Mobile Advertising: When is it Too Much?
Test and Monitor | Posted August 09, 2013

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, our lives have become increasingly saturated by the mobile Web – a fact that hasn’t been lost on advertisers eager to engage with new audiences. Recent statistics show that mobile ad spends are soaring and a quick visit to any number of popular mobile sites or apps is sure to yield at least one slick new display ad tempting you to explore some product or service you can’t live without. In short, advertisers are finally starting to leverage the unique characteristics of mobile devices in order to deliver their messaging in compelling, sometimes annoying, new ways.

The untapped creative potential of the mobile Web has clearly emboldened advertisers to push the limits of design in order to develop new ways of connecting and interacting with audiences – and they’re willing to pay for the opportunity to do so. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, global mobile advertising revenue skyrocketed to $8.9 billion last year. To provide a little context, that’s an 82.8% increase over the 2011 number of $5.3 billion. While strong growth was present across all categories of mobile advertising, display advertising in particular showed an 87.3% increase over 2011 - accounting for 38.7% of total revenue in a market traditionally dominated by search advertising. This is especially important given that display advertising has the potential to truly transform the mobile user experience.

There are a number of cases that show just how bullish advertisers have become with regards to pushing mobile engagement – maybe none more exemplary than the Showtime Network purchasing every available ad slot in the Sunday, June 30th iPad edition of the New York Times. Throughout the day app subscribers were served a series of 26 unique advertisements, all videos, promoting the cable channel’s new series ‘Ray Donovan.’ Videos were embedded on pages, playing through without sound to catch users attention as they navigated through their Sunday paper – with some videos taking over the entire screen at times. Tapping on an ad brought up options to learn more about the series and characters while watching a video in its entirety gave viewers the opportunity to download the first episode and trailer song for free via iTunes.

Here’s a video on the campaign created by Medialets – the agency who put it all together:

While a novel approach, it comes across as equal parts innovative and reckless– innovative with regards to Showtime and somewhat reckless with regards to the New York Times. Showtime found a surefire way to couple their ads with content that would be consumed by an engaged audience - reading the Sunday Times is a staple for thousands of subscribers every weekend – and that’s the problem. The people served these ads pay about $20 a month for the right to read the New York Times on their iPads. I’m not sure videos of a stone faced Liev Schreiber is what they wanted to see while trying to read the business section of their bought-and-paid-for digital Sunday Times.

In a pay-for-content subscription model, it’s not unreasonable for consumers to expect the paid version of a service to provide a better, uninterrupted user experience than what’s offered for free. For example, the streaming music app Songza recently implemented gateway ads requiring free users to type in a particular advertiser’s slogan before music can be played. I’ll admit, that as someone who uses the app regularly in the car it was annoying - but it seemed like a reasonable request by the application in return for the free service it provides. It also prompted me to look into buying the ad-free version of the service.

In the case of the New York Times, their users are already paying. I know somewhere someone is now making the argument that the quality of the content in this situation is enough to justify asking paid subscribers to tolerate what some may consider invasive and distracting advertising practices – but it’s a moot point if it ends up driving users away from the application. Regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, it’s pretty clear that this type of mobile advertising poses, at the very least, the risk of negatively impacting the user experience and warrants watching.

Going forward it should be interesting to see how businesses offering paid mobile services and content strike a balance between the revenue mobile advertising represents and its possible affect on the mobile user experience – especially in a world where endless content alternatives can be found in a couple taps of a touchscreen. At some point even powerhouses can alienate their subscribers; in-product advertising that compromises the user’s experience of the actual product seems like a good way to start. As for the future of mobile advertising – it won’t be surprising to see mobile ads equally competing with content for users’ attention in the years to come. Studies are already suggesting that mobile devices are eroding our attention spans – something discerning advertisers will no doubt look to exploit as the mobile Web continues to mature.

Do you think this style of Mobile Advertising is productive, or too likely to create negative customer experiences?  Is it a necessary evil?  Where is the line between too little and too much?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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