asiCast Special Edition IV: What is ‘mobile’?

In this last of our special series of asiCasts our Research Director Richard Marks continues his attempts to bring some clarity and definition to terms we use regularly in the media and communications industry.

Here, in discussion with a number of industry thought leaders, Richard considers whether mobile should be regarded as a distinct category in relation to advertising and also asks how should we regard tablets?

This is a transcript of the discussion originally published on 16th January 2019. You can listen again here.

Richard speaks to Tess Alps, Julien Rosanvallon, Nigel Walley, Brian Jacobs, Tim Elkington, Josh Chasin, Eija Moisala and Alex North.

asiCast Transcript

Mike Sainsbury
Chief Executive, asi, UK
This is the last in our special series in which our Research Director Richard Marks has attempted to bring clarity and definition to some of the terms we use regularly in the media and communications industry. In discussion with industry thought leaders we had originally planned these as three distinct podcasts but realised when discussing issues relating to advertising that it was more useful to have a separate edition devoted to mobile. Here, we consider whether this should be regarded as a distinct category and also how we should regard tablets…

Richard Marks
Research Director, asi, UK
The final part of our four-part series on industry terminology is shorter than the other three parts but is no less important. I’ll be asking our panel of industry thought leaders and media gurus; ‘what is mobile?’ Is there such a distinct thing as mobile advertising and how do tablets fit into the picture?  

Tess Alps
Chair, Thinkbox, UK
It’s a technology silo, again. We’ve actually done some analysis looking at ad spend, cutting it in different ways. One is the nature of the advertising; is it audio-visual advertising, is it audio advertising, is it print advertising? The next would be a technology silo: is it delivered via broadcaster, is it delivered by printing, is it delivered via the internet? And then a device silo would be another way to do it. Device silos really are very unhelpful. Who cares that people listen to the radio on a TV set? Are we going to include radio on TV sets in TV or radio? Obviously, its radio. The fact that you listen to it on a different device is the least important thing about it.

Brian Jacobs does feel that there is a distinct form of advertising that is unique to mobile devices:

Brian Jacobs
Founder and CEO, BJ&A, UK
Is mobile just a platform for other media? No. I think it goes beyond that – I think it is a distinct thing. I think there are things you can do with these types of devices, just the way in which they are used. These may not be things you can do now but I think they are things you obviously could do. So you could, for example, have links into maps of some description if you are a retailer or whatever. You could have games going on that you invite people to play if they enter a particular store. You could offer people incentives to go into a particular store if you happen to know exactly where they were.

Now, all of those things are not advertising as we know it, they’re something else. I think they are using the characteristics of mobile, the characteristic of wandering around with it all the time, to its fullest extent. So I don’t think it is just a platform for other things. Mobile marketing, I believe, covers a whole gamut of things beyond just sticking ads on a mobile screen.

Josh Chasin of comScore agrees that its all about the unique aspects of mobile advertising that make the medium distinct: 

Josh Chasin
Chief Research Officer, comScore, USA
The power of mobile advertising is – I’m 75 yards from your restaurant and I’m hungry and I get an ad on my phone with a coupon for your restaurant. That works in a whole different fashion when it is geo-fenced, when I can put that ad in front of people who are within a specific proximity. I have always felt that we in the advertising business should think about mobile advertising not just as another screen, not just as ‘Oh, I watch this show on the TV on the wall, so I see this commercial; sometimes I watch this show on this tiny little screen in my pocket so I should also see that commercial.’ Obviously, there is some of that, but I feel like the thing that characterises mobile is the fact that it’s always under my nose no matter where I am and it’s the ‘no matter where I am’ part that actually is salient.

Decipher’s Nigel Walley questions the need for single medium agencies:

Nigel Walley
Chairman, Decipher, UK
I think there is a strong argument to say that there is a form of advertising which exploits functionality and telephone handsets – things like GPS positioning, the accelerometer, there are some functionalities you would find in phone handsets which some agencies are exploiting. But those (mobile) agencies would claim to deliver, for instance, the majority of Facebook advertising because the majority of Facebook experiences are through mobile devices. But what is becoming clear from the data is that a huge amount of those mobile experiences of social media are actually on large format screens like iPads with someone sitting on a sofa using wi-fi and so I think even the definitions those mobile agencies use are coming under challenge.

I am not sure the industry particularly needs single media agencies any more. It’s always useful at the beginning of a phenomenon but after a while it is much better to merge them back into bigger agencies that can deal with all media all the time.

Tess Alps: I dislike the word ‘mobile advertising’. I can imagine one definition that would be meaningful: advertising delivered by mobile networks where they know exactly who that person is – that would be true first party data. ‘Advertising delivered by mobile networks’: that would be great.

Actually the IAB definition of mobile advertising is anything, any advertising viewed on a mobile device and that seems absolutely ridiculous so, is it ‘mobile advertising’ or is it ‘search’? Or is it mobile or are you watching TV; you’re watching Vanity Fair on the ITV Hub on a mobile device? The mobile nature of it seems absolutely irrelevant in most instances. You are not using geolocation facilities and I think it is a non-category, certainly the way it’s being defined at the moment. It’s a technology silo again.

So how does the Internet Advertising Bureau in the UK classify mobile advertising?

Tim Elkington
Chief Digital Officer, Internet Advertising Bureau, UK
The way that we measure mobile and ad spend is if an ad is specifically tailored and prepared for mobile. So, if it’s a website that isn’t mobile friendly and happens to be rendered on a mobile not a desktop we still count that as desktop, even though that is increasingly rare these days. But if it’s a mobile app or it’s a mobile specific format, then we think of that as mobile. But again, its one of those debates that we have, so ad spend is a really useful lens to look at this through.

