The long, slow roll-out of the Apple iAds program continues to be more impressive in theory than in execution. Personally, I am all-in with the general notion that immersive experiences on a smaller screen have greater impact than a stray animated box on a cluttered desktop screen. Handled well, a rich-media ad could offer the user an entertaining encounter with a brand. And given the many rumors and tales of Apple's obsessive micromanagement of the ad creative on these first efforts, it is staggering to me that they aren't better.
After seeing the underwhelming Dove and Nissan Leaf ads run relentlessly for weeks, we are starting to get new creative flowing into the system from Citi and AT&T. Both are serviceable without being especially engaging.
The visually involving AT&T spot promotes the company's data plans and WiFi coverage with a lot of animated arrows and embedded tools for checking hot spots and calculating your bandwidth needs. Fine.
Citi's iAd is the most elaborate production we have seen in the series. A scrolling street scene of stock small-business people and everyday consumers pulls off the amazing feat of looking and feeling like every bland print ad for a credit card company we have seen for decades. Tap on one of them to see their "story," although I still don't see the reason why the users wants to know their story. Videos ensue; links to the Citi app emerge. My head spins from the ad revolution I just experienced.
IAds notwithstanding, rich-media ads on phones have great promise -- especially for publishers who might be able to realize eCPMs that actually sustain their businesses. Earlier this week, in-game ad network Greystripe announced that one of its publishing partners, Mobility Ware, had generated $298,309 in ad revenue in June alone. One of its most popular game titles (and a personal favorite of mine), "Word Warp," was averaging $10,000 a day in July. MobilityWare runs 17 games in the Greystripe network. By way of example, Greystripe tells me that one MobilityWare title, "Solitaire Free," was getting a eCPM of $3.13 in June.
Greystripe has been ahead of the curve when it comes to mobile rich media. For a number of years it has been serving full page takeovers and embedded mini-site experiences in games. At intervals in the Boggle-like "Word Warp" game, for instance, a full-page ad will intercede between rounds.
Here, too, execution can be uneven. For a long while I was barraged by ads for Microsoft's Bing search app. The company says it uses frequency capping, but in my experience the Bing promotion felt relentless.
Also still a work in progress is the consistency of creative in rich-media ad networks. In some cases I might get a Greystripe unit for an auto maker that is relatively lush and clicks through to a deep mini-site. But I also get poorly resolved and badly illustrated app promos that can occupy a small square in the middle of a large black background.
I am not sure that Apple has solved this problem, either. In addition to the big brands, we now get banners in the iAd network from independent developers pushing their apps. These units can be just as unappealing as the typical online banner blast, and they simply click through to App Store product page. Again, the ad revolution escapes me.
According to Greystripe CEO Michael Chang, in "Word Warp" I am being targeted probably off of a survey that was inserted into the experience at some point in my use of Greystripe-enabled games. "We treat 'Word Warp' not as a specific app but as a user in our network we are targeting to," he tells me. MobilityWare's $300k a month take is not that exceptional. "There are others making equivalent amounts," he says.
If nothing else, iAds have effectively raised the profile of rich media on mobile. While technically competitive with Greystripe, "It has been a net positive because they have been evangelizing rich media and brand advertising," Chang says. Greystripe and other rich-media ad-technology providers now have the opportunity to position themselves as cross-platform solutions that reach well beyond Apple's platform. Greystripe claims 30 million monthly uniques on iOS and Android, as well as a legacy business in Java apps and mobile Web.
The other part of the pitch from Apple competitors involves creative workflow. Apart from Apple's control issues over creative, there is the issue of underlying technology. Chang says the Greystripe model can handle Flash and slips into the creative process most agencies are already using.
Alas, the coming of the smartphone and apps did not eliminate the compatibility and fragmentation problem that has plagued the mobile media market from its beginning. The smartphone universe may not have the hundreds of handset standards of years past, but the problem persists, says Chang. "It isn't any easier."
Even with a narrower target of seven or eight major platforms, ever-richer media executions, especially involving interactivity, complicate things. "No one platform simplifies or standardizes anything," Chang says. Android is spinning off into variants, new OSes are emerging in the coming months, and HTML5 isn't even settled. "Webkit is not standardized across all devices, and it is not clear what Windows Phone 7 will support," he says.
At last week's Mobile Insider Summit, Razorfish's Jeremy Lockhorn demonstrated a great range of creative that is out in the field right now. His own agency's JC Penney iAd looks more engaging than the few that preceded it because it lets the user play with things like clothing styles they might enjoy. Others in his presentation showed that some bright minds at the agency level are starting think about leveraging the tools the smartphone offers, like accelerometers, touch, camera and audio to create ads that involve the user rather than try only to dazzle her.
Unfortunately, the smart ads are few and far between. There aren't enough of them yet visible in enough places to accustom the mobile user to the idea that mobile advertising could and should be different from the spray and pray distribution tactics of the Web platform.
If Apple continues to underwhelm us with bland iAd executions, it leaves the door open for rival ad network and tech companies to impress us with their creative across a broader reach. The usual ad net problems persist: banner spam, uneven creative, lowest-common denominator technology, etc.
Generally, though, what I think is missing in most of the rich media on mobile is a willingness to entertain. The urgency to get the brand message across seems so strong that marketers forget to make the experience enjoyable. Almost all of these ads focus on leveraging rich media -- not rich conversations or exchanges of value with consumers.