Don’t be creepy – avoid backlash with non-invasive mobile ads

The right mobile ads will engage users, but the wrong ones will alienate and overwhelm. Make smart strategic decisions on when and where ads should be placed.


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Photo: iStock

Some commenters on a recent TechRepublic article about connected vehicles expressed concern about their vehicles turning into yet another ad platform, envisioning a future where the dashboard might pop up an ad for a local burger joint or gas station, forcing the driver to wait for a dozen seconds before they are able to start their car.

We’ve seen this on all manner of websites, where content is buried behind pop-up advertisements that demand our attention, and on social networks where brands pitch products in the middle of banalities from our friends. It’s fair to wonder how much advertising consumers will tolerate on mobile devices.

Is mobile advertising different?

The initial model for digital advertising was print and television, with banner ads that were analogous to newspapers interspersing ads among articles, and even the modern equivalent of commercials now injected into web browsing. What’s intriguing about digital advertising on the traditional computer is that it’s largely confined to web browsing, where users have come to expect some level of ads intermingled with content that is largely free. Shut down Chrome or IE, and you can happily use your computer without ads. Even attempts by computer manufacturers to add “sponsored” applications to the machine have met with resistance, largely relegating advertising to the web for traditional devices.

With mobile, this boundary is not as defined. Many mobile apps are merely websites packaged to look like an app, and many of the popular social media and communications tools are derived from ad-heavy websites, making the demarcation between “web content” and “device content” far less clear. Furthermore, users have a different relationship with their mobile devices than with traditional PCs. When I use my laptop, I’m generally aiming to accomplish some targeted task, and I’ll rarely “browse” my laptop looking for an intriguing app or location-centric function. My iPhone, on the other hand, is a nearly constant companion, and I’ll often pick up the device just to “check things out,” which might entail looking at the paper or responding to an email, or playing a quick game or checking for a nearby restaurant.

The mobile device experience is a much more intimate experience, and the device itself also knows more about us, having instant access to our location, most of our communications, and even data about our preferences on anything from cuisine to sports teams.

The intimate advertisement

In this more intimate mobile environment, it’s easy to get “creepy” and alienate customers. A targeted ad for a diet program that appears right after I’ve ordered the bacon double-stack at a favorite burger joint turns my smartphone from a trusted companion to a self-righteous nag that will eventually face consumer backlash.

On the flip side, sending a discount for a cold beer in the same scenario might be appreciated rather than shunned; however, even in this case the same offer could be rejected if it’s delivered when I’m trying to answer an important phone call.

Avoiding brand damage

For companies considering using mobile advertising to reach customers, there’s a major risk of brand damage by poorly planning ads. An inopportune or inappropriate ad might be seen as poor taste at best, or a major violation of privacy. Marketing is aflutter with the possibilities presented by the new ad delivery platforms, whether it’s a hot new social app, a connected vehicle, or targeted location-based service.

Before cutting a check to have your brand shoved onto every mobile device that fits in your target market, take some baby steps and solicit consumer feedback along the way. Carefully consider how your typical customer will react to your offer. When would they be most receptive to receiving the offer? Under what circumstances would receiving your offer be inappropriate? How can your offer be presented without appearing intrusive or obnoxious?

Ideally, your offers will be the equivalent of a friend suggesting a great new restaurant when I’m hungry, or the exceptionally helpful salesperson who offers an accessory that goes perfectly with a new outfit. Without care and consideration, however, your mobile efforts will be the equivalent of the street corner hawker shouting into a megaphone and creating a wide buffer of potential customers trying to avoid the annoyance.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...