Mobile Advertising

Mobile display is earning an increasing share of digital spend, yet mobile advertising is often still seen by marketers as challenging to execute. While I hesitate to reinforce this notion, there is some truth in it: The entire mobile ecosystem is still rapidly evolving and this provides both opportunities and challenges to marketers. Beyond the benefits realized today from successful mobile campaigns, it’s time to for all marketers to get comfortable working with mobile. The mobile audience is scaling quickly and it seems inevitable that mobile will play a strong role across many integrated campaigns in the near future.

Over the course of several posts, I’ll provide an overview of mobile display media formats, creative and the technologies that make it all go. Please note that I’m not addressing these formats from the perspective of audience size nor their efficacy as display media. That will have to be another series of articles and debate for another day.

Mobile Display Formats

For this first installment, I’ll focus on the prevailing mobile display formats. Mobile tech and content is always moving forward, creating new opportunities for brand impressions and actionable ads (read: still the wild west to some degree), so I am bound to miss some here.

Mobile Web Banners and Text Links

Mobile web banners and text links were among the first – and are still – among the most common forms of mobile advertising. Banner ads (sometimes with accompanying text links) are displayed on mobile web pages and are typically clickable. For the sake of this post, I will define mobile web (aka WAP) as content viewed through the phone’s browser (not though a native handset application).

Best practice is to create mobile-specific banners with a strong, simple call to action. Please take this seriously. Reusing banners from wired web campaigns is a recipe for failure. Your client’s logo may be microscopic and unrecognizable on a small mobile web banner. The Mobile Marketing Association has great documents that track the current typical banner sizes. Naturally, you should check with each of your publishers and networks to get their updated specs.

Text links on mobile web typically sit just below the banner, but are sometimes stand-alone. They are simply clickable text links that act like banners.

So what happens when a user clicks on a banner or a text link? There are several cool things that can happen. More often than not, if best practices are followed, a click links the user to a mobile website.

Mobile Web Sites – And Why You Need One

There are a variety of ways that a mobile user can arrive at a mobile web site (a.k.a. WAP site, mobile landing page, mobile microsite, etc.), but most typically this happens as a result of a user clicking on a mobile banner or text link as described above.

Mobile websites are a critical piece of a mobile marketing strategy for almost any brand. Most (wired) websites do not display properly on a mobile phone. And yes, this includes Iphone and Android phones. Without a mobile-optimized site, you not only risk a sub-par (and possibly very frustrating) user experience, but you also miss out on special specific opportunities such as click-to-call a phone number and share with a friend via text.

Additionally, mobile-specific search engines (including Google’s mobile search) will typically prioritize their search results, putting properly formatted mobile sites at the top of the list. From this perspective, any brand that depends on search is taking a risk by not having a mobile optimized site.

I’ve seen many mobile media sales reps discount the necessity of a mobile optimized site, especially when pitching a media buy to a brand that doesn’t have one yet. Even if you are only targeting smartphones, I believe that linking to a wired website is very shortsighted and destined to provide lackluster results.

Text-based SMS ads

Text based SMS (Short Messaging Service) ads appear within text messages sent to subscribers of newsletters and alerts. At the bottom of these short messages, the publisher inserts a text brand message. When written as a call to action, these can be clickable links, providing an opportunity to link to a mobile web site or invoke the click to call functionality of the handset.

MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) Ads

MMS ads, like SMS ads, are sent only to users that have opted in to receive them. Unlike SMS ads, MMS ads can include branding in the form of images, audio or video. I felt it was sensible to include MMS in this article to be comprehensive, but it is a bit off the topic of mobile display because, typically, a user has requested the ad content. As with other mobile formats, it is critical to understand the specs required by the provider before executing creative.

Mobile video

Initially, mobile video advertising was a passive low-tech experience for a tiny audience. Ads ran inline with video content and were not actionable (much like on broadcast TV).

Mobile video is now scaling along with other mobile media as smartphones and better carrier data plans have gained market share. Depending on the video platform, there are various opportunities for display ads. Some are passive (not actionable) as described above, yet more advance interactive ad units are becoming more common. These tend to be similar in function to those used on web-based video players, allowing users to click buttons on overlays, video player frames, etc. On a mobile device, these actionable ads can be more powerful when they leverage click to call, share with a friend via SMS, etc.

