Apple and Google’s New Year's resolutions for mobile ads

By Tom Limongello, Guest Contributor , written on December 31, 2013

From The News Desk

I’m not sure if it’s out of fear, neglect, or just general Walter Mitty-ness, but Apple and Google have missed things that would accelerate mobile advertising. Here's a general outline of ways to step it up in 2014.

First, they need to define mobile advertising to understand how to improve it. To me, mobile advertising does one of seven things:

Mobile Advertising 1.0

1) Sell digital media such as games, songs, movies

2) Offer digitally powered services like Uber, Kayak or Seamless

3) Drive sales of physical products to be shipped to home or office like Bonobos or Zappos

All three are achieved in the same way, a promotional image and a button with the call to action: "Tap to download."

The other four goals require the user to consider something other than an impulse download. They need to offer brands a lighter interface that helps deliver more dynamic messaging and more efficient multitasking, so users can seamlessly view and act on messages across all the app services on their phones without requiring app downloads to get in the way.

Mobile Advertising 2.0

4) Display a brand message

5) Introduce a new product or service

6) Drive to retail

7) Use mobile to control another interface like TV, wearables, POS, and billboards

To achieve and measure the effectiveness of these goals, they need to bring the functionality that would normally live in an app into the ad, because there’s no incentive to the user to download an app.

They also need new measures of efficiency that show how apps, Web services, and hardware can work together to make it easier to communicate between brands and consumers on mobile devices. The Measures that Apple and Google use to prove their dominance in mobile computing do not lead to more effective mobile advertising. The number of apps created and downloaded are anathema to the usefulness of the device. The platform that enables advertisers to use the information they have about a user to vary the creative messaging will be where the money goes to effectively move the industry from Mobile advertising 1.0 to mobile 2.0.

Here’s how Apple and Google could get out of the way of greater efficiency on the device and unlock mobile ad spend:

1) Make app and Web communications easier through identity sharing APIs

Why am I always prompted to sign up for Linkedin, even though I have the app on my phone and I’m logged in?

This is caused by the browser not knowing who you are, so when an app passes you to Web, you are forced to login again, and it precludes more intelligent advertising. Apple’s Safari has had no communication with its apps, and only in iOS5 did it start to offer a set of HTML meta tags to show a badge at the top of a Web page with a button to generically "open" an app that you might already have on your phone. Apple also created something called "custom URL schemes," which was the bare minimum of enabling a communication system between Web and apps.

Of all companies, Facebook did the most to leverage these custom URL schemes which can be as simple as using fb:// as a web link to bring up the Facebook app, or as complicated as including a Facebook event or username to link to a page like Starbucks. If you’d like to see a useful multitasking app that has its own custom URL schemes, check out Launch Center Pro.

Companies like URX have gone a step further in web to app communication by creating a deep-linking standard with their turnpike API which helps online retailers deeplink to specific products. But only the savvy retailers and brands are going to take the extra effort to map all of their products, and of course, Apple and even more likely Google, could do much more to map all web links to app locations.

In the absence of standard identity and app to Web communications for all publishers, it’s the platforms that have you logged in, like Facebook and Twitter that are the short-term winners. Facebook already lets advertisers target and vary the call to action in an ad based on knowledge of whether the user has that app on their phone.

For example, Hotel Tonight can advertise a specific listing and use the ad to describe the price and amenities. It can do this because it has the certainty that showing a "book now" call to action instead of "download" will work and will deep-link that user directly into the booking screen in the app. Google could, of course, offer this on Google+ for Android apps, but has lacked the adoption and brand interest to offer this service.

2) Let ads look as good as content

Brian Morrissey wrote recently that the problem with mobile advertising is that banners are small. But banners are only small if the publisher doesn’t designate larger ad sizes; there is no technical reason limiting this from happening, and publishers like the WSJ’s mobile apps, I can haz cheeseburger, or any publisher using a responsive platform like Onswipe or Pressly can do this today. What's more, the trend is toward larger format ads anyway. If ads are supposed to be interruptive why require a click on an ad in the first place?

I’m convinced that when people say mobile ads suck, they think so because the ads look bad, meaning they are low resolution or static. Apple has been the best at helping ads look better, by explaining the concept of retina resolution, and for hardware accelerating CSS so that HTML5 animations are can be both smooth and complex. Android has lagged behind on this front, which meant that ads could only be pretty on iPhones and Android required static images.

Advertisers deal in eye-candy, and therefore they want access to the coolest features of the phone. But Apple and Google do not offer access to those features unless they deal in native code or use their ad platforms like iAd. To reach the scale necessary for advertisers to care, ad features need to be available in HTML5 so that advertisers have a choice of direct publisher, network and exchange inventory. If Apple and Google do not open up the APIs to the web for the cool-factor technology, advertisers usually have to look to hacked solutions from vendors or just wait for years.

One example of where Apple and Google do their best to offer APIs to developers but not to advertisers is the lag between having OpenGL for in-app 3D rotation and WebGL or the HTML5 equivalent.

