There are a lot of questions left to be answered about Facebook’s IPO fiasco, but one thing we know is this: As consumers shift their use of Facebook from PCs to smartphones, investors worry about lower mobile advertising revenues. Is this a temporary situation that will be remedied when usage patterns settle, or do investors have a right to be concerned? Must the advertising industry learn to adapt to a permanently leaner income stream from smartphones?
Let’s start by taking another look at Mary Meeker’s latest Internet Trends presentation from last week’s All Things Digital conference. On slide 17, she projects a $20B opportunity for Mobile Advertising in the US:
When Meeker uses the word “opportunity”, she means “unfulfilled potential”: Mobile Ad Spend in the US alone should be $20B larger than it is. For reference, Google’s latest quarterly revenue was about $10B worldwide.
$20B is a big number, and it got me thinking. How is it possible that the industry’s richest and most sophisticated players are unable to grab such a big pile of money? They have the brains and the computers, they’re aware of the situation…Is there a deeper problem?
A too-easy answer is the market’s age: Mobile advertising is still in its infancy. But that’s an indefensible excuse: The first iPhones shipped in late June 2007, the Smartphone 2.0 era is now five years old. Both Android and iOS are prosperous platforms with bulging App Stores, they sell tens of millions of devices every month, close to half a billion this calendar year. Brand managers, advertising agencies, search engines, social networks, a myriad of vibrant startups keep trying, but mobile advertising barely moves the needle.
We get closer to the heart of the matter when we look at a common thought pattern, an age-old and dangerously misleading algorithm:
The [new thing] is like the [old thing] only [smaller | bigger]
We’ve seen this formula, and its abuse, before. Decades ago, incumbents had to finally admit that minicomputers weren’t simply small mainframes. Manufacturers, vendors, software makers had to adapt to the constraints and benefits of a new, different environment. A semi-generation later, we saw it again: Microcomputers weren’t diminutive minicomputers but truly personal machines that consumers could lift with their arms, minds, and credit cards.
The “Tech-savvy We” should know better by now; We should have learned, but the temptation -- and the lazy easiness -- of the “X=Y but for the form factor” algorithm continues to derail even Our most “different thinkers”. When the iPad was introduced, a former Apple Director described the offering thus: “It’s just a big iPod Touch” (which proves nothing more than that Steve Jobs didn’t burden his Board of Directors with loads of information).
At the D8 conference in 2010, in front of an iPad-toting audience, a bellowing CEO dismissed Apple’s tablet as just a PC, minus the keyboard and mouse. (And I’ll share the shame: On April 3rd 2010, I looked at my new iPad through PC goggles and lamented the Mac features that were “missing” from my new tablet.)
Now we have advertising on smartphones, and we’ve fallen into a comfortable, predictable rut: “It’s just like Web advertising on the PC, shrunk to fit.” We see the same methods, the same designs, the same business models, wedged onto a smaller screen.
PC advertising has successfully navigated different screen sizes. On a large screen you might see something like this:
Plenty of space for both advertising and content. Even on a smaller screen, the ads are unobtrusive:
But on a smartphone, this is the advertising that’s supposed to entice us:
…and this is the NY Times, one of the better mobile apps.
Mobile ads aren’t merely smaller, they have less expressive power, they don’t seduce…and they’re annoying.
Of course, there’s more to the smartphone misunderstanding than the fairly obvious screen size problem. There’s also a matter of how we use our computing devices.
When we sit down in front of a laptop or desktop screen, our attention is (somewhat) focused and our time is (reasonably) committed. We know where we are and what we’re doing.
With smartphones, we’re on the move, we’re surrounded by people, activities, real-world attractions and diversions. As yet another Mary Meeker presentation suggests, time spent on mobile devices is fragmented:
We’re not paying (a loaded word) the same type of attention as we do on a PC.
Business Insider features an InMobi report on mobile ads, with the following comment [emphasis mine]:
Those ads were served across 6 billion mobile devices. That's less than $1 per device, per year—a tiny sum. That tells you how far mobile advertising has to go, and how massive it will become in the next five years.
The dollar-per-device statement is a fact, the assumption of “massive” growth is wishful thinking.
When I hear that there’s a mother lode of advertising revenue in location-based ads that are pushed to my mobile phone as I stroll down Main Street (with my permission…I hope), ads that offer succulent deals in the stores and restaurants I’m about to pass, I wonder: Do we want barkers on our devices? Is this the game changer for mobile advertising, yet another kind of spam? LBA may be a hot topic among marketers but the public is dubious, as this MobileMarketer article soberly explains:
The reality is that this scares consumers, rather than excites them. Mobile marketers need to realize that what gets them and their peers fired up does not necessarily move consumers in the same way.
According to [Rip Gerber, CEO of Locaid Technologies, San Francisco], marketers create their own privacy obstacles when they forget relationship, relevance and preferences in favor of short-sighted metrics.
If the industry hasn’t cracked the mobile advertising code after five years of energetic and skillful work it’s because there is no code to crack. Together, the small screen, the different attention modes, the growing concerns about privacy create an insurmountable obstacle.
The “$20B Opportunity” is a mirage.