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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 ...

You’re getting drowsy behind the wheel. Your phone detects your drooping eyelids and sounds an alarm. Jolted awake, you pull over and see your phone is guiding you to the nearest place to get a wake-me-up fix – the nearest, that is, in the chain of coffee shops that built the watchful app.

You’ve just finished a run, and as you log your workout data into a fitness app, up pops a reward: a coupon for a free sports drink.

Your baby is irritable. Her high-tech diaper sends an alert to your phone that explains why, courtesy of your favourite diaper-cream brand.

Welcome to the brave new world of advertising.

While the episodes just cited are more cutting-edge than mainstream, mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are already transforming Canadian behaviour and, with it, the very nature of advertising. And as advertising changes, it will work its way into the very DNA of businesses that need to perpetually reinvent their interface with customers. As for the media business specifically, the acceleration of mobile augurs well for the likes of Google and Facebook, and poses yet another challenge for the digitally battered publishing sector.

Advertising’s age-old “push” model of broadcasting messages to all and sundry, in the hope that someone pays attention, is being replaced by micro-targeted “pull” campaigns that effectively co-opt the customer into accepting messages and even bonding with the advertiser. That means businesses must learn, with the help of their ad agencies, to leverage data about the characteristics, preferences and even real-time location of mobile-addicted consumers.

The speed of change adds to the urgency for business. It was only six years ago that the iPhone was launched. In the past two years alone, the number of Canadians who own smartphones has doubled from 33 per cent to 67 per cent. According to a forecast from market researcher IDC, this year tablet sales will outpace laptop sales for the first time. Tablets are expected to surpass total personal computer sales in 2015.

Until now, advertising dollars have not kept pace. In 2013, out of an $11.5-billion advertising market in Canada, spending on mobile-dedicated campaigns will reach only $215-million, according to media buyer ZenithOptimedia.

That figure does represent growth of about 65 per cent from 2012, but it’s still only a sliver of the digital advertising pie. Traditional online display advertising – those banners at the top of a website, or boxes in the corner of the screen promising to reduce belly fat – is worth more than $1-billion.

The new mobile “pull” methods vary wildly, with similarly divergent results, as will happen on a fast-changing frontier.

‘Subtle’ mobile ads

The earliest mobile advertising took the form of display ads: Banners and boxes, scaled down from the ones seen on larger computer screens.

“It was the new kid in town a couple years ago, and some companies just ruined it,” says Bernard Asselin, president of Montreal-based ad agency Bleublancrouge. “They were throwing in advertising that was not adapted to any mobile device. You could barely read what was in there.”

It’s a syndrome that Google Canada’s head of mobile advertising, Eric Morris, refers to as “shoehorning” – trying to make old ad formats work in places they don’t fit.

Not only are banners hard to read on a mobile device, they’re even more unwelcome than on a PC. “On mobile, the annoyance rate is higher than on my laptop,” Mr. Asselin said. “So it [an ad] has to be more personalized, more subtle. Not intrusive.”

In contrast to banner ads, the most successful transition to mobile has been in search advertising, where Google rules, draining away ad dollars from old-guard media.

Google users are already looking for information. So when Google responds with results, whether on a PC or a mobile device, it does not feel like an intrusion, even though consumers know some of those results are paid for.

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  • Updated June 23 10:20 AM EDT. Delayed by at least 15 minutes.

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