When some people submit ad spend, they have trouble distinguishing what is mobile and what is desktop, for example, because they are just delivering ads to people. It doesn’t really matter what platform they are using. So, how useful that definition is is, again, up for review constantly and if we get to a stage where actually so much of consumer behaviour and so much of spend is on mobile then we will probably stop using it and just call it digital. But, for the moment the feedback that we have from our members – and we are a member organisation, so we are governed by what members want – is that mobile is still a really useful distinction.

Mobile is clearly vital for Facebook. Alex North argues that mobile offers a distinct user experience and advertisers need to take account of that:

Alex North
Head of Solutions & Partner Development, Facebook, UK
Well, mobile as a platform generally tends to mean tablets and portable devices. I guess the question we come back to is: does it need a separate definition in terms of the devices? Arguably so.  Is it a medium in its own right and why does it need to be classified in a certain way? I would argue it potentially does if it means that we can then take a look at the nuances of how it is consumed because you half static content – you have video content that is delivered on mobile devices in the same way that it is on desktop devices, but there are a different set of rules.

If you are in the mobile environment, the ad delivery experience is different. The way you consume mobile content is different. The fact that you have the ability to scroll through content with your thumb and stop it and consume it in a far faster way is different to the way that TV, for example, is consumed. So I think if defining mobile differently means that we do take a look at the consumption experience and we do understand that there are different rules that apply, then I think it does need a separate term but again, it ultimately comes down to content that is consumed, albeit in a different way.

As a marketer, there needs to be an understanding that in a lot of cases you can’t just port a TV ad over to a mobile device and a mobile platform and expect it to work in exactly the same way because you’ve probably got a window of a few seconds to engage people and that’s not the same as a lean back platform like TV where you can build a story over thirty seconds and then reveal your brand at the end of thirty seconds. On mobile we talk to advertisers about revealing their brand early on, showing the product early on, creative best practices and building from mobile first.

So: understanding the platform and understanding what is needed. You can tie it in with your creative on other platforms, but the rules are different and so in that respect I think it does, arguably, need a slightly different definition and definitely a different mindset in terms of how you think about the usage of mobile as an advertiser.

Eija Moisala
Head of Smart Data and Audience Insight, Yle, Finland
Mobile strategy? I think everything is mobile or could be mobile, or if they don’t make it mobile, I don’t know if it can survive for ten or twenty years!  Whatever device can be mobile. You yourself are carrying your data and carrying your uses and needs, and media should be just serving those.

Where do tablets fit in to the equation?  Are they simply a large mobile phone or a handheld laptop?

Nigel Walley: A whole new user case arrived in our world when tablets arrived that didn’t seem to neatly fit into the mobile experience or the fixed TV experience. It defines a new user class but as far as I know we didn’t end up with tablet conferences.

Tess Alps:  I think a tablet has got different characteristics. First of all, people mostly use it in landscape format and people mostly use it to consume content rather than to input into it, or compared to a desktop which is an inputting device mainly. Tablet is the closest, I think, to a TV set in the way people use it. TV has a lot of consumption on tablets compared to mobile phones which is absolutely tiny.

Josh Chasin: I am not sure what is going to happen with tablets. They are sort of an ‘in between’ technology. One of the things that I am hearing about tablets, and I don’t want to over generalise, but publishers who target kids have played back to me that they get a lot of engagement on tablets, so I think that is something that is going on, that people are using tablets for their kids. Kids generally have phones and tablets are a little bit bigger screen. I think if you look at (and I don’t want to say a particular media company because then I’ll find out I’m wrong about that particular media company) but, kids-targeted companies distribute a lot of streams to tablets and I think you would find that tablets are important in that media mix.  Maybe more so than for a news company for example.

Alex North: Tablets are a subset of mobile and on a tablet device you can consume Facebook as a website or as an app. If there are nuances in how you consume a given platform across a tablet and across a mobile phone, it’s good to know what they are and not just make assumptions based on understanding one platform and then porting them over to another and assuming that they will still hold.

Tim Elkington: So if you think about tablets and you think about where they fit in (and I’m talking a lot about ad spend but ad spend is useful),when we first thought about tablets we basically had three areas; we had mobile, tablet and desktop/laptop and over time the feedback that we got from people was that actually the tablet category was less useful so we have now folded tablet back into laptop/desktop. So we basically have two; we have mobile and then desktop/tablet.

So for us we don’t really think of tablets as different. We think of mobile as different, probably because it can perform so many different things, but we think of tablet as a subset of desktop/laptop. I think that this definition of tablets makes sense because the majority of usage of tablets is at home on wi-fi, whereas the mobile, if you’re out and about, there is location data, you’re connected to 4G, there are all sorts of different capabilities that that brings with it. Basically, with a tablet you are using a screen without a keyboard rather than a screen with a keyboard and you are probably sitting on your sofa. It’s quite useful to think of it in the same way as laptop and desktop.

Richard Marks: When it comes to classifying tablets, the jury does still seem to be out. When Apple did consumer testing before launching the iPad there was confusion about how they fit in alongside mobiles and laptops and arguably that uncertainty still persists even now, a decade later.

Are tablets a subset of mobile? Are they a de-featured laptop or an entirely new user case? Certainly, the advent of large screen smart phones or ‘phablets’ and of larger screen tablets like iPad Pro muddies the water even more.

Reflecting on what our panel have told us, it does seem obvious that there is a distinct category of mobile advertising but that does not encompass all advertising delivered on a mobile screen. It takes in advertising that exploits the mobile nature of the device, the connectivity offered by proximity and fine targeting by geofencing. It can be argued that mobile is ‘just another screen’, but advertising and content does need to be adapted or rethought to take account of the size, the orientation and consumers’ interaction with that specific screen.