Adfonic CTO, Wes Biggs, Discusses The Huge Opportunity Around Rich Media Formats In The Mobile Channel

Wes Biggs is the Co-Founder and CTO at Adfonic. Here he discusses the big opportunity for brands around mobile rich media formats in 2012.

Imagine enabling your brand to interact with consumers in a visually gripping, cinematically inspiring and fully interactive experience, on devices that are already in the hands of the majority of Europeans and North Americans. That’s the promise of rich media on mobile, where an ecosystem is rapidly emerging around the tools, technology and services to create, traffic and measure highly effective interactive campaigns in the mass-market smartphone display advertising channel via ad networks and exchanges.

Mobile rich media encompasses a variety of campaign features, and while the definition (like that of “smartphone”) is not set in stone, the term describes display advertising that moves beyond the traditional static banners and looping animations that have been prevalent in mobile advertising for several years, exploiting the rich features of HTML5 and deep integration in mobile app environments to allow for advertising that is more visually arresting (custom animations or in-banner video), more interactive (banners that expand on-screen when a user taps), and more story-driven. Advertisers and agencies are creating mobile rich media campaigns that not only tie into above-the-line TV and billboard campaigns, but go beyond those by providing brand-building in-ad mini-games, extensive discoverable video and audio content, or direct calls to action including on-device purchase options. Because of this, and because of the mobile medium’s unique targeting capability and consumer dynamics, rich media enables premium performance for advertisers and can provide premium monetization for savvy publishers and app developers.

In fact, rich media is not particularly new, even on mobile, but was early on the exclusive domain of premium publishers and boutique technology providers. Recent developments have turned that model on its head. Apple introduced its iAd platform in 2010 following its acquisition of mobile ad network Quattro Wireless, and put its money where its mouth was, drafting in big budgets from major American luxury and entertainment brands (at least those who were willing to stump up the reputed one million dollar minimum insertion order and let Apple design and build their campaigns). Apple then made it easy for developers to integrate iAd content into their iOS applications, giving millions of consumers their first experiences with rich media campaigns. In 2011, the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) introduced a new standard for mobile rich media, dubbed MRAID, Mobile Rich Media Ad Interface Definitions. MRAID enshrines and solidifies the vendor-driven ORMMA (Open Rich Media Mobile Advertising) API, and attempts to bring together what has been a fragmented space of proprietary software development kits and approaches. With mobile publishers and rich media creative service providers agreeing on a standard, the door has swung open for access to billions of impressions on both mainstream and niche mobile sites and applications.

The delivery chain for mobile rich media starts with creative vision. In theory, MRAID (which is, at its core, a JavaScript API on top of an HTML5 rendering environment) creative could be built by any technically adept developer; in practice, powerful campaign building tools providing by the rich media serving platform are typically used. These include off-the-shelf reusable widgets like interactive photo carousels and embeddable video, allowing interactive experiences to be built quickly and easily, with tracking of multiple conversion points and actions. For example, one automotive campaign featured a carousel of images of the car model in question, the ability to interactively customize features and pricing, and then the option to book a test drive or receive a printed brochure. That surely should be compelling for brand advertisers looking for new channels to reach their audiences. Rich media vendors such as Celtra, Crisp Wireless, Phluant Mobile and Medialets all provide self-service tools, and they as well as mobile ad networks like Adfonic often have creative services teams that can do the heavy lifting at this stage of the process, and will quote on briefs from advertisers and agencies.

Most rich media creatives start life as a banner displayed in an existing ad space within a mobile web site or (increasingly) an application acquired from the Apple App Store or Android Market. On iOS and Android phones, these fit into the Mobile Marketing Assocation (MMA) standard banner sizes of 300×50 pixels (XL size) or 320×50 (XXL size), with double-density graphics becoming more and more common (that is, the ad space and device actually support 640×100, like on the iPhone 4 and 4S). Tablet formats vary, but often use IAB standard formats such as skyscrapers and leaderboards; the iPad is the most widespread and arguably the most coveted tablet device when it comes to rich media, due to its larger viewing size and high-end consumer base. Other smartphone platforms such as RIM (BlackBerry) and Windows Phone 7 are on the radar of rich media service providers, but it’s fair to say that iOS devices (and to a lesser extent, their Android competitors) are driving the bulk of campaign spend; together, these two platforms account for more than 500 million active devices worldwide. From the banner placement, user interaction (a tap on a touchscreen device is still somewhat anachronistically termed a “click”) causes the ad unit to expand, usually to full screen size, whereupon the user can typically tap to close the ad (and return directly to the site or application they were using) or choose to further engage with the takeover ad content. The creative can also link the user to their device’s app store to promote further content, bring up a click-to-call dialog, or open a separate browser, for example to enable bookmarking of a made-for-mobile destination site.

Delivering and trafficking a rich media campaign, once built, typically involves both a serving cost – in this respect, the rich media vendors act as serving platforms on par with DoubleClick for Advertisers and similar platforms in the non-mobile display advertising sector – and a media cost. Advertisers will be provided with ad tags (provided in versions compatible with MRAID or one or more legacy or proprietary formats) for the campaign, which must be trafficked on inventory sources that support the rich media format. In the past, this has been limited to a handful of premium publishers who typically sold their own mobile inventory via a dedicated ad sales force or premium ad network representation. Now, though, with the advent of standardization and adoption by a wide variety of publishers, aggregators and ad networks, access to audiences powering billions of monthly rich media enabled impressions is becoming a powerful and efficient buying option.

That’s not to say that rich media on mobile is easy. Unlike the PC-based web, where baseline browser support for most interactive features can be assumed, it’s important to ensure that mobile rich media campaign tags are served only on sites and applications that support all the features required to view and interact with the creative. Ad networks are on the hook to certify each of their publishers (often across several different platforms and placements in each case) as compatible with tags of the various types; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to trafficking a rich media campaign, and mobile ad networks play a necessary role as intermediary. At Adfonic, for example, we’ve developed technology that helps bridge the gap by automatically adapting tags from vendors like Celtra to publishers that use MRAID, ORMMA, and proprietary standards, removing the complexity from the trafficker’s role.

Mass-market mobile rich media is sold on an audience basis and with CPM pricing. Pricing will vary with targeting, especially on the basis of specific devices targeted (for example, the iPad commands a premium), territory or region selected, and desired demographics. Cost-wise, while rich media demands a premium over legacy mobile formats, it still compares incredibly favorably for traditional reach and frequency metrics versus buying, say, a full page magazine ad or prime time television slot.

Furthermore, the real richness of rich media comes in the metrics that can be gleaned from a campaign. These include hard metrics like impressions, clicks, and conversions, which sophisticated ad networks allow advertisers to break down and compare by device, territory, channel and so on. Consumer engagement on mobile rich media campaigns is impressive, with clickthrough rates often above one percent, which is roughly double the average seen on non-rich mobile banners, and an order of magnitude better than that seen in PC-based web advertising.

Additionally, rich media enables soft metrics around engagement and awareness. Because the end user experience is tightly integrated from initial banner presentation to expansion through to exit actions, rich media provides the context for a conversation with the consumer. By integrating tracking into each aspect of the campaign, a picture emerges from clear analytics about the flavor of each conversation held, enabling deeper ROI analysis and consumer engagement studies.

All of the above adds up to an exciting beginning to 2012 for the mobile advertising industry. Rich media is now mainstream on mobile, a tidal wave that will have ripple effects down the entire value chain. As big brands and agencies look for effective channels to rich audiences in ever more engaging ways, the industry is well positioned to deliver at each step of the process.