Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mobile media were playing an increasingly powerful role in consumers’ lives – and, not surprisingly, in media budgets. In the U.S., mobile media now exceeds one-third of all media spending and a 2021 GfK study shows that, among common digital technologies, smartphones are most trusted and relied on by U.S. consumers.
Throughout the day, consumers return to those small(er) smartphone screens again and again – for an average of 63 interactions every day, according to Leftronic. No other technology or platform can claim this kind of repeated exposure and 24/7 influence.
But when it comes to advertising, smartphones – and mobile devices generally – are too often playing second fiddle to “traditional” technologies: TVs and PCs. There has been little effort to truly understand mobile ads in their own context and environment. Evaluative approaches are not as robust as traditional TV techniques – and systems are often inconsistent with past testing, leaving management confused on how to interpret.
The truth is that little is actually spent on digital ad testing in general; simplistic approaches with few diagnostics provide a minimum of information or inspiration to drive stronger creative. And when it comes to mobile ads, the commitment to evaluating and refining is even weaker. Despite the impressive growth in streaming over mobile devices, they simply are not given their due.
We know that consumers interact with mobile devices in unique and specific ways – vastly different from a TV or PC environment. Screen size has a huge effect on how people engage with and experience advertising; small pictures and uncertain sound quality create special demands on creative. Frequently, mobile media are viewed in the context of other activities – watching TV, working or even socializing. And people bring a different mind-set to smartphone time than they do to larger screens; it is less about kicking back and more about getting things done.
Making the right impression in a mobile context requires a special, dedicated focus on what works in this sometimes unforgiving environment. A standout campaign created for bigger screens may translate poorly to handheld devices. There are good reasons to say, in fact, that smartphones should be the primary platform advertisers use for evaluating their campaigns, as they provide a more challenging creative context for ads.
Brand managers, ad creators and media planners all need to put their mobile thinking hats on – not to think “smaller” in terms of ambition but rather to make the most of every platform on its own terms.
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We know that consumers are increasingly difficult to engage in any context. Two-thirds of people say they feel “bombarded” by advertising and just three out of every 100 ads make an impression on consumers. This problem only grows when it comes to mobile platforms, because people are less receptive to ads on smartphones and tablets, as compared to TVs. GfK has found that just 11% have a favorable view of mobile ads, compared to 49% for TV ads.
With all of these challenges, how can brands capture and keep the attention of smartphone and tablet users? The good news is that GfK’s Ad Fit Optimizer has shown that well-executed ads on smartphones can be as effective as on larger screens – though the standards for success must be a little more stringent. Like all ads, simple and visually stimulating ads are most effective at engaging consumers on small screens. Emotionally engaging consumers with content that is personally relevant is critical, whether the ad is a video or display, long or short.
Recent GfK research – focusing directly on how people react to ads in mobile environments – looks at two key aspects of effectiveness: hook (the ability to grab attention) and hold (the challenge of keeping consumers engaged). Ads that score high in both of these areas, when viewed in a mobile environment, stand the greatest chance of impacting people.
Homing in on ad exposure and use in mobile settings, our study has revealed a number of guidelines for successful campaigns – what will cut through the mobile clutter and speak to overwhelmed consumers.
Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, for the most part, have experienced huge declines in foot traffic. Walking down the store aisles, consumers see an array of products, packages and brands. Visits to retail stores tend to help maintain and reinforce brand awareness across a wide array of brands, even those that are not purchased. Traversing a store aisle is analogous to driving on a superhighway and viewing billboards along the roadway. We don’t normally think of visiting retail stores as exposure to advertising but those packages on the shelves are little billboards advertising the different brands.
Some might argue that shopping online makes up for the lower levels of retail store visits. It does to some degree but online search functions allow you to see only what you want to see – and that means exposure to fewer brands. Also, if the online purchases are repetitive (say, for groceries), you might use past purchases as a guide to the next cycle of purchases – again limiting the number of different brands you will see.
COVID-related reductions in commuting and driving times have reduced consumers’ exposure to outdoor billboards and signage as well as roadside retail establishments. It’s obvious that brand awareness created by outdoor advertising would be negatively affected by reduced commuting and car driving. What might be less obvious is the downward pressure on retail store awareness. Retail sites along major highways are chosen partly for their advertising value. Highly visible retail sites tend to build and maintain store awareness. Lower levels of traffic reduce the advertising effect of these sites. So, reduced travel reduces awareness of restaurant brands, gasoline brands, food stores and most other retailers.
More time at home during the pandemic is leading to more time in front of the television and more time online. TV viewership is higher than it was before the coronavirus arrived, at least among those who can work effectively from home. The one-third to one-half of the population that work in the social-interaction portion of the economy (entertainment, travel, churches, restaurants, hospitals, etc.) or work in construction or factories are likely consuming media as they were before COVID-19. Online activity (not work-related) is likewise up since the start of the pandemic. So it’s likely that TV advertising and digital advertising are as effective – or perhaps more effective – as a result of millions of people working from home. The one counterpoint is the rapid growth of prerecorded shows and streaming of shows and movies, where TV commercials do not appear.
However, a massive shift of advertising dollars from traditional media (especially TV) into social media and online advertising over the past decade has in many instances led to reductions in brand awareness. The primary reasons: television is still the highest-impact media for most product/service categories and social media and other digital advertising tends to achieve high frequency but low reach (that is, digital often reaches fewer people).
The effectiveness of television commercials has declined over the past 20 years or so as major corporations have cut research budgets and the ad testing they fund. Advertising that relies on vetting via the “creative judgment” of marketing and advertising executives, rather than testing among consumers, leads to less effective advertising. These executives tend to have biases and hidden agendas (don’t we all have these weaknesses?) and possess too much industry, category and technical knowledge to be representative of the target consumer. Consistent testing of commercials and ads among the target audience can identify highly effective campaigns and executions and help companies and agencies improve the impact of all commercials and ads over time.
Digital ads suffer from the same “creative judgment” weaknesses but even more so. The cost to produce digital ads tends to be low compared to traditional TV commercials, so a smaller share of digital ads goes through any type of independent, objective research testing. The combination of shifting advertising dollars away from television to digital, combined with the lower effectiveness of digital ads, is contributing to the declining awareness numbers that many brands are experiencing.
There are a number of good advertising testing systems available from solid, reputable companies. The secret to success is choosing a system and sticking with it, so that you and your agency learn how to use and interpret the results from the system. It takes time to build up norms for your brand and your category and learn how to analyze the results from the advertising tests. To be successful, it’s important to set up standards so that every new ad or commercial is tested in exactly the same way, among exactly the same type of sample, using exactly the same system. It’s also important that all commercials be tested at the same level of finish. Rough executions yield different scores compared to finished commercials. Lastly, no one question can measure ad effectiveness. The scores from different types of questions must be modeled to yield an overall advertising effectiveness measure.