3) Stop blocking auto-play video

The bigger issue is that mobile ads don’t function as well as Web or, for that matter, TV ads that can auto-play video. Here is a clear example of technology that Apple knows is good for advertising that they reserved for iAd only. Apple does not allow autoplay video on iPhone. It forces developers to use the native video player, and because of that, advertising companies have not had a scalable way to deliver auto-play video on Web and apps.

What’s strange is that this is not a valid restriction, as it’s available on iPad or the same iOS as iPhone shares. Because of this restriction, you have not seen auto-play video ads -- well, not until Facebook launched them, and Farhad Manjoo said they were okay.

Kamran Ansari explains that video is the way forward for mobile advertising. Until Apple removes the barriers for in-line video playing on websites, there will not be a way to merge the desktop and mobile video standards for video advertising serving and interactivity -- today the IAB's VAST and VPAID standards could use an upgrade, but why do it until Apple gets on board?

4) Open up to Audio inputs

We all know that typing sucks on phones, but for advertisers where they need your information to feel that they’ve gotten a conversion, we are not using all the technology at our disposal. As we move away from staring at our phones and using the phone as a remote computer to power other interfaces like watches, Google Glass, or things like refrigerators and TVs, audio inputs start to make more sense for advertising. In the short term, it could be a great way for audio platforms like Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, and others that don’t have users staring at the screen have a way to let users opt-in to advertising via voice.

What’s frustrating is that Apple has already sold us a device based on voice input, it was called iPhone 4S, so they can stop locking down Siri from being available on the Web. Android could take the lead here, and they’ve already started down the road toward easier voice access on the MotoX, which does not require the phone to even be awake to activate it, you can talk to it even if you are not holding it.

Nuance has started to offer its own SDK for voice enabled ads, but I’m assuming that neither Apple nor Google has let them hardware accelerate the voice recognition. Apple enables audio APIs straight from the web, why not include voice recognition in those APIs as well so we could use Nuance, Siri, or whatever we’d like? While you’re at it, why not allow webRTC as well so we can communicate with other machines more easily.

This post explains how it’s great for chat and video conferencing, but it also holds the key to communicating with in-store computers at the retail point of sale or at points of interest

5) Make it dead simple to deliver coupons

Google and Apple are split on the technological method for deploying loyalty rewards and promotional coupons. Google has gone the NFC route with Google Wallet. Apple has tried with Passbook and now iBeacons using BlueTooth Low Energy (BLE).

Apple has had the better strategy for advertisers because Passbook has the ability to update passes over a web API. However its commitment to keeping all important functionality in apps is holding back anything more than hobbyist use of Passbook for advertising. Bascially Passbook passes can sit in a user’s passbook app, which they don’t have to download. It’s embedded on the device for anyone with iOS6 and above, which is probably at 95 percent or greater penetration now. Google’s NFC strategy requires that all users have a phone with an NFC chip which will take a long time to get to market.

Google Wallet is not on advertisers’ radar, but the two dumb reasons we are not seeing more passbook campaigns are:

1) There is no database solution for managing passbook coupons so if you want to offer a national campaign, and you have stores that have different rules for coupon redemption, you have to create a store specific coupon for every retail location.

2) In-door GPS doesn’t work. This sounds like a big problem, and it was until iOS7 which includes iBeacon technology. The sad thing is that Apple has actually fixed the problem of no GPS support indoors with iBeacons but have tragically hobbled them such that the Passbook app can’t access the Core Location API to search for iBeacons in stores, so you have to tailor you app to look for those. And that requires that the user download your app and probably configure which store is nearest to them.

That has forced companies like Macy’s to have a partner like Shopkick develop the app experience for enabling in-store communications with consumers. Companies like PassSource and PassKit are doing what they can to offer iBeacon settings in their platforms for creating iBeacons, but without a Web wake-up call from the iBeacon device in store to a consumer’s passbook app, I’m afraid advertisers will sit out this technology cycle for another year.

Even sadder is the fact that we didn’t even need iBeacons. If we didn’t want to deliver dynamic messaging in-store, we already had QR codes. Why did QR codes never make it to mainstream adoption for advertising? Google’s hobbling of Android is criminal here -- in 2007, the Android SDK camera came with a barcode scanner. Instead of keeping that, Google pulled out this feature and launched it the Google app. Not only was it impossible to find, it required that you download an app, which you then had to find on your phone before you could use it.

Apple and Google’s interest in pushing for greater app development and download metrics that they feed to Wall Street has made it very hard for them to take a look at what would make advertising easier to use. For companies that pride themselves on UX, they have been quite redmond when it comes to the advertising ecosystem.

The metrics that could help drive more efficient multitasking on mobile devices are those that reward app developers for the most purchases processed, the most mapping to retail locations, and other types of metrics that show how users are doing things with their phones, rather than wasting their time downloading apps that likely will go unused.