Of Facebook Canvas and the optimal creative unit in mobile ads
Facebook Canvas is being rolled out this month and its creative examples got me thinking about the lack of a standard, winning creative unit in mobile advertising. Every advertising medium has a unique characteristic. TV is an audio-visual experience, a billboard is a fleeting medium, radio is great as an in-the- background audio medium…and so on. Most of these platforms have been around for decades and were extensions of of a previously existing medium or naturally adapted the characteristics of a new invention. In my mind, I see the traditional billboard as an extension of the static, lettering based shop sign or wall painting. The printed word existed for decades in the form of books and a print advertisement was a form of that printed word. The invention of radio brought the power of audio – spoken word and music to living rooms and ads adapted that format. Ditto with television – advertisers learnt how to use audio video impact to their advantage. In all these platforms, a standard format evolved – the 30-second spot on TV, a square of rectangle shaped billboard and so on. These happened by trial and error method: the standard length of TV ads in the 1950s was one minute. The important aspect was that each of those units evolved using the unique characteristics of each medium. The ads themselves may have been interruptions but the formats were not. In other words while watching a movie on TV (which I am engrossed in because of its audio visual impact) a 30-second spot may be an interruption but it is the same format. And when that ad is also ‘rewarding’ in some form – it is entertaining, useful, relevant then it seems less of an interruption or irritation.
When it comes to ads seen on mobile devices (largely on mobile sites and now mobile apps) the popular unit is a horizontal banner ad, which has its origins in the desktop site. The classic banner ad itself was a crude ‘adaptation’ of the print ad with a little bit of interactivity thrown in. And interactivity was just about being able to click on the ad. Banner ads with little bit more interactivity (e.g. keying in words, having some play value) were also experimented with. But the dismal CTRs of banner ads indicate that consumers don’t really enjoy seeing or interacting with them. The already ‘flawed’ format was then slapped on to the smaller screen too. In other words the original desktop banner ad itself was not a ‘natural fit’ into the website environment – a format familiar in another medium (print) was hoisted on to it. And now the mobile banner ad is poor adaptation of that.
Steve Jobs had a lofty goal when he introduced iAd – the advertising format which Apple attempted to build and failed. He said it brings in the emotion of a TV ad and an interactivity of a digital ad. But by and large mobile ads have remained the same for years now – a tiny little horizontal banner at the bottom of a screen or app. Brands have experimented with screen takeovers too but they still feel like blown up print ads in my opinion. The problem with mobile banner ads and takeovers is that not only are they interrupting a mobile user’s activity (and thus an irritation) the interactive experience does not feel seamless and unified. Let me explain: if I am on a mobile news site which is responsive, nicely done and a pleasure to use on a mobile device, I am likely to be interrupted with an ugly, horizontal banner ad with poor text & graphics breaking my news site experience. And if I click on the ad I may be taken to a non-responsive site. These chain of events do not have a seamless feel to them.
In this context, I feel Facebook’s Canvas has done the best job of using the mobile screen and mobile app’s innate characteristics of visual impact, interactions and gestures. What’s more it feels like a seamless experience as it is all within the Facebook app and its news feed. The mobile web lacks such a unit and until that is created we will all be subject to interruptive, irritating ads and forced to resort to ad blockers.