Commentary

Why Mobile Ads Are Like Toilets

They say that desperate times require desperate measures. For me, moderating the OMMA 5 p.m. panel on a Friday night at SXSW was one of those times. After all, we were the only thing standing between these folks and an evening of revelry, not to mention the topic at hand was mobile advertising, not exactly the sexiest of subjects offered in Austin that week. Under these trying circumstances, I offered the crowd -- and now you -- seven reasons why mobile ads are like toilets.       

Flushing out this analogy was not quite as inappropriate as it sounds at first blush. After all, mobile ads have been the backwater of our industry for as many years as pundits like me have predicted this would be the Year of Mobile only to be disappointed. Even now, with $18 billion in global ad dollars running through portable devices in 2013, mobile is still not getting the love and attention it deserves -- and here’s why:

#1 Invisible ubiquity. Like bathrooms, we know mobile ads are there, but we tend not to take notice of them unless they really stink or they are just good enough to get us to interact. Seriously, when was the last time a friend said, “Wow, I just saw this amazing mobile ad!” or “Quick, you gotta see this.”

#2 Don’t always work. Despite their growing popularity, mobile ads don’t always work. As fellow panelist, Webster Lewin (former SVP Mobile for Starcom MediaVest), noted, “I can't even begin to tell you how many mobile campaigns I see that don't work the way they should.” Lewin blames this mainly on a lack of creativity and relevancy while noting that poor back-end integration is also a culprit.                 

#3 Hidden complications. There are a lot of hidden moving parts in good ol’ potties -- valves, pipes, levers, etc. Of course, mobile is enormously complicated given the opportunity to incorporate click to call, voice activation, SMS, ecommerce, and Beacon. And that doesn’t even cover all of the different types of ad units, networks or the increased use of programmatic.

 #4 Dependencies. With toilets, of course, you need water, and god forbid there’s no TP. Mobile ads without mobile-friendly Web sites to send people to or ready call centers when you integrate “click to call” just deliver a really poor experience. Explains Lewin: “When the experience from start to finish isn't fully planned out and tested on mobile, things inevitably fall apart.” 

#5 Location matters. When you gotta go, you gotta go, and the conversation quickly moves to proximity. Proximity for mobile is one of its true superpowers -- you’re out and about when the need for a restaurant or a Citibike or a speechwriter hits, and suddenly a mobile ad isn’t an annoyance, it’s your best friend, delivering you the information you need right when you need it. 

#6 The all-important flick. Turns out, toilets and mobile share an all-important flick. For mobile devices, this flick usually happens in six seconds or less as the user impatiently scrolls through their content. That doesn’t give mobile marketers a lot of time to engage, so planning around the flick is critical; if it takes too long to engage your audience, that opportunity simply goes down the drain.

#7 About the downloads. No conversation about mobile advertising can end without talking about apps, given the 100 billion or so that will be downloaded in 2014. That’s a lot of apps and a lot of advertising opportunities. But my point here isn’t just about apps, it’s about the fact that mobile ads done right are perhaps the single most interactive medium ever created, and distinguishing between apps and ads is often irrelevant.

I’ll wrap things up with my favorite case in point: the Sit or Squat app created by P&G’s Pampers back in 2012. This app helps you find a toilet (clean or otherwise) anywhere in the country and includes over 170,000 crowdsourced reviews of bathrooms from coast to coast. Far more than just a portable ad for toilet tissue, this app represents the ultimate promise of mobile, unloading useful content at just the right time and place.

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4 comments about "Why Mobile Ads Are Like Toilets".
  1. Tom Baer from TBI , March 25, 2014 at 12:28 p.m.
    This may be the dumbest article I ever read. First of all the term is "fleshing out," not "flushing out," so the whole idea likely came from a misguided premise the author thought was clever. As for "invisible ubiquity," you don't notice toilets "when they stink or when they are just good enough to get us to interact" you notice them when you need one -- which would be a more appropriate similarity to a mobile ad if the author had really thought about it. Also, toilets are about the simplest machines around...not complex at all, and as for downloads, what you are "downloading" into a toilet you want to go away, what you download onto a mobile device you are taking in. Talk about a load of...poop!
  2. Anni Paul from BoscoSystems , March 26, 2014 at 1:07 a.m.
    Sorry, Drew, but this is an absurd article. And it makes me wonder if you actually understand mobile advertising. Look at what Airpush and Millennial Media alone have been able to accomplish in the last two years. Record earnings for developers and profits for themselves while delivering kick ass ROI for pretty much every advertiser that touched these ad networks and many others. There's very little that's flushable about this industry.
  3. Drew Neisser from Renegade , March 27, 2014 at 8:17 a.m.
    Thanks for your comments Tom and Anni. Admittedly the toilet analogy was strained but I do know the difference between fleshing and flushing and was just taking a bit of literary license! That said, I'm reminded of Harry Truman's response to a critical review after his daughter Margaret's signing debut at Carnegie Hall. Truman wrote, "I am in the smallest room of my house. I have your review in front of me. Now it is behind me."
  4. Tom Cramer from Razorfish , March 27, 2014 at 10:35 p.m.
    Come on, Drew. As a former Dentsu colleague, I'd have expected more. There's probably higher value in taking a constructive approach on what works, or if you're going for base humor at least be funny.