Commentary

Mobile Video Advertising: The Awkward Teen Years

Newly gold-plated by Google, mobile network AdMob got us all thinking about mobile video advertising this week. The company announced a video ad unit that is promising more interactive bells, whistles and gee-whizzes than the content it is made to underwrite. Which is fine, I guess, if you can find advertisers willing to craft creative to fill these unique attributes.

For the time being, mobile video advertising is at that strange teen stage where it is starting to look like a recognizable grown-up. Smart/App phone technologies and 3G speeds are making the experience truly viable. Content is pouring into Sprint TV and most of the TV-fueled apps. Only a year ago, advertisers were hard to spot in all that fallow inventory. Now, honestly, there is probably too much mobile video advertising in the random sampling I took the other day. Like a teen, mobile video looks almost adult, until it opens its mouth. Then you realize it still has a long way to go and lots to figure out.

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The same malady that continues to plague the video Web, repurposed TV spots, is also commonplace on mobile. Actually I am not a knee-jerk enemy of repurposed TV ads. I think they can reinforce ads seen on other platforms and achieve something like a surround-sound effect. But the creative has to be really good, and it really works best when the digital ad iterates somehow on the TV experience.

Still, when it comes to reusing TV video, the results are sometimes worse on mobile than on the Web. Agencies should think two or three times before slapping their :15 spot in front of a clip. I saw one Smirnoff ad on AMC's iPhone app, and even with the great iPhone screen, the scenes were far too dim and flat to render passably. I am pretty sure the ad involved a bunch of youths on their way into some ancient underground sewer system. I heard from the ads that "the acoustics were amazing" -- but apparently no one thought to bring a light. Somebody please test this stuff! 

And while I am whining, we need to frequency-cap ad serving. AMC and TMZ's apps use the same Rhythm New Media network. I guess it s a good sign that the video engine here is selling so much of its inventory, but an ad on each and every clip? The content-to-ad ratio gets kicked into low single digits at some point. I understand that repurposing is a blight on Web video as well, but on mobile it gets excruciating. If a viewer is already familiar with the ad, then he knows precisely how long he will have to wait and wait to get to his content. My experience is that anything that already irritates us about the Web only gets amplified on mobile.

On the plus side, Rhythm still has the most adroit video player I have seen on mobile and this actually makes the video ads more palatable. Tap the "I" information button on the ad and you can go to a pop-up microsite but stay within the app. You can see the videos that are in queue so the engine always telegraphs what is coming next. Minimizing surprises is an often-overlooked mobile content value.

AdMob's new video ad units are not technically the first interactive video ads on the platform, since I have been interacting with Rhythm New Media's ads for a while. But AdMob is promising customizable action buttons and auto-play formats that can work as interstitials outside of the usual pre-roll contexts.

They directed me to the free version of the "Sheep Launcher" game, which loaded a spot for Windows 7 at launch. This is a rare case where the mobile video ad is superbly calibrated to the platform. The "Windows 7 Second Demos" are clever fast-talking spots that not only demo a feature of the new operating system but actually telegraph to the user how long this is going to take. You can skip the ad or click into an in-app browser with a fairly robust Microsoft landing page that also lets you play the other demo ads.

It's worth pointing out that it is the creative, not the technology, that makes this spot work so well. The platform enables and encourages creativity, as it should, but the technical capabilities are not going to make a 15-second pre-roll we already saw 20 times on TV any better. Of course the net positive effect of these ads is also killed after a few times loading the game, because so far as I can tell, the same ad runs every time I start the app. Ironically, the ad's landing page features three other 7-second ads in the series that aren't being rotated in.

Speaking of frequency capping... I had to drill deep within the AP Mobile back catalog of video to finally avoid the same Lincoln auto ad. The spot itself is short and visually interesting enough to maintain interest... the first three times in a row. At some point the ad has to become a deterrent to content.

As much as I appreciate the legitimate desire to monetize these costly investments in content and technology, I can only hope we will get to a better model than this. CBS Mobile, for instance, does its damnedest to balance ad length against the ubiquity of ads in front of every clip. But I don't think length and ad rotation is enough. In fact, I think the two of these combined can make mobile video feel more cacophonous. The net effect of clip/ad/clip/ad/clip/ad is a reticence to click again. The general absence of real targeting in mobile video ads is not surprising. But when you get a Samsung digital camera ad, a Lincoln spot, a hotel spot, a Visa spot, and a Microsoft Office spot in rapid succession between every one- to two-minute clip, the consumer has to start feeling flooded, not targeted. And at some point even the most uncritical mind starts doing the ad/content math.

To get back to my teen analogy. Every time my 17-year-old daughter drives up in her little red Honda and emerges confidently as if she has been driving all her life, I still get that weird parental disconnect from "my little girl." Mobile video ads have grown up almost as quickly, and in just the last few months we are seeing glimpses of what ad-supported video might look like. Then, of course, my daughter also plants herself on the couch, watches five hours of "SpongeBob" reruns she can recite by heart, leaves her shoes in just the spot where I can trip on them, and remains strangely allergic to putting her used dishes in the dishwasher. "Are there bats in this Maytag or something I don't know about?" I yell. For both my daughter and for mobile video ads, there is still some basic etiquette waiting to be learned.

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