This year alone, there is an $11.4 billion mobile advertising opportunity, which means there is tremendous upside for nimble and innovative startups with disruptive mobile-first models. As we saw from Facebook last year, the company was able to turn around and actually make something of its mobile business – a business that didn’t exist at the time of IPO. However, despite the potential of the market, and Facebook’s early success, we’re still a long way from realizing the promise of the mobile medium.
When looking at the opportunity, it’s clear there are a few core challenges that need to be addressed quickly in this nascent market. The startups that address these challenges first will be the companies to watch.
THE PROBLEMS THAT NEED SOLUTIONS
In many ways, we’re at the same juncture with mobile advertising as we were with the desktop web circa 1996-97. At that time we were limited by basic ad-serving capabilities, browser cookies to track visits and boring, static display ads. Search keyword advertising, the most compelling ad format and targeting method the web has seen, was only in its infancy (at Goto.com, which eventually became Overture) at the time.
Right now, the two most obvious hurdles to overcome are what smart companies are focusing on: developing a reliable and privacy-safe method for user targeting across apps, and developing smartphone native ad formats.
Cross-App User Targeting. On the traditional desktop web, browser cookies became a reasonably reliable and standardized method for recognizing and storing attributes of any given user in between visits to a site. Today roughly 80 percent of online ads leverage cookies or some other form of a user-targeting mechanism.
In the mobile app world, an analogous, reliable and standardized mechanism has not yet emerged across either iOS or Android, and until it does, relevance-based targeting will be less effective in the mobile environment and remain a giant missed opportunity for advertisers. Currently there isn’t a robust way to track users across applications after Apple deprecated UDID as a targeting mechanism. In order for cross-app user targeting to be fully realized, the tracking of users in a privacy-focused environment must be solved.
Smartphone Native Ad Formats. The first ad formats utilized on smartphones were borrowed from the web. As a result, users are inadvertently clicking on too-small-to-read banner ads, thus ensuring annoyed users. Instead of a fluid and seamless experience, users are pulled out of their task at hand and brought to un-optimized web landing pages in the mobile browser.
The only way mobile ad monetization will flourish is when smartphone native ad formats that enhance the immediate app experience are developed. The good news is that we’re starting to see a few promising native smartphone format candidates with notifications and Facebook’s Sponsored Stories. There is still plenty of room for innovation, as these formats aren’t 100 percent where they need to be. Users and marketers alike can’t wait for some savvy startup to develop innovative and reliable ad formats that fit within the app experience and engage the user without disrupting the task at hand.
THE WINNER’S CIRCLE
Once the dilemmas of cross app user targeting and smartphone native ad formats are solved, there are some very promising areas within the mobile environment that are poised for the taking:
Offline-to-Online Ad Tech Providers. The ad-tech player who can get the ambient context digital wallet and in-app context right for the Walmarts and Coca-Colas of the world will be a really big deal. There will be several winners in this area, each focused on a particular vertical of offline-to-online.
Cost-Per-Lead Advertising. Yes, cost-per-lead advertising. The web performance stepchild to cost-per-click could emerge as a first-call citizen in the smartphone medium. Why? Well, the medium happens to be attached to a phone, and guess what leads perform the best: phone calls. The smartphone promises to connect this intent to buy to a live person more seamlessly than any other medium to date. This will lead to higher conversion rates and thus higher monetization rates. Inadco, a Redpoint portfolio company that started in the web CPL space, is one startup helping these advertisers take advantage of the mobile phone.
Ambient Context and User Analytics Providers. The fundamental problem of user targeting and analytics within the mobile world must be solved. This solution will come from a clever startup, not the underlying platform players Apple and Google. Just as Omniture emerged to be an important platform company in web analytics, there will also be similar companies built within the smartphone medium. Native mobile app analytics companies like Flurry are promising, as are the emerging players in audience targeting like BlueKai (a Redpoint portfolio company).
While we are a far way from identifying the smartphone equivalent of paid search, it will absolutely exist (it has to) and it will leverage ambient targeting, the digital wallet and smartphone native formats that interrupt but don’t disrupt the user from the task at hand.
The market is big and the current players are just starting to crop up, which means the challenge is for the taking. The next two years will undoubtedly be exciting years to see it all unfold – not only to see who the winners will be, but also to see the innovations that make it happen.