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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Why many mobile ad experiences fail and how to make yours work

April 3, 2018 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst – Mobile Groove @peggyanne

Mobile is as personal as it gets. That’s why people feel annoyed when mobile ads delivered to their devices and apps are a mismatch with their desires and expectations. To cut out unwanted noise and shut out ads that deliver a poor user experience, consumers are reaching in record numbers to mobile ad-blocking technology. Unfortunately, bad ad experiences don’t only alienate and frustrate consumers; they also deprive publishers of an important chance to monetize their assets and audiences.

So, what is a bad ad experience?  Unsurprisingly, ads that disrupt or distort content people are trying to read or enjoy lead the list of most “hated” annoyances, according to research from Nieman Norman Group. Pop-up ads, auto-playing video with sound, interstitial ads that must be viewed before content can be viewed, and postitial ads that obscure the content or just breaking the browsing flow are ad approaches and formats that people want to avoid.

Naturally, in the Age of Personalization—marked by milestone studies that reveal 78% of consumers said they would be happy to receive mobile advertising that is relevant to their interests—mobile ads that are out of sync with people’s interests and context are also a “fail.” However, this doesn’t appear to deter publishers and brand marketers from plowing huge amounts of money into mobile ads that people ignore.

It’s a dynamic that threatens to bankrupt the entire digital ecosystem. At one level, mobile ad spend is rising into the stratosphere. Research firm eMarketer reckons ad spend in the U.S. alone, which accounted for 66% of all digital ad spend in 2017, will increase to 72% (or $65.8 billion) in 2019. At the other end of the spectrum, the vast majority of brands and publishers are wasting budget ads that fail to inspire or influence consumer behavior.

Dangerous Disconnect

New research based on internal data from Verve, a location-based mobile marketing platform that connects advertisers with consumers, puts this dangerous disconnect into perspective. Over half (56%) of respondents surveyed in the U.K. think most ads they see on their mobile phones are “boring or dull.” As a result, the average person in the U.K. ignores 7 mobile ads each day. When looking at the national population, this figure translates to a massive 20 million. “In their current state,” Verve reports, “mobile ads are not making the cut.”

Only one in ten respondents (11%) believed their mobile ads were genuinely helpful. This figure increased significantly with the quality of the mobile ad experience. While just 17% said they were “likely” or “very likely” to interact with a generic ad on their phones, over twice that number (38%) said they would do so it the ad was related to their interests or hobbie. And 34% said they would engage if the ad was related to where they were at that particular time.

Lack of relevancy is part of the problem, lack of imagination is the other. A 2017 survey of 100 advertisers and 1,000 consumers regarding their recent experiences and preferences toward mobile ads conducted by Forrester Consulting and commissioned by digital advertising creative management platform Celtra found that poor creatives may be at the core of bad ad experiences.

The study revealed that more than two-thirds of advertisers believe at least half of their mobile advertising budget is wasted, sunk into the development and deployment of mobile ads that can even harm their brand image. In fact, a whopping 73% of all mobile ads seen in a typical day fail to create a positive user experience.  “The overall digital content experience is littered with creatively uninspired ads, irrelevant ads, and intrusive ads with slow load times,” the report states. “The consumer experience has gone terribly wrong.”

The solution is more engaging ad creatives. Companies that crack the code, using creatives that are more relevant and less disruptive are sure to see improved customer response rates and higher brand recognition, the report concludes. As Mihael Mikek, Celtra founder and CEO, put it in a press release at the time: “Smart advertisers have a significant market opportunity to drive high levels of customer engagement and sustained competitive advantage by leveraging strong creative in their mobile ad campaigns.”

Vendor spin aside, the data suggests positive mobile ad experiences promote positive consumer perceptions and influence actions. The findings also support my personal view that the ability to craft and evaluate effective mobile ad and in-app creatives is at the core of what marketers must learn and master to ensure their campaigns move the needle, not miss the mark.

Inspirational and Relatable

Effective marketers follow the data to determine what works. “But it’s not just about amassing Big Data,” Haydon Young, Director of User Acquisition at Dots, writes in an insightful post. “It’s about creating a Big Picture view of your users by blending what you know about them in the digital world of mobile and apps with what you observe about them in the “real world”.

