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Is mobile the new normal in digital media consumption, and will advertising catch up?

As more and more digital properties report more than 50% of readers to be on mobile devices, is it time to shift how we think about both the PC web and mobile, from the point of view of both media consumption and monetization? An article in this week’s Wall Street Journal focused on mobile monetization for mainstream traditional and web-origin properties and it is clear that this is a challenge. What went unstated was that we are in a world where everyone, not just Netflix and mobile-only sites, has to think about mobile as the dominant consumer experience.

Traditionally the PC web has been seen as the mainstream media consumption model, and the mobile (web or app) has been the specific “intent” mode. If we talked about mobile games it was mobile filling the 5 minutes waiting for the bus, in “time killer mode.” Is it more realistic to talk about the PC as the more specific “using it for a reason” platform and mobile as the base? Comscore’s data for Q4 last year had 60% of digital media consumption being on mobile. This is clearly impacted by home use of Netflix on tablets (which is barely mobile), but the the comments from WSJ, Forbes, and NYT indicate that this is now the norm.

Perhaps because it is so new, and yet very rapidly so mainstream, that monetization is indeed behind. Thinking about mobile as a “for purpose” media consumption model has created some blind alleys. As an example we have seen the failure (to date) of the promise of delivering contextual mobile experiences as advertising. We haven’t seen widespread acceptance of the “50¢ off a coffee at the shop you are about to walk past,” that has been promised for so long. Perhaps it is not so surprising that this has not yet become normal. Contextual was never really part of the mainstream advertising mix (except perhaps as “cold beer inside” store signage), and now mobile **is** the mainstream digital consumption mode.

It’s instructive to see the NY Times adopt a time-sliced approach. Any advertiser can use and understand a time-focused ad, perhaps without worrying too much about the context of the ad display. We know everyone will be having lunch between noon and two, but often not in or even near the location they were at at 11.50am, and certainly most people won’t be reading food-related material at exactly that point.

It’s true to say that larger social players are successful in advertising on both PC and mobile. Because Facebook and Twitter offer primarily or exclusively logged-in experiences they are in a much better position to provide the rich targeting data that advertisers crave. They don’t have to rely on cookies or other probabilistic mechanisms to target ads, they know their users. This left them with the challenge of ad formats, and they have more or less solved that through in-feed units. It might be reasonable to say they they are not exactly mobile successes, but rather they are very successfully platform-agnostic, delivering great advertising results wherever the users are, which is today on mobile.

Traditional demographic based banners and retargeting, typically using tracking cookies, have further to come on mobile. Companies like Drawbridge, AdRoll and ActionX all offer forms of mobile or cross platform retargeting, though often through user profiling rather than precise tracking. It’s simply much harder to track users on mobile, especially between apps. The other challenge many cite is real estate, these sorts of ads on the PC require a certain amount of screen space, which simply isn’t there on a mobile (today). As an aside search is clearly very important in the overall ad mix, but has less direct relationship to media consumption, so is slightly outside scope here.

Perhaps all is not lost. Mobile advertising in the US nearly doubled between 2013 and 2014 (though much through the success of social), and is continuing to increase. At the end of the day advertisers do want to be where consumers are. While mobile tracking and attribution take time to catch up will media companies to go back to their more traditional sales playbook, using the sort of techniques they did to sell print and TV ads — where you often couldn’t do more than show trends in second and third order effects — rather than directly attributed transactions?