How To Make Mobile Ads Better (Hint: Don't Start With The Design!)

A few weeks ago, Adweek brightened my morning with a banner headline: “Do Mobile Ads Still Suck?”

As one of the world’s few ECDs focused exclusively on mobile, I took it personally. I spit out my coffee and shook my fist in rage…and ultimately conceded that yes, many mobile ads do still suck.

Why is that?

First, most ads suck, period. Any ad, in any medium. You don’t believe me? Turn on your TV. This doesn’t excuse mobile, but it does provide context.

Second, most mobile ads that you see were not lovingly designed for mobile devices. The typical mobile ad creation process goes something like this: someone takes a Web banner, and scales it down by half. Boom. Done! Unfortunately, the layout that made so much sense in the larger format -- the type treatment, the image choice, and the call to action -- s now a bunch of crunched, little pixels fighting for attention. 



Plenty of mobile creative best practices have been published -- discussing everything from font size and logo placement to spacing the buttons to accommodate wide-fingered Americans. If you work in mobile, I recommend that you review them. However, even these so-called guidelines miss the real point.

Most mobile ads weren’t conceived to deliver value via the mobile channel.

Mobile is a platform for delivering appropriate messages, content, and offers, and engaging the audience in a meaningful dialogue. It isn’t just another place to stick an ad. (That’s what fresh fruit is for, silly.) Because of its inherent nature, mobile has the potential to be more relevant and impactful than any other medium -- more than all of the others combined, actually.

For example, mobile can take advantage of location (only if the user agrees -- we’re not Big Brother here). When a customer visiting the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue views a Web site on a mobile device, we can serve that user an offer for, say, a competitive Dell notebook. We can target airport Wi-Fi networks on Valentine’s Day with ads reminding business travelers to visit before they get on the plane. We can help beer marketers reach mobile users at home -- yes, you are not the only one who uses your mobile phone at home -- with ads synchronized to the football game they are watching on TV.

What these examples have in common is relevance. As we all know, the difference between well-received and poorly received advertising is whether you perceive the ad is speaking to you. In advertising school, they teach aspiring creatives that when writing copy they should imagine they are talking to a specific person. Mobile essentially allows that to happen. It’s the difference between shouting at a crowd and whispering into an individual’s ear -- an individual about whose need-state we have some inferential knowledge.

If you were to design a medium from scratch, you would be hard-pressed to come up with one that is more perfect for reaching and winning over an audience than mobile. Mobile makes it easier than ever to say something relevant, but you just need to take the time to think about what to say. Great mobile ads begin with a great mobile strategy.

Beyond their relevance, mobile ads can be as interactive and transactional as we want them to be. Users can search, sort, compare, and buy. They can sign up for info and alerts (just keep the forms brief). They can do all of this from wherever they are, spontaneously, with just a few taps of their fingers (or in the near future, by voice command).

So if you have seen some mobile ads that suck -- or, ahem, done some -- don’t worry. History has proven that it takes a while for an advertising medium to find its way. (Think back to those static brochureware Web sites you built in the ‘90s.)

If you think about your audience and the unique ways that mobile can address their needs -- and develop creative that makes each consumer feel as if you’re talking to him or her -- then one day you too will be able to hold up your mobile ad and proudly proclaim, “Hey, this doesn’t suck!”


Mark Silber is the executive creative director of Joule, a global mobile marketing agency in the WPP group.

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