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A pedestrian uses his mobile phone while crossing an intersection in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese For The Globe and Mail)
A pedestrian uses his mobile phone while crossing an intersection in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese For The Globe and Mail)

Marketing matters: The 'small' problem with mobile ads Add to ...

But even for Google, mobile is still a work in progress. It wasn’t until recently that the company made it possible for advertisers to manage online search campaigns and mobile buys through a single process. Before, Mr. Morris explains, they had to buy ads separately and micro-manage a raft of different campaigns.

That said, Google is still trying to convince advertisers to use the features it has already put in place for mobile. Although advertisers can include “click-to-call” buttons in their search results – an option that boasts a 6 to 8 per cent uptick in click-through rates – only about one in 10 in Canada have bought in.

Going past search-based advertising on the scale of consumer utility can produce not just a hookup but brand affinity – or so the Oscars of advertising said implicitly last week. It was only the second year that the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity gave an award for mobile advertising, and for the second year, the Grand Prix in Mobile did not go to an ad in the traditional sense.

This year’s winner was a product developed for a telecom company in the Philippines. It coded textbooks on to SIM cards that slip into even the most low-budget mobile phones. Children received digital access to school materials, without needing the sort of fancy tablets or Web-enabled smartphones that their families cannot afford.

Last year, the winner was a campaign by Google that re-imagined the old I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke song. It placed special vending machines, hooked up to a mobile network, in public areas around the world. Anyone with a smartphone could send the machine a message to give away a Coke to a stranger. The network then sent back a video of that stranger accepting it.

The possibilities for making oneself useful to customers are open to the imagination. This month, the Quebec fast-food chain Valentine launched a pedometer app that presents a coupon for a free poutine every time the user walks off the caloric equivalent of the dish (between 30,000 to 60,000 steps).

“This is essentially an opportunity for the brand to be in people’s minds on a daily basis,” said Alexis Robin, director of interactive at Montreal ad agency lg2, which developed the campaign. “The app becomes a media platform in itself.”

However, the number of advertisers who will have success convincing people to download applications just for the privilege of interacting with their brand will be relatively few. “Most smartphones are app cemeteries,” Mr. Robin said.

For most advertisers, it’s better to capture mobile users engaged in something they’re doing anyhow. Roughly 40 million photos are uploaded to Instagram via mobile every day, and advertisers have joined in, with brands such as Marc Jacobs, Starbucks and Red Bull posting photos and encouraging users to interact.

Recent advertising partnerships that television networks have signed with Twitter are part of an attempt to twin TV ads with those on the “second screens” – typically smartphones and tablets – that people are looking at while also watching television.

The San Francisco-based startup Kiip, founded by Vancouver native Brian Wong, sells advertisers the right to place their products as rewards within existing mobile games and apps.

The sports drink offer mentioned above – from popular app Map My Run – is one example. In January, Kiip announced it had received funding from advertising giant Interpublic Group of Cos. Inc.

Facebook has enjoyed steady growth in its mobile advertising since sales began in 2012. Research firm eMarketer estimates Facebook’s worldwide mobile revenue will pass $2-billion (U.S.) this year.

The draw is the sheer amount of time people log on the social network: Facebook checks account for one out of every four minutes U.S. users spend on smartphones. Sponsored messages are designed to appear as part of the “news feed” that users willingly read every time they check in.

Monetizing mobile

The upheaval that the Internet has brought about in newspapers, magazines and other media is well documented. Publishers have complained about online ads being worth dimes, not dollars. But mobile’s profit potential so far has been even more limited.

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