Mobile advertising needs to keep up with consumer behaviour

Around 6 in 10 adults in the UK now have a smartphone and a growing number of traditionally PC-based behaviours are shifting to the handheld screen. Mobile web use is growing 14 times faster than that of PC web and giving rise to entirely new consumer behaviours and possibilities. Yet the mobile advertising market has barely evolved over the past 2-3 years.  Mobile feels like the one sector where advertising is not keeping up with consumer demand.

OK, consumers will not actively tell you that they want “advertising” on their smartphones. I’ve seen focus groups full of people reacting with horror at the very suggestion. I reacted in a similar way when I initially read today’s news that Coca Cola wants to “get a Coke into every hand with a mobile phone.”

Our aversion to the concept of mobile advertising is not surprising. The mobile is an incredibly personal device and the fear is that advertisers may increasingly invade this private space with unwelcome and intrusive messages. This perception has not been helped by un-targeted, un-solicited SMS spam which is far more unpopular than DM. While DM drops onto the doormat, unsolicited SMS feels more like advertisers walking unannounced through the front door.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is mobile display advertising. When it comes to display ads on a mobile screen the issue is not consumer resistance; it is consumer ambivalence. Mobile display advertising is barely noticed at all, given the rapid, task-focused nature of mobile web behaviour and app use. It’s incongruous and anachronistic.

So, it’s hard to talk to consumers about “mobile advertising”, because it’s a loaded term, a catch-all for advertising that doesn’t get it; advertising that jars with the core values of their device. Where smartphones are ultra-personalised, “mobile advertising” is seen as scatter-gun and impersonal. Where smartphones are valued for their design qualities, “mobile advertising” resembles a 1995 PowerPoint presentation. And where smartphones offer location-specific information that is of real-time benefit to the user, “mobile advertising”, well, doesn’t.

Yet the potential for brands to use smartphones to connect with consumers in new and mutually beneficial ways has never been higher.

Social media and email are increasingly shifting to smartphones – so those who follow brands can increasingly act on brand communications in real time, when out and about.

Consumers are more and more receptive to location-sensitive messages from brands they trust – if they opt in and if the benefit is clear. Obvious, tangible benefits include vouchers and real-time information about nearby promotions. (In this context, the aforementioned Coca Cola strategy makes perfect sense, if you ignore some of the hyperbole.)

Smartphones are increasingly used to share media content with friends and colleagues – turning a screen around to share a video clip or image. This offers huge potential for immediate viral campaigns that are timed to harness a particular moment: Friday nights in the pub being an obvious example.

Consumers expect their smartphones to surprise and delight. Everyone can think of a ‘wow’ moment when their smartphone has harnessed new technology in a way that is amazing – making life easier, enhancing an occasion, delighting us by showcasing the phone’s technical capabilities. When brands provide these ‘wow’ moments, they gain a great deal of love.

The growth of smartphones as the central media device in our lives represents huge opportunities for brands to engage consumers in entirely new ways, offering real benefit and utility and in return receiving consumers’ attention, engagement, immediate responsiveness and even some brand love.

So why is it that this still remains the exception rather than the norm? I suspect this is because when it comes to smartphone growth, marketers are chasing after eyeballs when what matters is hearts.