Getting “beyond the banner” appears to be a growing refrain these days among the mobilistas with whom I speak, especially on the publishing side. Frustration over the mobile ad inventory glut seems rife. I also hear promises not to let the same commoditization of premium properties occur on mobile the way it did on the Web.
We’ll see. That is pretty much the story I was writing about the Web in 2001, too -- and we are still seeing content providers wrestling with the same issues of banner and network effectiveness.
AOL says it is trying to take some of the same principles it has been espousing of late on the desktop onto its mobile ad creative and sales strategy. Tim Armstrong has been touting the importance of the high-impact ad unit, and the company’s head of mobile monetization, Trent Herren, tells me the same idea informs the mobile plan. In addition to rolling out mobile- and tablet-optimized versions of the key AOL properties in the next year, the company has been seeing heavy usage on devices to big destinations like Huffington Post, Engadget and TechCrunch.
The news digest/magazine for iPad it introduced last year, Editions, hosted a BMW 3D ad unit late last year that Herren holds up as a model of tablet advertising moving forward. In partnership with CoolIris, the unit allowed for a full 360 view of a car model that even zooms to expose layers of the construction. “We have high-quality 3D ads and full-page interstitials,” he says. One of the interesting lessons here is that a sparing but high-impact use of ads could work because of the high levels of engagement within this curated app format. The return rate is encouraging –- up to three or four times a week. “On tablets our thing is to do interstitials -– serve fewer and higher-quality ads. That is the way to go.”
But Herren says AOL is also seeing an interesting effect in the curated weekly Distro app from Engadget. Here the tech news and review blog formats about a dozen of its best recent stories into something closer to a magazine-like experience. AOL finds that while traffic to the Engadget site from mobile and tablet browsers is extremely high (sometimes higher than the traffic from the desktop), the time spent with the same brand in this different app design is much higher. “We are seeing this as a lean-back/lean-in platform,” Herren says. “This is a great place for advertisers.” In fact, he says that in tablet iterations of core properties like Engadget, HuffPo, and Moviefone, advertisers appear to be very eager to enter the tablet medium.
In tablets, rich-media interstitials can feel like content. In fact, one executive at a major magazine publisher told me recently that his company's studies showed readers actually liked the digital editions with more ads. On smartphones, however, the context and user mode may be different. Herren says AOL recognizes this and is “going slow” in implementing an ad strategy into mobile Web and apps. “In some ways rich media can be great, and in some ways it can be too much. We are in an experimental stage. We don’t want to put a lot of ads in that make our users unhappy.”
But the rich-media explosion on mobile is adding a new challenge to publishers: reorienting their staffs to manage it. “We have been working on the desktop for 20 years, but in short order we need rich-media specialists for mobile so that we can create a seamless experience for sales tams and the advertiser,” Herren says. “On the desktop we had 20 certified rich media vendors –- on tablets, about five or six.” Tablet advertising is creating cross-media challenges and raising concerns over things like download sizes. “When you add a 10-MB ad, it has to be a seamless download size. It is a bigger deal here,” he says.
No kidding. Have you waited for that weekly issue of The New Yorker on a tablet? This was a problem I had in early versions of AOL’s Editions, too. The latest builds seem to have alleviated some of this lag by letting the user drop into the experience as the content downloads in the background.
But there is good reason to invest time and effort in tablet-optimized experiences. Herren tells me the combined traffic from mobile and tablet devices to Engadget and TechCrunch sites is often outstripping the traffic AOL sees from desktop browsers. Prime time is fast becoming tablet-time.
Today AOL has launched its news and much improved tablet-optimized version of the main portal home page. Among the big three old-school portals -- AOL, Yahoo and MSN -- it is far and away the most fully realized retooling of a major Web site for the tablet I have seen. Converted to a series of swipeable windows into categories of content, it integrates touch engagement fully. Check it out tonight during "The Daily Show." Jon Stewart won’t mind.