Context is crucial: Why marketers may be about to crack mobile

 
Liam Ward-Proud
@LiamWardProud

IT’S WELL-KNOWN that advertisers have struggled to keep up with consumers in the switch to mobile. Recent figures from eMarketer showed that, while UK mobile ad spend is expected to rise by 90 per cent this year, it will still only account for 30 per cent of total digital budgets. Bear in mind that UK consumers spend almost 42 hours a month using their smartphones (compared to just 29 hours on desktops, according to Nielsen figures), and it’s clear that something needs to change.

Better mobile-native content is part of the solution, says Starcom MediaVest’s Stewart Easterbrook. But lurking in the technical labs of many mobile specialists is a technology that some think could lead to a step-change in the way media agencies approach mobile ads: contextual awareness. It’s an enormous opportunity, Easterbrook says, “but people don’t seem to have understood this yet.”

Customer tracking and targeting have been staples in media planning and buying for some time now. But to an extent, the data currently gathered only tell half the story. Information on browsing history, location and demographics can provide a good idea of an individual’s general receptivity to a campaign, but they say little about what that person is doing at the actual point of contact. And context can be crucial.

My receptivity to a beer ad, for example, will be entirely different depending on whether I’m on the way to meet friends for a drink or heading to the gym. Increasingly, smartphones have the ability to pick up on these contexts, allowing marketers a more accurate, predictive way to target mobile ads.

Ian Anderson, principal research scientist at InMobi, helped develop some of the first “context aware” technology, using existing smartphone hardware while completing his PhD on mobile computing and wearables in Bristol. “We built tools that can reconfigure your phone’s address book based on whether you’re at home or in the office, or automatically turn off certain applications if you’re running low on battery,” he says. The value of such technology for mobile advertising was not lost on InMobi, which bought Anderson’s firm Overlay and his team of data scientists early last year.

Crucially, context-aware mobile campaigns tend to be a lot more tolerable for consumers than irrelevant spam. “Our research found that people see useful ads as information, rather than pieces of marketing,”says Anderson. Tricks like increasing font size when someone starts walking can help. But Easterbrook points out that the possibilities become even more exciting when different types of data are tied together. A cinema chain, for example, could push offers and film times to someone who’s recently read reviews, has known tastes that fit what is being shown, and happens to be walking near a cinema at the time. “Going to see a film is a very spontaneous decision. We did some work with Cineworld, and they really got this,” he says.

Just as content marketing blurs the line between ads and editorial content, the best context-aware mobile campaigns may look more like useful services, or pieces of information. Both marketers and consumers will welcome this.

Liam Ward-Proud is business features writer at City A.M.