Mobile Is Different, (Duh) Smaller: But Size Has Many Implications

Sometimes insight can come even from a restatement of the obvious. In a new survey of user habits, lead researcher Praveen Kopalle of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth discovered, to no one’s  surprise, that people interact with the desktop and mobile Web quite differently. Most notably, frequency and duration are the key variables. An admittedly small sample of 200 was asked about interactions across platforms. The findings (wait for it): people averaged 2.16 engagements with the desktop Web each day, for duration lengths of about 2 hours each session, compared to eight encounters with the mobile Web in a typical day, but for 15 minute bursts.

Dr. Kopalle drills a bit deeper to distinguish between types of use on different screens. He argues that while the duration of undivided attention (DUA) available to advertisers on the desktop is 47.5% higher than on mobile, 63.1% of the respondents felt that content on handheld devices was at least as immersive or more immersive than on the bigger screen. This may be a function of both focus (a small screen ironically commands more concentration) and the nature of the tasks. Kopalle says that desktop user is aimed principally at “information seeking tasks” such as email, search and news. But mobile engagement is all about what he calls “life tasks” such as games, person-to-person chatting, recipe finding, banking, etc. These types of activities on mobile are intensely relevant to the user, more absorbing and tend to occur overwhelmingly in apps rather than on the mobile Web.  



This heightened engagement on devices also seems to lead to much greater reticence to click on ads, or perhaps even to notice them. Users cited as their top reasons for not clicking on mobile ads: the small size of the screen; being too busy with something else on the device; the difficulty of returning to their previous place after clicking an ad; and the fact that accessing the mobile Web is just less convenient.

There are a number of ways to read these numbers, which are only rudimentary stabs at understanding how we look and behave differently across screens. In an email exchange I had with Anindya Datta, CEO Mobilewalla, which consulted on the study, he noted that the numbers add up to the conundrum of mobile. When mobile succeeds in capturing attention for an ad, it outperforms the desktop. But getting that attention is much more difficult on handhelds. If you are trying to get someone’s attention when they are engaged in a “life task” (which is most of the time on handsets) typical intent-based display is going to be in trouble.

Datta wrote to me as we scrimmaged over the meaning of the numbers : “I firmly believe that intent-based advertising (the cornerstone of display advertising) will not work in mobile, as it effectively reduces the coverage (i.e., reach) so much, the absolute conversions will not be good. For instance, if you serve a Burger King discount coupon to folks in the vicinity of BK outlets, in order for this to be effective, a user close to a BK will have to be (a) on her mobile phone, (b) on the app where the coupon is delivered, and (c) even if both previous conditions are satisfied, will have to actually pay attention to the ad, i.e., the ad will have to be one of every three ads that she actually notices. But when she notices, chances are high that she will convert. However, the multiplicative probabilities of (a), (b) and (c) are such that the actual coupon redemption numbers will be low.”

Which is to say that geo-targeted display that is trying to intercept a user near point of purchase is going to have a scale problem, both because opportunity is limited and users are not easily distracted anyway. Fair enough.

But Datta then argues that the inherent limitations of mobile user potential for distraction leads to an alternate approach, demographic targeting aimed at expanding reach. “A much better strategy would be to increase coverage in mobile such as even after the fall-offs, the absolute conversion numbers are high," he writes. "Imagine you did the same campaign, but targeted young men and women, 13- 24-year-old over a reasonably wide geographical area. My absolute conviction is that your overall conversions are going to be much higher, even though the CTRs in this case is going to be [much less]. In the first case,  a thousand people will see the intent-based ad, and 40 will convert. In the second case, 5,000 people are going to see the ad and 100 will convert.”

It seems to me the same data also suggests the opportunity for brands is not so much to interrupt as to align with an immersive moment. Perhaps this makes a stronger case for persistent branding in mobile, where a marketer’s product or brand is simply sponsoring (and thus persistently visible) to a user during a task.

Understanding what sort of mobile advertising or marketing works best during those mobile moments is critical to the platform’s future monetization. Whether traditional display advertising, either targeted against intent or sprayed or maximized reach, is the right model for devices is going to be argued for years to come. The wisdom and impact of desktop display is still arguable. Personally, I think mobile represents an opportunity to reimagine the relationship between brand and user altogether. 

1 comment about "Mobile Is Different, (Duh) Smaller: But Size Has Many Implications".
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  1. Therran Oliphant from xAd Inc., October 23, 2013 at 12:42 p.m.

    This is a great article, and right on time. Too often advertisers leap to the bottom of the funnel without considering the implications the strategy of geofencing. While geofencing is not inherently negative - scale, waste and misleading click metrics can limit its effectiveness as a sole strategy. When coupled with lifestyle, demographic and even association to other locations, it is quite possible to engage in a campaign that reaches all parts of the sales funnel. I hope the cacophony of noise around this idea catches on for brands so we have one less objection to overcome, when selling audience against location. Thanks!

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