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Jonathan Gardner is the global director of communications at Vibrant Media, with more than 15 years’ experience in the US and throughout Asia.

As 2012 comes to a close, we bid farewell to one “year of mobile” and get ready to embark on another. The industry keeps saying this will be the year, and then it isn’t. What gives?

It’s not that mobile’s slowing down — far from it. Consumers are spending more time on their mobile devices than ever before. They’re also spending more money. And ad spending is, appropriately, on the dramatic rise: Recent data from PWC and the IAB showed that mobile ad spend in the U.S. nearly doubled in the first half of 2012 to $1.2 billion. Despite these remarkable gains, however, mobile spending still represents just a fraction of ad spending overall.

As much as I’d like to say I find this these figures surprising, I don’t. Like lots of other industry-obsessives, I’ve been saying for a while that mobile will define our future. And I still think it will. My company, Vibrant Media, recently introduced its first “mobile-first” product, and we’re one of many heading in that direction. But for mobile to get to the next level, and for it to truly come first — for brands, consumers, and publishers — we need to see the existing mobile “divergence” transformed into mobile convergence.

The first step is to collectively to figure out what mobile can really deliver for brands. According to Rebecca Lieb of the Altimeter Group, many brands still just don’t see a compelling rationale for mobile. “Strategic questions abound,” Lieb says. “At present, mobile is likely a stronger channel for earned and owned media than for paid for most brands.”

As I see it, at the moment “mobile” still means too many things to too many people. There’s a serious disconnect among the mobile-related needs and objectives of three key groups in the mobile landscape: brands, consumers, and publishers. This is the mobile divergence I’m talking about. As I wrote in greater detail on Medium, consumers want free content and utility to suit their device; brands are all about targeting and engagement; and publishers keep training their focus on revenue.

Of course, earned and owned media can deliver engagement. Look at the explosion of sponsored content we’re seeing lately, or the handful of smart, targeted local apps you rely on to find ATMs and gas stations. And for publishers, mobile has been shown to support – if not generate – meaningful revenue.

Tablets are hitting critical mass too, and they represent a potential-charged platform for marketers and publishers. Industry analyst Ken Doctor tells me he sees tablet ad sales pulling ahead of smartphone ad sales, even as minutes spent on tablets still lag. Tablets will likely stay in the lead as more exciting canvases for brand advertising, including the two “hyper-growth categories” (in Doctor’s words) of sponsored content and video.

Finally, we need to stop thinking of mobile as world unto itself. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. As Lieb reminded me, mobile is just another platform, facing the very same questions and challenges as TV, the Internet, magazines, and newspapers have done at various stages of their development. The sooner we recognize this – and the sooner we can bring what we’ve learned in other realms to the world of mobile – then the better our mobile ads will be, and the more we’ll be able to deliver for everyone involved.

These are the essential points of “convergence” for the industry’s mobile stakeholders: sponsored content creation, tablet-first design and development, and cross-platform thinking. Focusing on these will deliver the engagement brands crave, the service consumers deserve, and the revenue publishers need. And maybe – just maybe – they’ll make 2013 the true year of mobile.

Photo: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat


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