The Return Of The CTR: Clicking On Mobile

Word is abroad that the relatively few mobile ad campaigns now running on WAP pages enjoy click-through rates that Web banner ads haven't experienced since the days of insufferable IPO hype--and, well, equally insufferable sock puppet Super Bowl ads.

"Click-through rates have been very high, a 4.5 percent network average over the last twelve months," says Ton Burgess, CEO of Third Screen Media, which is among the only WAP ad networks available. People involved in some of these early banner and badge placements on mobile browser pages confirm Burgess' claim. Mobile CTRs, at least for now, are multiples higher than current Web metrics.

A campaign for the "Veronica Mars" series on UPN got an 8 percent click rate from people enticed by downloads and show time reminders. "What we're hearing from the industry is that the click rates are much, much higher than they are on other platforms," agrees Louis Gump, vice president for mobile, The Weather Channel. Weather.com ran its first static, non-clickable WAP campaign for American Express late last year and will start interactive units this month. A mobile banner campaign for a major travel sponsor flies this month.

This is all kind of eerie to me. The basic browsing experience on most phones is so painfully slow that I think twice and thrice before clicking into a compelling story headline--let alone take a chance on clicking into who knows where on an ad banner. On my EV-DO phones, sure, I'll give it a try, but otherwise that offer had better be good. For all of its technical advances, WAP is still an adventure, not an interface; you never know what missing link error or mutant page format is going to pop up, and that comes only if your phone browser doesn't timeout first. I have test phones from all of the major carriers, and I know from daily comparative experience that for data access Cingular's standard network sucks, Sprint's sucks a bit less, and Verizon's is passable. EV-DO access on both Sprint and Verizon are wholly different, much better, experiences, but the latest research estimates I have seen peg 3G subscribers in the U.S. at about half a million in 2005.

But people (not me) are clicking on WAP ads already. Why? The obvious first answer involves novelty. There was a time when Web banners hovered at 25 percent click-through rates. Okay, that golden age of CTRs may have lasted a week, until Web ads became ubiquitous and ultimately invisible. Will mobile banners go the same route and start to recede into the periphery of our vision? Maybe not. According to Burgess, the rates have not changed much in the last year at least. "We are not seeing the saturation effect we would expect to see," he says. CPMs for targeted buys have stayed fairly steady as well, at $40-$45, he says, with high volume network buys at about $20.

But I expect mobile CTRs actually could stay higher than Web counterparts, largely because WAP ads aren't really Web counter-parts. After all, relative to most Web pages, a mobile screen may be small, but it offers an uncluttered ad environment. Unless the publisher is an opportunistic moron (okay, there will be some of those), your ad should be the only one on a page. You own that screen as its sole sponsor, and that has a powerful effect. In all of the WAP banners I have seen, the brand is unmistakable, and I almost always read the copy. How rare is that in any Web page?

Very little is invisible on a phone screen. The unique visibility of advertising on phones is actually an invitation for greater subtlety and creativity in messaging, since copy writers don't have to bounce balls across the screen to get our attention. Burgess tells me even the blandest ads can be effective on this terrain if placed and pitched just right. A nondescript, unbranded Nextel ad ran last year on its own network to promote fee-based downloads. A fan of cards simply invited users to "Get Dealt In Here." Not only did 6 percent of viewers click through, but 53 percent of those went on to buy the mobile game the ad was selling, according to ThirdScreen. "It blew me away," says Burgess.

ThirdScreen just rolled out its upgraded mobile ad server, dubbed MADX. Ultimately, it will let publishers, carriers and advertisers access the mobile network and fly campaigns against demographics, day parts and even specific devices. It remains to be seen just how much targeting goes on here. It is an open question how much user data carriers will share with ad networks. Regardless, even in these early days, the mobile banner offers a unique creative challenge that I am eager to see play out. How do you issue a call to action, a meaningful message, on a postage stamp? Here is a platform so small that it is actually highly visible. Just being there may be enough.