Mobile Banner Ads Do (Sort Of) Work! The Professors Say So!

by , Dec 5, 2013, 8:31 AM
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The standard online display banner ad finally can breathe a sigh of relief. It now has another ad unit that is even lower on the totem pole of ad industry respect -- a mobile banner. In addition to their purported invisibility on small screens, they are derided as microscopic, poorly repurposed versions of already disliked Web formats. And worse, they are often portrayed as clicked only by fumbling fingers. And of course, every rich media platform beats up on mobile display regularly.

The lowly mobile banner ad gets at least a backhanded compliment from three academics writing recently in the Harvard Business Review. Professors from the University of Pittsburgh school of business, Insead and Columbia Business School tried to dispel the conventional wisdom that mobile ads don't work by surveying market research on 54 display ads from 2007 to 2010 and their impact on nearly 40,000 U.S. consumers.

First things first -- and before we can get to the results. We are talking about only 54 ads and responses taken even before smartphones have penetrated early adopters. So before bloggers start passing this one around as if it's the new gospel, consider the data on which it is based.

What these researchers found, regardless of the limitations on the data itself, still bears some discussion. They found that mobile banner ads had no effect on consumer attitudes or intent to purchase when they involve items that are bought mainly for pleasure or “hedonic” reasons and those that had very low involvement. In the pleasure product category we get things like beer, candy, movie tickets and coffee among those low-involvement products that don’t require much thought or investment. These were the ones that seemed to register least well through mobile banner ads. Apparently, ads for pleasurable products that involved higher consideration such as sports cars, designer clothing and jewelry had somewhat better impact, but were still low.

Useful products seemed to fare better than pleasurable ones -- so toothpaste, groceries, socks and even a smartphone case move the needle better than cheap pleasurable objects. On the other hand, products that were deemed utilitarian with high-involvement like life insurance, furniture, gym memberships and brokerage services actually produced the best increases. In these cases the researchers found that consumers who saw these ads had an increased positive attitude of 4.5% and an increased purchase intent of 6.7%.

Put aside for a second the obvious argument that we all know that there have been mobile display campaigns that likely have moved the brand and purchase intent needles across any of these categories. The researchers do propose an interesting hypothesis that may be true whether or not the data is wholly reliable. They believe that mobile ads work better with high-involvement items because they are triggering an existing base of knowledge in the user.

They write: “We believe that mobile display ads, even though they convey little information, can cue consumers to revisit facts they already possess. That's why these ads are more effective for high-involvement goods: If a product is relevant to them, people are more likely to have retained—and be motivated to recall—information about it. And psychological research has shown that the higher people's involvement, the more likely they are to process information cognitively (rather than emotionally) -- a method better suited to the decision to buy utilitarian products.”

There is a sound idea somewhere in here about mobile advertising having a reiterative function in the user's path to purchase. It would be nice to have data that was a lot more recent and comprehensive before we make any sweeping judgments about mobile ad impact. From what I can tell from the original academic paper on which this article is based, the post-campaign studies involved mostly mobile Web ads being targeted by the general ad networks available at the time. Again, both the inventory and the targeting methods available at scale in the 2007-2010 time frame seem to me not representative of the mobile ad environment now.

Still, their arguments point toward thinking harder about that very complex process whereby consumers are in a multiscreen tango dancing toward a purchase. Personally, I don't believe that genuinely visible ads on a page are really truly invisible to the user except when they are nullified by clutter. I think it is just really hard to account for the role that persistent digital presence has on the user's brand consciousness.

But it is quite possible that some ad placements like mobile are not there to impart information so much as to recall information gathered elsewhere. That makes their function no less important to the process of accompanying a consumer toward the purchase. But it does suggest how important integrated campaigns are where the creative is aimed at different modes on different screens.

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