Boston is generally credited with the distinction of having been the birthplace of American media advertising. In 1704, the Boston News-Letter asked its readers to use its pages to list items for sale. It worked. Half a century later, ads like the one above became a regular feature of the broadsheets (thanks to http://www.earlyamerica.com for the image).
The ad was hyper local. Those wishing to buy a pound of “very good” coffee could visit Israel Eaton’s store near the Mill Bridge in Boston’s North End.
Two hundred fifty years later the world looks a lot different. But the advertising market is still on the same quest that Israel Eaton began in 1761. Ads are a way for brands to influence buying behavior, whether it be for Colonial-era ground coffee or online dating.
Now that we’re all carrying smartphones, advertisers are beginning to shift their vast resources to the tiny screens in our back pockets. Many years ago I heard the CEO of a European wireless carrier give a talk about humans and their pockets. For centuries, the two items that were important enough to deserve a spot in the pants pocket were keys and money (first cash, then plastic). The mobile phone, he argued, was the third item in history to win a place in the pocket. And that, he said, was the great opportunity for mobile.
In this smartphone world, the opportunity for real advertising is enormous. The phone knows who we are, where we are, what we are tweeting, what we like and what we might want to buy. Early ad dollars have been dominated by search. If I type “Ford pickup truck” into my mobile browser, chances are decent that I might be in the market for a new vehicle. That’s valuable to Ford, Chevy and all the other truck makers.
Outside of search, early forays into mobile display ads have been predictably disappointing. Tiny screens make tiny banner ads a nuisance. Many users click the banners by mistake. Clumsy fingers will not drive a huge advertising market.
But with the app economy fueling mobile growth, the true mobile opportunity is much bigger than just search or rudimentary display. Brands and publishers wants loyal users. They want those users to engage with what they are offering and come back frequently. And they want them to like the experience. Mobile apps offer a clean, easy method for true brand engagement.
To make this work, two things need to happen in mobile.
First, brands want quality users. That means people who like their product and are predisposed to use it. A mobile game developer with a free app (as most are) should have no interest in users downloading, playing once and deleting, just like a restaurant offering free samples has no interest in a customer who will eat the sample and never come back. This is why so many publishers are now thinking about the cost of acquiring a loyal user, not just the cost of any old user.
The second trick is keeping those users engaged so they keep coming back for more. A new crop of mobile marketing and advertising companies is tackling the problem of user loyalty through a series of programs rewarding regular engagement, much like airlines use frequent flyer programs to influence buying behavior. But with devices that are pocket-sized and on the move, the opportunity for relevant rewards in mobile is bigger than any past advertising wave.