Advertising – mission or exploration?

One of the questions I have been thinking about a lot in bringing together the speaking programme for the next PMN Mobile User Experience conference relates to advertising; specifically, the fundamental differences between capturing users’ attention in the mobile environment versus, say, television or radio. How different is advertising on mobile phones? Will advertising on mobile phones ever have the same significance in terms of revenue as it does on TV, radio and the web?

The first challenge is to define what is actually meant by mobile advertising. It is a broad term. We could be talking about using the mobile device as a channel to respond to advertisements in other media, such as texting a shortcode in response to a billboard promotion. But we could also be referring to messages delivered to a mobile device and used to redeem special offers at physical retail locations. Or, of course, advertisements displayed on the mobile screen and used to purchase mobile content, where the promotion, transaction and delivery all occur within the same media.

It strikes me in all these scenarios there is a fundamental difference inherent in the mobile delivery channel. It comes back to this concept of user ‘missions’ which I have mentioned in several previous MEX articles. Mobile users typically operate in missions defined by the amount of time they have available, the task they need to complete and their physical location.

This is very different to TV viewers, who by the very nature of TV consumption, have already defined themselves as being mission-exempt.

It also contrasts with the PC, which is a naturally multi-tasking environment, where several missions may be underway at any one time and the user has the visual space and attention span to switch between them.

It could be argued then that marketeers have an easy task with the mobile channel – if users are typically on specific missions, it should be a relatively simple task to understand those missions and deliver advertisements with direct relevance. However, as discussed in last week’s article ‘Portal power‘, understanding missions in the mobile environment is actually a very complex process and very different from established models such as contextual web advertising.

Assuming, however, you are able to understand the user’s mission, you face another challenge: how can you deliver advertising not just related that mission, but advertising which helps the user complete that mission. This is the fundamental difference with advertising in the mobile channel: it is about delivering tools and answers, not capturing attention.

This is an important lesson for marketeers to learn, because the consequences of misunderstanding it are potentially very serious. If the user perceives the advertisement to be hindering the completion of their mission, not only will the advertising spend be ineffectual, it may also generate negative sentiment towards that brand.

The completion of mobile missions is an inherently linear process, primarily because most mobile handsets are unsuited to multi-tasking. The user is engaged in a process chain which requires the completion of each stage to move to the next step. Advertising which hinders this process will be perceived negatively (i.e. encourages the user to explore outside the parameters of their current mission), whereas advertising which delivers tools enabling the user to shortcut the process will be valued.

The extent to which users will respond positively to advertising which attempts to capture their attention outside their current mission will be directly proportional to the level of perceived intrusion. It could be argued, for instance, that an application which downloaded special promotions from local retailers in the background and was accessed at a time of the user’s chosing would be more effective than SMS or MMS messages being ‘pushed’ at the handset.

The risk of interrupting a user’s mission flow can also be mitigated by the level of trust the user has in the person or company causing the interruption. I have already talked about the importance of community in previous articles and the power of personal recommendations. It may be appropriate for special offers or recommendations forwarded by contacts in my address book to flash-up on the screen as new messages in a way which I would find wholly inappropriate if the sender was a retailer or advertiser I was unfamiliar with.

This sensitivity to intrusion and the fundamental differences between mobile missions and immersive exploration processes demand new business models. Long-term, I can’t imagine big brands using the mobile channel for profile and awareness activities – these are much better suited to TV, radio and billboard. Recent suggestions in the industry that mobile TV could be supported by users opting in to video advertisements before accessing the TV stream fail to recognise these important differences.

Advertising revenues in the mobile channel will be directly linked to how effective an advertiser is in helping users to complete their missions. It’s about assistance rather than distraction.

Do you have a view on mobile advertising you’d like to share with the MEX community? Email me at with your ideas.

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  1. 5
    Michael Molin

    >>Assuming, however, you are able to understand the user’s mission, you face another challenge: how can you deliver advertising not just related that mission, but advertising which helps the user complete that mission. This is the fundamental difference with advertising in the mobile channel: it is about delivering tools and answers, not capturing attention.

    I think that the future of mobile advertising is in creating of the effective interaction models between the mobile device and the Internet (and TV also when the mobile device could be used as a remote control). Using a touch-sensitive UI could work just like clicking on the Internet. And that footnotes for advertising or voting on TV could be transferred directly to the mobile devices. So, it requires a *permanent space* for a specialized UI and that implies a two display solution (where the second display is also used for the implementation of the program interfaces and a keyboard).

    Providing a mobile advertising model that *complements* the user experience is one of the main goals of my project of the cell computer. For example, search results are displayed on the main display and the context-sensitive text advertisiments are on the second display – the advertisements are at the fingertips of consumers. A user selects the ads and the separate corresponding pages are displayed in the document window – main display. In addition, a site map of a search system is displayed on the second display after the advertisements.

  2. 6
    Marek Pawlowski

    Thanks for your post Michael. I think your idea of a dedicated area for advertisements is an interesting one, but I foresee a couple of challenges.

    Firstly, most advertisers pay for space because they feel it gives them an opportunity to associate with or at least be in the same visual path as the user’s actual content interaction. I suspect it would be difficult to convince a lot of advertisers that users would pay attention to the separate screen area.

    Also, I believe as a matter of principle that screen real estate should be a freely accessible resource where third party developers are given full control over what the user sees and therefore struggle with the concept of one party being able to ‘reserve’ a portion of the screen for advertising or anything else.

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