He recalls how a re-think of ad creatives rocketed conversion rates for Covet Fashion – an app for fashionistas and the shopping obsessed. Observing shoppers in real-life, at malls and shops, helped his team architect an ad experience catered to its unique audience demographics (“moms, daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and everything in-between”). It allowed them to align with their aspirations (“a vast and diverse group of races and body types united by the singular desire to be a part of the fashion and beauty world”). Rather than use ad creatives that depicted super-models, he removed the faces altogether. This encouraged users to picture themselves in the clothes and look they wanted most. The creatives worked because they spoke to the audience ambition to be and look amazing.

The takeaway: Ad creatives succeed when they address audience demographics and desires and encourage people to unlock their real potential. It’s no coincidence that brand creatives “rooted in real life” are crushing it, according to the Global Marketing 2018 Trends study from Freedman International. From fashion brand ASO that refused to photoshop models in its ads to Fitbit that has switched from using professional athletes to showcasing average people working out, companies are winning audiences with imagery that portrays the real world as it really is.

Test for Success

Authenticity is a must across the entire ad experience. Be upfront about what your app offers and choose mobile ad creatives that are descriptive, not deceptive.

“The most important thing to do creatively [in the ad] is to show users what the experience is within the app,” observes Helene Trompeter, Media Manager at The Weather Company and a Mobile Hero recognized for her app marketing accomplishments. “Being straightforward and visualizing the benefit of your app capabilities [in the ad creative] almost always outperforms lifestyle imagery.”

Even the coolest creatives won’t appeal to everyone in your customer base. So, use data to develop effective segmentation and targeting strategies. “Ad copy and images may perform differently depending on user demographics, operating systems, and interests,” Trompeter explains. Choosing the right creative for the right audience is an ongoing task that requires the discipline to test and the courage to innovate. It can be a daunting task, but Trompeter tells me there are some shortcuts. Dynamic ads and creative templates can remove a lot of the heavy-lifting, making it easy for marketers to mix and match hundreds of creative variations to ensure mobile ads are fresh, relevant and engaging.

Trompeter achieves this by applying what she calls the “80/20 rule.” In practice, she runs “about 80% of budget toward historical performers and 20% toward testing.” It’s a smart approach that recognizes the hard truth about effective advertising. Marketers have to focus ad spend on what is proven to work. However, they also need to experiment with ideas and ad elements that take them outside their comfort zone.

Push the Boundaries

Verve Foundry can use part of the screen or all of it to create an animated experience.

Meaningful and effective mobile ads follow the data and demographics to appeal to the target audience. But using the right ad format can also make a huge difference. Walter T. Geer III, VP and Creative Director at Verve, tells me new ad formats that build on existing ways people interact with the mobile Web and apps on their devices are boosting audience engagement. “Scroll, pinch, swipe—it’s all about delivering the best possible ad experience with ad formats that let consumers use their fingers and put them in control.”

The days of using the consumer’s mobile device as a “launching pad” for ads that disrupt and annoy are over, Geer says. “The future is about creating an opportunity that is cohesive to the device and using the data to ensure mobile ads deliver the right opportunity and one that is relevant to the individual.” This is also where ad formats that “augment and enhance user activities” play a major role, enabling a positive brand experience and driving closer customer connection.

A prime example is Canopy Onscroll, a new ad format developed by Verve that combines two engaging experiences into one without interrupting the consumer’s core app experience. Animation beyond the banner activates when scrolling. “It’s one of our highest engaging ad units and a great example of how giving users choices. In this case, showing subtle animation completely activated by scrolling—is capturing people’s attention with advertising that is effective, not intrusive.”

Effective and emotive mobile ad creatives are a huge departure from the annoying screen-takeovers and one-size-fits-all ad experiences that characterized the early days of digital marketing. Stronger creatives, real-life imagery, and innovative formats that push the envelope point the way to positive ad experiences that will engage, motivate, and activate consumers.

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