(Re)Defining Mobile

Working in the IAB’s Mobile Marketing Center of Excellence has been an amazing experience. We are helping to shape the media industry at a crucial time; we work with fantastic members; and there is always something new to learn. But it’s not without its share of headaches. Ironically enough, one of them comes from what is seemingly the easiest question we get asked: “What is mobile?”

“Mobile” means different things to different constituencies. Some opt for a device-centric approach: mobile is smartphones and maybe tablets, and maybe netbooks or e-readers, or not. Some think connectivity, as in, “It’s mobile if it connects via 3G or 4G.” Still others focus on operating systems or ad formats, or just paraphrase the old Supreme Court pornography definition: “Mobile: I know it when I see it.” The Mobile Center opted to take a human-centric approach to defining mobile. Mobile is how people live their lives in a busy, hectic, always-on-the-go world.

Next week’s IAB Cross-Screen Content & Consumers: AfterFronts conference will embrace this definition of mobility, and confront the associated media challenges head-on. For anyone trying to reach an audience with a story or message, the implications are huge. More and more devices are connected: everything from car dashboards to bicycles to toys to even bulky non-portable things like refrigerators and TVs are becoming, in some sense, “mobile devices.” And all ad campaigns are mobile.

For example, consider the growing “backup GIF” problem in desktop ad serving – metrics for desktop rich media ad campaigns show increasing percentages of viewers who didn’t see the beautiful Flash creative that the agency worked so hard on, but rather the backup GIF – the static image only meant to be seen in situations where the rich media creative couldn’t be served or didn’t work. Just a few years ago, those situations were rare. But now, with consumers browsing on phones and tablets, backup GIFs as a share of ad impressions are becoming a bone of contention between agencies and ad servers.

“Traditional media” is mobile, too. While the hype around 2D barcode technologies like QR codes has waxed and waned, all image-based print and outdoor advertising is fair game for being photographed and instantly shared, commented on, and critiqued by the mobile audience. Mobile is also the common interactive channel for TV advertising. For example, Google research suggests that 17 percent of smartphone searches are inspired by TV commercials. While we generally think about consumers using their phones and tablets to distract themselves from commercials, mobile can and does enable immediate consumer interaction.

The IAB’s human-centric approach to defining mobility is more than just words: as media companies and technology vendors get pulled in this direction it has a distinct impact on how we think about industry best practices as well. For example, “mobile” standards are beginning to find their way into “non-mobile” environments. Crisp Media is developing software for delivering rich ads on smart TVs that will use the IAB’s MRAID specification. And although Adobe’s Flash still dominates PC-based rich media ads, there is a growing interest in using HTML5 to build rich media creative on desktops – a trend accelerated because HTML5 is required for most rich media on smartphones and tablets.

If the distinction between “mobile” and “non-mobile” is increasingly meaningless in our always-mobile, converged world, it raises the question of how to parse digital media into manageable sub-areas. For example, screen size will always impact opportunities. More subtly, perhaps user interface is the key, as paradigms for usability around touch, mouse, and remote control won’t converge even as the content that feeds into the various screens does. Another framework focuses on location – in the in-home, out-of-home sense, not the latitude-longitude sense. I may be the same consumer with the same Samsung Galaxy S4, but my mindset and the kinds of ad experiences I’m open to differ greatly depending on whether I’m on my sofa, at my desk at work, or somewhere in between.

Advertising has always been about delivering the right message to the right person in the right place at the right time. Mobile, by any definition, doesn’t change that. But now the right person could be anyone, the right time and place could be anytime and anywhere. That’s the implication of the human-centric view of mobile.

Image on home page via Shutterstock.

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