The Ever-Evolving Tablet

TabletTapping into the digital realm’s most elegant and elusive device has been tough going for marketers

It’s no secret that consumers love their tablets. Retailers know it. Publishers know it. And if the number of YouTube videos of infants playing with iPads is any indication, babies know it, too. So how come marketers have been so slow to jump on the tablet revolution? Part of the issue, of course, is how new tablets are: They make up a category that didn’t even exist two years ago. And few predicted just how fast and hard consumers would fall for these devices, sparking a T-commerce revolution that’s decidedly different from the way consumers shop via the Internet or even their mobile phones.

“It’s almost staggering,” says Tracey Scheppach, executive vice president and innovations director at VivaKi, in reference to the growth within the tablet industry. She’s noticed her team and other industry insiders have had to keep adjusting their expectations for how fast consumers will adopt tablets. “We were thinking we were crazy with the numbers we were putting out last year,” she says. And now? “We’re having to up our estimates.”   

In January, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that the percentage of Americans who own tablet computers nearly doubled last holiday season, from 10 percent to 19 percent. And the growth in this market shows no sign of stopping.The iPad, the tablet with the largest market share, sold 11.8 million units in its second fiscal quarter alone, Apple reported in April. It’s currently the company’s fastest growing business, with over 67 million iPads sold since the first model was released in April 2010. It took Apple 24 years to sell that many Macs.

Android tablets are on the rise, too. A survey from Strategy Analytics found that global Android tablet shipments tripled in 2011, to 10.5 million units, and that in the last quarter of the year, Android tablets captured a record 39 percent of the global tablet market, up from 29 percent earlier in the year. (Meanwhile, iPads still account for 58 percent of the tablet market.)
But while that penetration should leave plenty of room for innovation from marketers, most are struggling. And while there’s plenty of data on hand now, many consider reliable metrics at least 18 months away. In February, Paul Verna, a senior analyst at eMarketer, released a report that says between the rapid evolution of these devices, and the fast growth of their share of the digital landscape, monetizing digital content will be a real challenge for both content owners and marketers.

Two years ago, the advertising industry didn’t have a specific strategy for tablets, says Paul Gelb, a vice president and the mobile practice lead at Razorfish, because they simply didn’t exist in the form they do today: “It’s exhausting to keep up with the pace of technology.”

Indeed, part of what makes advertising on tablets so challenging is the advanced technical skills it takes to design compelling campaigns. A banner ad that seems elegant in a print edition may fall flat on a tablet, a device known for its audio, visual and touchscreen capabilities. 

“The question is: Can you make the ad come to life?” Scheppach says. “Because the tablet makes that possible.”

Tablets differ from a traditional desktop or laptop computer, in part, because of their motion sensors. Every iPad, for example, contains a gyroscope and accelerometer, which make it possible to, say, steer through a virtual racecourse by simply tilting the screen this way and that.

But making full use of this technology tends to be expensive and technically challenging, says Julie Ask, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. The skills needed to design a tablet ad or app that invokes motion sensing may exceed the skills of the average developer at an agency.

“There’s a total scarcity of mobile talent,” Ask says, before adding that more “middleware” will likely be released in the years to come, allowing developers to design for tablets with relative ease.

Despite the technological barriers to entry, many publishers and companies have already taken the plunge into tablets. Much of the initial movement into the tablet space has been by content owners: Publications such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal launched iPad apps the same month the iPad was first released. Other publications, such as the tech-focused magazine Wired, soon followed suit.

Though The Wall Street Journal has been lauded for integrating a variety of interactive ads within its own app, many content providers’ and publications’ tablet apps function mostly as a tool to promote their own brand.

Scheppach offered the example of HBO GO, the network’s extremely popular iOS and Android app. A cross-platform app, it offers HBO subscribers new and archived HBO programming within a simple, intuitive touchscreen interface. During the Game of Thrones season premiere in April, HBO GO also offered “Interactive Extras,” which included an optional feed of Thrones content timed to whatever scene the viewer was watching. This type of tablet app helps a content provider like HBO retain its audience, Scheppach explains.

That’s smart brand-building, she says. “HBO is trying to get you to watch its content wherever it goes and pay a subscription premium for it.”

Beyond publishers and content providers, commerce and retail are proving to be an unexpectedly strong appeal of the device, with many consumers considering it to be their favorite way to browse and buy online.

Gelb extols tablets’ potential to create a “linear purchase path” for consumers, allowing them to order advertised merchandise, from start to finish, without leaving the original app. For example, Ralph Lauren sponsored The New York Times iPad app for a full month last September. As part of the sponsorship arrangement, Ralph Lauren rolled out an app-within-an-app dubbed a “magalog” from which Times readers could purchase Polo Ralph Lauren merchandise.

Other retailers and brands have spread out in a variety of creative directions with their own stand-alone apps. Last spring, Friskies, a brand of cat food owned by Purina, launched three iPad games for cats. In March, Joseph Abboud stores at Nordstrom began arming sales associates with iPads loaded with an app that enables customers to order made-to-measure suits from the designer. The Weather Channel’s iPad and Android apps offer an illustrated background that shows local conditions in real time, and alerts for when severe weather is on the way.
Automakers, unsurprisingly, are also among tablet industry leaders, as they aim to cater to high-income consumers. (Tablet users make up a desirable demographic, Verna explains: They tend to be affluent, digitally savvy and influential among their peers.) Fiat, Kia, Ford, Hyundai and Audi are all among the automakers that have released interactive iPad apps. These apps allow consumers to preview paint colors, get a virtual 3-D tour of the vehicles and even book an appointment with their local auto dealer.

Yet despite the many examples of companies who’ve created innovative tablet content and apps, others with the budget and capacity to do so may opt not to take the plunge into the unknown. As of now, it’s not fully possible to measure a return on an advertiser’s investment in a tablet ad or campaign. There’s no measurement system for tablets equivalent to, say, television’s Nielsen ratings.

“Proof that it works is one of the things that holds advertisers or marketers back,” Ask says.

Scheppach, for her part, is adamant that there needs to be a standard ad model and functioning metrics for tablets. She is the founder and leader of a comprehensive global research initiative out of VivaKi, called The Pool, which has worked on developing ad models in emerging media.

The Pool’s latest initiative is focused on tablets and will take 18 months to complete. During this period VivaKi will arrange several meetings between major publishers — like ABC, USA Today and Scripps — and advertisers such as Coke, General Motors and Samsung. The goal, Scheppach says, is to work as a group to create the ad standard for tablets as soon as possible: “We all have to band together because this is innovation like we’ve never seen before.”

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