It tends to be consumed as a gateway or starting point. Consumers may be equally likely to seek out content or to engage with advertising, especially if they’re using the mobile Web to kill time while standing in line at the coffee shop, for example. It’s as if you’re connecting with consumers right as they sit down on the computer and pull up their preferred start page.

The other key benefit to on-deck advertising is that many carriers offer the ability to target against known (but anonymous) subscriber information, such as age, gender, or household income. This targeting is typically available across any inventory on the carrier’s deck.

Mobile Display Ads, Off-Deck

Carriers tend to make it difficult to surf the mobile Web outside of their own deck. They like to keep consumers locked in to their walled gardens of content so they can derive as much advertising revenue as possible and control the consumer experience with more standardization than you might find outside of their portals. But more sophisticated feature phone users and nearly all smartphone users tend to go beyond the carrier deck to find their own preferred mobile Web sites.

Once in the off-deck world, targeting will vary based on individual publishers’ capabilities. A consumer has specifically sought out off-deck content and is less likely to be in surfing mode. As a result, marketers may need to try harder to break through and create a connection to these consumers. That said, many off-deck publishers are doing a great job of making connections in this space by being clear that the content is free because the advertiser is there. Some publishers are even going beyond mobile banners and providing more unique ways to integrate the advertiser into mobile content, such as building custom tools and offering content sponsored exclusively by the brand and designed to reflect and evoke brand attributes.

Mobile Applications

Everyone wants a branded iPhone app. The hype is deafening. And yet the debate rages on as to whether this is a sound marketing strategy or a pointless pursuit of shiny objects. I’ll steer clear of that today and instead address the other side of mobile applications: buying ad placements within existing apps.

There is a high perceived value to this inventory; the consumer has gone to the trouble of downloading and installing the application and it now resides on arguably her most important, intimate device. Most applications are heavy on either entertainment or utility, and marketers might therefore fall victim to the app’s singular focus. That is, in a media environment where the consumer has gone with a specific purpose (e.g., to watch a video or to look up a statistic), it can be difficult to get attention. We’ve seen this occasionally in the PC Web with categories like weather and sports. The best publishers in these categories do a great job of creating unique ad formats and a clear value exchange that helps the advertiser make the desired connection. But again, in this kind of environment, providing value is key to earning attention.

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