From November 2015 until recently, I worked in the gracious city of Taipei in an up and coming big data / mobile ad network company called Vpon. It was one of the most fun years of my life. I worked with some amazing people and learned a lot but eventually decided I needed to move back to Shanghai.
That time at Vpon, however, helped me get behind the scenes of many of the key themes in digital media today - mobile, programmatic, big data and so forth - and here's a few of the key things I learned:
1. Mobile is a great medium in some ways - but it lacks visual impact and needs to be used correctly.
Specifically, in-app mobile advertising has a degree of addressability that is unique in media - the possibilities of app detection, LBS and unique device IDs lead to an ability to target audiences based on segments as well as scenarios, and deliver the creative that is most likely to have impact at each stage. However, many clients ignore all these possibilities and use mobile in completely ineffective ways, wasting a lot of money.
2. Big data and programmatic buying offer amazing opportunities to deliver targeted messages - the right copy to the right person in the right context. Right now they're being used to drive margins for agencies and media companies.
Unfortunately a lot of the technology in programmatic is being misused as a way to buy cheap impressions in a RTB marketplace, drown consumers with lots of impressions at low CTRs and drive conversion through this barrage of cheap impressions instead of targeted, effective advertising. This behaviour is often driven by agencies who want to buy impressions cheap and then make money either by marking up or by managing a margin on a KPI like views, acquisitions or downloads - tons of cheap inventory with low conversion can still lead to a low CPA and a good margin, but that's what is annoying consumers and leading to the rise of ad-blocking.
3. Most clients are not clear what they're trying to achieve with digital - they don't know if the goal is to drive awareness / brand preference or to enrol new users and downloads.
I've seen more vague briefs in the past one year than I saw in my many years in agencies. Most of those briefs, by the way, came from media agencies. The clients who are clear what they want to do usually work directly with a DSP or digital specialist and stay away from the non-specialist agencies.
4. Most of the people who get the nitty gritty of mobile and big data don't really understanding marketing, and vice versa.
This is particularly true of ‘data scientists’ who are mostly highly academic nerds playing with their analytical toys, with no concept of which variables on their dashboards are of any use in the real world of marketing.
The few people who understand strategic marketing / advertising AND get the details of what data gets generated in digital media and how to use it are usually working at the big e-commerce firms. Most agency 'digital specialists' are basically suits who talk a good game but don't know enough about how it works.
5. Digital has become the final bastion of non-transparent practices that take away a significant part of the client budget which should have been spent on communicating with consumers.
Clients going direct can drive significant savings and ensure a much larger part of the budget gets spent on what it was intended for. Just to touch lightly on a very deep subject, there are more ways to siphon off money and more ways to deliver fake output within digital and mobile than anyone can imagine - and lots of very bright people spend lots of time on perfecting the existing ones and coming up with new ones. Some of these are very technology driven, and no audit of invoices and delivery will uncover them because no auditor has a granular enough understanding of how digital media really works. However, the ray of hope in there is that the really knowledgeable e-commerce clients usually manage to figure all this out and eliminate all or most of this wastage, so it is possible.
So what positive lessons can I conclude from all of that?
There are broadly two:
The first is to remember that 'digital' is not just an advertising medium - it's an entire ecosystem with media, marketplaces, service delivery systems and even consumer identities and personas in it. To use display or mobile as a medium with exactly the same objectives as television (reach building, for example) is to waste an amazing opportunity. Even if you're a brand that sells entirely offline and doesn't have an e-commerce model, think about what you can do better or different using the digital ecosystem - don't just measure reach or GRPs on it.
The second is to encourage clients who spend significant money on digital to hire an expert in-house, preferably from an e-commerce firm or a performance agency campaign management background. Bypass the 'traditional' agencies and work directly with the plethora of specialist DSPs /performance agencies. The key benefit of this will be reducing the margin that otherwise gets diverted to agencies, but apart from that an in-house expert dedicated to one client will always do a better job than someone at an agency juggling multiple clients.
To end on a somewhat practical note I thought I'd list the 3 worst uses of mobile in-app advertising that I've seen in the past year:
1. Sending consumers to a 'brand' website.
Remember, a mobile screen is usually pretty small (most AD networks can tell you what proportion of their audience is on a phone / tablet etc. not to mention splits by OS, so you can figure out what proportion are operating off a small screen) - sending them to a brand website, even optimised for mobile, isn't that great a value. Better to do this on PC - although this only makes sense in the first place if your website adds some value to the consumers life. Most I've seen fail miserably on this count.
2. Running a 30 sec TVC on a mobile.
Again, it's a small screen. Often when people are using an app and rapt in it you're just interrupting them, and if they're not on wi-fi, using their data subscription to send them a video ad they didn't ask for and, in any case, can't see properly on a small screen. Given the degree of segmentation and scenario targeting you can do on mobile, why not serve something more specific instead of using the same 30 sec mass reach copy?
3. Trying to generate leads via in-app mobile ads that lead you to a website - and then making the process overly complex. Just get a name and an email ID and leave the rest for later! I've seen some landing pages with over 20 questions on them - who's going to fill all that out, especially on a small screen?
Don't use digital or mobile media just because they seem to have become de rigeur for any modern marketer. Use some common sense, figure out what you really need to achieve and how to use the appropriate ecosystem to achieve it.
Glossary of acronyms:
(I just had my first guru in advertising -Sumit Roy- point out that I used a lot of acronyms that people may not understand, so I'm adding a short list of acronyms and what they mean. Thanks for the catch Sumit.)
LBS: Location based services - in this context it referred to the ability of an Ad Network to track the location of mobile phone users and build contextual targeting models around their location information
CTR: Click through rate - the ratio of people served a (clickable) ad who actually click on it and follow it to a link (I didn't think I needed to include this in the glossary but Sumit assured me I did!)
RTB: Real time bidding
KPI: Key Performance Indicator, or in simple terms, a specific metric against which a campaign is to be measured for effectiveness
CPA: Cost per acquisition - (usually in an e-commerce context) the cost to acquire a new customer
(First published on Linked In in January 2017)