A little more than a week ago I purchased an iPad. Typically I am an early adopter for tech toys such as this for a few reasons: First, in my job as strategy leader of a digital agency, my team and clients are eager to hear our take. Second, I am always looking for tools that will help me be more effective and/or efficient in what I do for a living. In this case I have been increasingly feeling the limitations of my laptop, especially when I want to, say, show a few slides or websites to a client over breakfast or lunch; the last thing you want to do in those situations is haul a heavy bag around and wait 10 minutes for the thing to power up and down. But I was really most interested in purchasing an iPad to understand for myself whether this promising/hyped new category of devices would be dominated by the old, interruptive model of advertising or start with a platform for Marketing with Meaning. And after a few days of use I can safely include that the latter is the case.
So far, the interruptive model for iPad advertising seems to be moving quickly up the hype cycle. Some people actually believe that this will—finally!—be the year of mobile advertising, even before Apple got into the game. Apple is preparing to launch its own advertising network for iPhone and iPad apps with special creative formats, dubbed iAd. It has raked in $60 million in commitments already from some of the biggest brands in the world who want to test it first, including Unilever, AT&T, Sears, State Farm, and Disney. The hope is that millions of app developers will earn a living out of turning a percentage of their mobile pixel space over to new ad networks and wait for the money to roll in—and marketers can reach people closer to where and when they actually pull out their wallets to buy stuff.
But a few of us are warning that mobile advertising is not necessarily the next big thing. Along with many others elsewhere, I wrote in this blog back in May about the limitations of iAd as an advertising option. The Wall Street Journal blog recently featured an interesting quote from Kevin Ryan, former CEO of online-ad company DoubleClick: “The answer that people want to hear is that mobile is going to be huge.” “The People” obviously means investors who hope to sell their mobile-ad companies to the highest bidder. But it also includes the largest advertisers in the world—who are watching TV commercial ratings and print subscriptions sink and know that they need to figure out a mobile solution quickly.
The central challenge, however, is the lack of “scale” in mobile marketing. At the end of the day, traditional advertisers such as the big names above depend on an interruptive model in which many millions of eyeballs are exposed to a short message in hopes that some small percentage leads to a sale. Just because they long for this scale does not mean it will actually arrive. There are already too many ad impressions to compete with, too many media options for consumers, and too many mobile-phone platforms to allow for such scale.
The alternative choice for mobile—and advertising overall—is Marketing with Meaning. In mobile devices this looks like creating value-added apps that a smaller percentage of people download (as compared to mass interruptions), but because the brand engagement is so much superior, this small group buys products and services at a much higher rate, over a much longer time period. This is the bet being placed by brands as diverse as Charmin (public restroom finder), Nationwide (car accident guide), Starwood (loyalty points tracker), and REI (ski report). The Gilt Groupe, a high-end online retailer, is now seeing 10% of its sales come from the iPhone and iPad. The reason? A killer interface made specifically for these platforms, and a business that has great deals for a limited-time only—i.e., if you wait to log on at your desk to check out the specials they might already be sold out.
Now to my handful of impressions after using an iPad for a few weeks:
- First, the device is exceeding my expectations. I do love it! I expected to have a tool that would allow for easy reading of email, books, and websites, as well as something simple for presenting slides. It does that more than adequately, and so much more. The keys to greatness lie in a brilliant piece of hardware. The device is thin, lightweight, features an incredible screen quality, responds well to the touch, and you cannot beat the easy on/off button. This is really what computing should be about in 2010, rather than the endless boot-up of bloatware operating systems and unknown creatures in the taskbar bin. With this platform and basic OS, the possibilities for developing apps that make best use of it are limitless. So far I’m loving Netflix, Kindle, The Weather Channel, TweetDeck, and GoodReader. And I’m now reading the paper newspaper again thanks to USAToday and WSJ apps. So many great apps and we’re only in the first couple of months of this thing, folks!
- The “magazine” model of advertising is weak. I have downloaded a few magazines such as Wired and Esquire to test what this experience is like. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, talked at an Ad:Tech speech a few months ago about how his company was betting heavily on the iPad and promised to have many cool bells and whistles in its digital version. I also checked out Esquire on an app called Zinio that lets you subscribe to digital editions of many popular magazines. At Ad:Tech, Anderson was excited about the fact that people would be “forced” to flip past each full-page ad in his virtual magazine. (See more on his speech here.) In my experience, the iPad magazine reading is fine, but I hated having to swipe past each ad. This is a worse experience than a physical magazine, which you can simply shuffle past quickly. In this case you’re likely to get a finger cramp with the number of ads crammed in! Again, maybe people notice such ads in the short term because this is a novel experience, but after a while we will all just tune out another piece of unwanted clutter.
- Improved websites might eliminate the need for apps. What I mean here is that the Web-surfing experience with the iPad is so strong (despite the lack of Flash) that you might not need to develop apps to provide similar value to users. For example, I considered buying the ESPN app for iPad, but then I just pulled up ESPN.com on my iPad’s Safari browser. The latter experience was outstanding because the network has built a site optimized for iPads. So there’s no need for the $4.99 app. Remarkably, this is something I have not heard in relation to the launch of the iPad. It could be a threat to Apple’s desire to “control” the user experience for its own profit, as there is no need to purchase or download a special app. For consumers, it means you skip finding/downloading/updating apps. We are already working on making iPad-ready adjustments for some of our clients.
Despite marketers’ desire to make the mass/interruptive model work in mobile, and Steve Jobs’s record of overturning and improving business models, my advice to brands is to create an app (or an optimized website), not an ad buy, as a way to connect with consumers on the iPad. There are simply too many challenges of making an interruption pay out—and too many opportunities to delight people by creating added value on the iPad platform.