Mobile Applications and In-App ad units

Native mobile applications have been a prime driver of the recent growth in mobile content and advertising and have created a variety of new opportunities for marketers. Before I discuss the type of ad units that exist within mobile applications, let’s look at mobile applications themselves.

Well-developed mobile applications can offer a better user experience and increased functionality compared with mobile web experiences. Developers have much more refined control over the look and feel of the application and can also access features that are native to the phone. These include interaction with the users address book (to make it easy to share content), access to the phone’s camera, accelerometer, GPS, etc. Typically, these tools cannot be accessed through the mobile browser but with the advent of HTML 5 and updated browsers, this will soon change, allowing the browser to access more of the phone’s internal features.

Let’s now take a look at the display advertising opportunities with mobile applications:

Branded Applications

These don’t need much explanation at this point. The brand creates a mobile application that (ideally) supports the brand’s goals and offers some level of utility, entertainment, information or incentives. We can certainly go deeper on this subject, but it is likely better addressed as a separate subject.

Sponsored Applications

Usually, this means a brand “owns” the app for some period of time and has some “run of site” opportunity. The format of those brand messages is usually customized in some way for the sponsor. Some of the possible formats are described below. A sponsor may also get rights to brand the application, for example “The Brand X Tip Calculator” application.

In-App ad units

Many media companies are now creating mobile applications and tablet applications to distribute their content. Some of these are offered by paid subscription, but many more are free-to-consumer ad-supported applications.

Banners – Much like the mobile web, banners are the most common form of advertising within mobile applications. Within an application, a click on a banner can create a variety of interactions, but the most common are:

User clicks the banner and the application launches the native browser on the phone and displays a mobile web site

User clicks the banner and the application launched its own internal browser and displays a mobile web site within the application. This is a superior user experience as it easily returns the user to the application after they have interacted with the ad unit.

User clicks the banner that initiates a phone call or text message.

Rich media ad units – Mobile rich media ad units are very flexible and are usually customized for the advertiser.

Several companies have emerged that are creating portfolios of mobile rich media ad units that operate within mobile applications. Expanding canvases, fixed position/persistent banners and location aware ads are quickly getting traction across mobile and tablet applications. There are exciting creative possibilities with rich media ads due to refined user experience. These units often click through to video or what I’ll call “mini applications” within applications.

These ad units typically require some integration of an SDK at the publisher or network level. Ask your media salesperson what’s possible.

Integrated ads (in game placements, etc.) – In game ad placement is already common in mobile, yet these ads are usually static advertisements and are not clickable. That said, there are ways to reach mobile gamers via networks that specialize in gaming properties. A gamer may see a brand message alongside the game window, between game levels, etc. Some of these ad units are interactive.

Interstitials – An interstitial or “splash page” is simply a branded message that is displayed while an application is first loading or when the user requests a new page. Interstitials can be static or clickable.

As always, it is critical to check with the publisher or network to fully understand capabilities and ad specs.

In-call audio advertising

In the interest of being comprehensive, I should also cover in-call audio advertising. This is sometimes overlooked as a “mobile display medium” despite the fact that it’s been around longer than most other forms of mobile advertising.

These audio ads are heard by consumers while on hold at call centers, while calling free directory services, content services, etc. One example is present a competitive offer to a consumer who looks up something in the directory. The consumer asks for Joe’s Pizza, but is offered a chance to get a coupon from Jack’s Pizza. IVR systems (Interactive Voice Response) are often used to create interactive ads for the brand. This allows for calls to action such as “Press 1 for more info,” “Say yes or press 1 to get a text message sent to your phone,” etc.

I’ve listed resources below for further information that may be helpful when planning a mobile campaign. In future posts, I’ll discuss mobile ad creative and ideation and the various technologies in use across the mobile publisher and advertising universe. In the mean time, I urge you to jump in and get your feet wet in mobile. It’s not going away, but it’s moving fast.


The Mobile Marketing Association has a variety of great publications and case studies on their site.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau also has a variety of publications including a Mobile Buyers Guide and a guide to Prevailing Mobile In-Application Advertising Formats