Mobile Advertising: Learning From Burma-Shave


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Nearly a century ago, the first form of "mobile" advertising accompanied the first wave of modern American mobility: the car culture. The famous Burma-Shave sequential billboards peppered roadsides nationwide until the early 1960s, spacing small portions of a clever ad message at spots along the way (usually six in all) until the final kicker offered the sponsor name. Call it one of the first integrated ad units that conformed to the medium, highway driving and sightseeing.

In 2001, NYTimes.com revived a digital version of this with its "surround session" ads, which presented a visitor to the site with a series of messages from the same sponsor during the user's visit. Theoretically, the format allowed the advertiser to leverage the full session to tell a story in pieces rather than rely on the usual one impression on an isolated page or even a section sponsorship. In this model the ads followed the users throughout the session no matter where they went. The sponsor was a companion, not just a presence.

It is this temporal dimension that mobile media invites us, as publishers, to ponder more carefully yet again. A number of media companies have noted to me of late how smartphones and tablets give them access to the same user two and three times more per day than they once enjoyed. The sessions themselves are often shorter, but the frequency is higher and spread across the day.

One publisher in the jobs category told me he actually sees different kinds of behavior from users when they access the content from different devices at various times of the day. An email-driven personalized job listing in the late afternoon gets especially strong responses from smartphones. Those accessing the site from tablets at night tend to consume large amounts of content, but they don't convert into applicants as readily. The company is now building a tablet experience that specifically targets this evening consumer with an interface that encourages and streamlines this "just browsing" mindset.

Likewise, some news publishers see readers' content tastes evolving throughout the day as they come into the sites again and again from smartphones early in the morning, desktops at midday, and back to smartphones in late afternoon. The use of smartphones at home at night is underappreciated, but this is also when the tablet shift comes in. Apparently, people move from hard news in the morning and early afternoon into softer lifestyle and celebrity/entertainment fare as the day goes on.

What we see emerging is a much more human conversation between a content provider and the user. There is the potential here for the content experience to evolve during the day in accordance with the user's circumstance, device, mood, and mode of use. The publisher now has access to a reader in a way and on a level that is new and promising-but also demanding.

Just as the legendary Burma-Shave highway ad unit employed simple sequencing and an unfolding narrative on the roadside, the mobile device creates, for marketers and media companies, a virtual highway their customers are riding throughout the day upon which powerful narratives, not just "messaging," can occur.

Mobile devices demand that we rethink what is possible for media and marketing content. Just as a TV network changes its content and emphasis over the course of its 24/7 programming, mobile apps and sites can morph throughout the day to reflect the user's changing context. Here is where personalization really becomes critical in the years ahead. Shouldn't your favorite news app know what stories you read online at noon, and shouldn't the site help you track the stories that interested you the night before? Shouldn't the reader be able to push content easily to the access point where the item is most relevant or comfortable to read? Instead of all the share buttons that serve the traffic and data-gathering interests of social networks, where is a site's "read later on my tablet" button or "track story throughout the day" flag that serves the real use cases of readers?

As the access points become more personal, media have to depart from the broadcast modes of address that were appropriate to the "mass media" of the last century. Content and its advertising need to adopt models that conform to the native attributes of the device: the intimate interface of a large tablet touchscreen, the conversational utility at the core of a smartphone, and the new reality of multiscreen access.