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Mobile and desktop advertising are superficially similar, but only in that they’re delivered via digital media, and they’re viewed on a screen. The principal difference is the cookie – that is, the small file that is stored on your machine to customize your experience of websites.

If you’ve ever noticed ads that ‘follow you’ around the web after you browsed a website, for example for the latest Dell laptops, then you’ve seen tracking cookies in action. They enable sites to show you ads you’re more likely to notice and click, because you’ve already recently shown interest in those items. And if you do click them, the publisher earns money from the advertiser, and the advertiser hopefully sells product. You could call it the advertising empire built on the humble cookie.

But with mobile, there is no standard third-party cookie. The browser in Apple’s iOS operating system by default does not recognize cookies, so that’s virtually half the global mobile web inventory removed in one fell swoop. Furthermore, the vast majority of mobile advertising is done in-app – that is, it’s not even part of the mobile web but occurs in the separate, self-contained environment of mobile apps – across which tracking via cookies is impracticable if not impossible.

So desktop advertising has a neat, simple solution that, while not failsafe (you can turn off tracking cookies) is a generally reliable way of showing the right ads to the right people. Mobile advertising does not – and there are many very smart people in mobile advertising trying to crack that problem, a lot of whom are sitting not far from where I sit right now.

This is why I’m writing to present the other side of the argument Jonathan Gardner of Turn put forward in his recent VentureBeat story “Why Mobile Advertising Must Not Stand Alone” In that story, Gardner argues that “mobile-only” companies “like Adfonic and Jumptap” will go obsolete as a “less siloed” approach to mobile advertising emerges. His message is that, by working with companies specializing in mobile advertising, marketers have to redouble their efforts, and that, instead, they should be seeking out ad technology that works across all platforms. But as a specialist in this space — I’m Adfonic’s CEO — I think marketers, in addressing audiences rather than being hung up on tech, can be more effective when they treat mobile differently.

What marketers want more than anything is to reach the right audience in the right way. And it takes specialized, not generalized technology to get there.

At Adfonic, we believe the solution is a real-time database that identifies audiences through a combination of platform identifiers, exchange-level data, and device recognition. This is very much a question of using smart technology, big data, and powerful algorithms to identify audiences across platforms. It’s extremely complex and requires a concerted effort to develop for native mobile advertising.

This approach lends itself well to Real-time Bidding (RTB), which is gathering pace at astonishing speed across the mobile advertising landscape. With RTB, each and every impression is offered to bidders who match the publisher data to their own audience profiles. They can then decide whether to bid and, if so, how much. The principal means of accessing mobile RTB exchanges is via a Demand-side Platform (DSP). Again, this requires specialist integrations that require deep knowledge of how to develop for mobile.

This is where mobile advertising is leading the way today, by innovating at an astonishing rate and looking ahead to a day when data unites all the advertising platforms, from mobile to desktop to TV and beyond.

Size matters

While the tracking issue is the biggest difference between what powers desktop and mobile advertising, there are other differences in execution. The screen size is smaller on mobile, so you cannot have the exact same campaigns as on desktop. Creatives need to be changed, indeed sometimes the whole approach has to be redefined. We often completely reskin and redesign creatives for our clients. This is where engaging formats such as rich media come in, that can offer clickthrough rates and conversion rates well in excess of standard banners.

There are also significant differences in usage. In our Tablets AdSnap research we showed how tablet and smartphones are used at different times of the day. For example, when we looked at ad requests, tablet users tended to be more active during the evening, while smartphone users were proportionally more active from midnight through to the morning. However, clickthrough rates showed that people who used tablets were more likely to click ads throughout the day, while smartphone users clicked their smartphones more during the wee small hours, as shown below.

The IAB’s Three Lives study further showed how mobile integrated alongside desktop and other digital sources. So size matters – and marketers need to know this if they want integrated campaigns. The lines are becoming blurred, but there remain distinctions between how we use devices. This will always be so.

Marketing specialists need mobile specialists

From the marketing point of view it’s clear that mobile and desktop should not be separate. They’re just different ways of reaching audiences.

But right now, the means by which you reach those audiences are going to be different, and for mobile this means deep expertise in how mobile works. We simply do not believe that online specialists understand the complexity and nuances of mobile.

The means by which you attract the audience’s attention and invite them to interact with ads is different today and will always be different, because of screen sizes and device performance. Again, this calls for a complementary and yet distinct skill set – our rich media team, who work on ground-breaking designs on a daily basis, will happily tell you this.

And finally, the way people use mobile is altogether different from desktop. They’re in different situations, interacting with different people, using different content for different reasons.

So really, the argument about mobile standing alone is just more trees obscuring the wood. The essence of advertising is the same today as it’s always been: finding the right people and selling the sizzle.

Mobile advertising, by tackling some particularly thorny issues in the mobile world, could be showing the way towards truly reaching people, through matching audience parameters to ad inventory. In so doing, it is opening the door to marketers simply stating that they want to sell to a specific audience. Everything else is just technology.

Victor Malachard is CEO of mobile ad platform Adfonic. He founded the company in 2008 after running Motricity Europe. He was also Sales and Marketing Director, Europe, at InfoSpace.

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