Tablets and Advertising: A Revolution in the Making

On May 17 of this year, Forrester Research published a report with the title “What the Post-PC Era Really Means,” authored (primarily) by Sarah Rotman Epps. The title caught my eye because it offered up two big challenges to me, the reader and interactive-marketing practitioner. First, we are either in, or about to enter, a brand new era that is described not so much by what it is going to be, but rather by what it is leaving behind (the “PC” in “Post-PC” being the bit of technology thrown into the gaping dustbin of computing history). Second, even though we are barely in this new era (if we’re in it at all), evidently we, collectively, are confused about what it all really means.

Naturally, I find these sorts of challenges challenging. I work with clients every day, and every day I counsel them to be sure not to get too sucked into the flash of new technology and to instead stay focused on their core business goals. Then, and only then, can they be sure that they are using technology appropriately. “Back off, Forrester!” I was prepared to tweet. “You don’t know me!” I would post. “You’re not my dad!” I would…um…call my island in Second Life.

Luckily, May 17 was a Tuesday, and every Tuesday I take double my normal dosage of Chill Pills, so I actually did none of that and simply read the report. It’s really good. If you are a subscriber, I highly recommend downloading it here. The heart of it all is a definition of what it actually means by the “Post-PC Era”: “a social and technological phenomenon in which computing experiences become ubiquitous, casual, intimate, and physical.” Although Forrester breaks a clear rule of definitions in that they should be limiting and not invite too many new questions (“intimate”?), this is a handy checklist of what we should expect people will do with devices that are online, have computing power, but are – somehow – not computers as we have come to know them. We’re talking, of course, about smartphones, dedicated devices like GPS systems, and the big one: tablets.

Tablets are breakthrough devices. You can see that in the way that people have adopted them into their daily lives. Their deep functionality and highly attractive form (plus the cool quotient of simply being seen with one) have made tablets a normal element in many backpacks, briefcases, and fancy purses, and with good reason: according to Forrester, 70 percent of iPad owners agree with the statement that “technology helps me get the most out of my work and personal life.” With the iPad and the many other tablet offerings, we are finally seeing the transition of computing ability away from being a distinct activity (“I’m going to the living room to surf the web”) to simply being a thing we can do whenever, wherever, and whyever* we want. (*Not really a word.)

Two Big Tablet Revolutions for Advertising

For advertisers, I see at least two big revolutions being kicked off by the growth of tablets: one creative and the other strategic. Let’s start with creative.

Technology has consistently given the artists bigger and bigger tool sets with which they can build out and represent their ideas. The Internet itself was a significant new bit of ability delivered to the creative geniuses, enabling a real interaction with an advertisement for the first time. (Historical note: ads that people could do things with, like turn into a book cover, have been around for a long time, but never an ad that responded and changed the way even the simplest banner could.) Next came broadband and the chance to create rich video and even deeper interactivity. Now, in the post-PC era, we have devices that can do all sorts of things such as respond to voice commands, change based on their orientation in the world, and directly interact with touch. Ads built specifically for mobile and tablet devices will clearly spark a new generation of creativity that will produce some absolutely amazing new things. The Great Google itself is planning for what it has called the “second phase of the display ad revolution,” and has reportedly put 1,000 developers against the emerging tablet and mobile channel.

The other revolution is strategic. Clearly, as a part of what the post-PC era really means, we should be ready to think a bit differently – not about our business goals, but how we can connect with consumers to achieve these goals. I am convinced that we will begin to see a new category of advertising opportunities that not only take advantage of the tech-in-the-tablet, but also are what we can probably best describe as “situation-aware applications.” This is the next step past “location-aware applications” (such as Foursquare and Google Maps) that know where you are. Situation-aware applications will know what you are and what is going on around you. Right now, checking in on Foursquare at AT&T Park in the middle of a winter’s night is not really any different from checking in during opening day of the Giants season. As more people are enabled with highly powerful devices that tap into lots of living data, checking in is going to create a different experience of being online.

This shift to situation-aware applications is going to change advertising at a strategic level because it will open up a world of new opportunities to be relevant with messages and offers, all of which will take advantage of the unique qualities of the tablet device.

Maybe when we get to this point, blending creative abilities with strategic insight, we will in fact get to a place where we are finally tuned in to what this new era does, in fact, really mean.


This column was originally published in SES Magazine July 2011.

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