Has the time for interactive advertisements in mobile environments come?

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Given the current growth of rich media advertisements and wireless enable handheld computing platforms, it is inevitable that rich media will crossover onto the mobile web within the next few years on a continuing widening scale. Mobile computing is just beginning to come of age, and as Internet enabled handheld devices are gaining widespread adoption, there are several questions the online marketing community must answer concerning integrating interactive advertisement models into the mobile world. To that extent, this analysis will examine the challenges presented to online advertisers for deploying Flash-based rich media advertisements in a mobile environment, including:

  1. Given the existing state of mobile technology, is deploying rich media in a mobile environment possible? If not possible, what will it take to integrate rich media into mobile environments?
  2. What are the benefits to advertisers and users for introducing rich media advertisements onto the mobile web?
  3. What impact will rich media have on the overall user experience for mobile users?
  4. What guidelines should e-commerce managers use to decide if rich media campaigns in mobile platforms are the right strategy for their website?

As recently as a decade ago, the Internet was viewed largely as a proving ground for new technologies and experimental business models. Most websites were created using simple HTML and contained simple image ads (if at all), Internet Explorer was gaining market share from Netscape in what is referred to as the Browser Wars, and the term mobile computing described the ability for a laptop to connect to the web via an AOL dial-up connection.

Ten years later, the promises of the Internet’s vast fertility to enable business transactions, facilitate interactions, entertain, and distribute information has only been partially understood, yet for the moment seems to be boundless. With the viability of conducting business on the web insured, the websites of companies are now recognized as commercial properties, and the Internet as a whole has become a medium for marketing and advertising functions. According to the article published at eMarketer.com, total online ad spending has grown from $8.1 billion in 2000 to $18.5 billion per year in 2008, with projections expected to increase $44.5 billion over the next 5 years. The regular use of the Internet by Americans has also increased over the years and for many people is an integral part of work and personal life.

Websites and online advertisements are no longer characterized by technological homogeneity either. Websites are frequently built using a combination of high-level programming languages that enable a site to interact with the user. Likewise, online advertising platforms have leveraged new web technologies, such as Flash, to create highly engaging advertising pieces. The phrase “rich media advertising” broadly describes digital advertising media that is characterized by motion and interactivity.

As the Internet distinguished itself as both a destination for users and as a commercially viable medium, along came the development of powerful Web-enabled handheld devices, networking protocols, and wireless technologies that connect users to the web when away from the personal computer. The definition of mobile computing has evolved accordingly to encompass the features of the present handheld computing environment (Turban, Efraim, et al. Electronic Commerce 2006: A Managerial Perspective). The revised definition of mobile computing is nearly exclusive of laptop computers and refers to the use of handheld devices, such as smart phones and PDA’s that permit access to information, application and tools. Internet connectivity has become a critical feature of mobile devices and microbrowsers, or mobile browsers, scale websites down to size for viewing on a smaller screen so that the user can do a range of activities from finding the closest restaurant to conducting m-commerce transactions. Presently, 20% or 34.6 million Americans regularly access the mobile web according to an Informationweek report. However, the US is not the worldwide leader of mobile Internet users; this distinction belongs to Italy.

One of the best descriptions of rich media comes from ClickZ columnist and CEO of WebAdvantage Holland Thomases who describes it’s usefulness as:

“Rich media is the use of interactivity or multimedia to give an enhanced experience to a web user. When it’s used in advertising, it’s done so to attract attention, stand out among the clutter of ads and copy, or shake someone out of their “banner blindness,” a term that’s been used to describe the general ignoring of all banner ads. Although we’re in a time when a lot of online marketing buzz focuses on simple text ads or search engine listings, rich media is still a sound piece of the Internet advertising puzzle.”

To complement Thomases thoughts, it should be noted that interactive media has strong brand enhancing and traffic-driving abilities for online properties. Another factor encouraging the spread of interactive media onto mobile platforms is that streaming videos are quickly becoming part of the handheld interactive experience.

Naturally, some rich media advertising units are more readily integrated into a mobile website than others. For example, Flash-based banner style graphics, interstitial ads (the display of a page of ads before the requested content), video ads and map-based ads will probably be the first generation to transition to the small screen. Ads that request high amounts of interactivity from the user, such as Flash games or gadget ads, may see their mobile debut postponed until hardware, software and compression technology catches up.

Advertisements in Mobile Environments Today

One of the most popular components of non-Flash rich media in mobile has proven to be Google’s Mobile Maps applicationRequirements for Deployment

I am of the opinion that there are three conditions that must exist before for rich media advertisements can be deployed on a large scale into the mobile web community. These conditions address hardware requirements, software requirements, and bandwidth requirements.

Hardware requirements

The first requirement is that it must be technological feasible from a hardware perspective. Rich media is intrinsically interactive, and interactivity can decrease device performance because of the need for greater processing time. Today, Flash powers much of the rich media on the Internet, including interactive games and streaming videos. Many contemporary desktop systems in use can execute Flash without sacrificing performance. However, there was a time when many hardware systems could not execute Flash in combination with other processes without slowing the entire machine down. An extreme example of deployment of Flash technology that preceded the widespread adoption of the hardware required to support it is the case of Boo.com in 1999. Boo.com was a virtual clothing store that featured a 3-dimensional shopping assistant avatar. The site relied heavily on the use of Flash and JavaScript to produce the interactive components of the shopping assistant. In 1999, many computers simply lacked the processing power to execute these client-side languages, and in a pre-broadband, 56k dial-up modem era the size of the site required the shopper to wait several minutes for a page to download. In mid-2000, Boo.com closed down and is remember as a casualty of the dot-com bust.

Mobile computing devices are designed to model the capabilities of personal computers to allow the user to perform some tasks while away from the home or office, but not all duties. Consumer-orientated mobile device design is a compromise between portability and functionality. Mobile computing hardware usually has only a fraction of the processing power of comparable parts for a personal computer. For example, the Apple iPhone, is performance-wise one of the higher-end web-enabled devices available on the US market. The iPhone has a clocked processor speed of 620 mhz and between 4 – 8 gigabytes of memory depending on the model. These specifications are equivalent to the processing power of an average desktop PC on the market between the years 1999 – 2002. Indeed, a personal computer from 1999 may have some difficulty keeping pace with many of the software applications of today. The point is that frequently special web technologies or modified versions of existing web technologies must be developed to accommodate current handheld computing capabilities; seldom can core features of the desktop Internet experience be seamlessly transitioned on to mobile platforms.

Software Requirements

On the software front, developers are trying to refit the existing applications and programming languages of rich media advertisement on the Internet to create a mobile web experience. Adobe, the maker of the Flash browser plug-in and several Flash development applications, has created a scaled down version designed specifically for mobile environments called Flash Lite. Although it has been modified for use by handhelds and microbrowsers, Flash Lite supports user interactivity, streaming video, and can play much of the Flash media found online. Although, Flash Lite has not been adopted by the majority of mobile users, several handheld manufacturers such as Nokia have began releasing units pre-installed with Flash Lite.

In February 2007, another barrier was removed bringing the deployment of Flash media advertising one step closer to fruition. On2 Technologies, a video compression technology partner with Adobe, announced that the new Flash development kit will be able to transcode streaming videos to mobile phones using an engine called Felix Engine 3GPP.  On2 Technologies compression algorithms essentially opens the door for marketers to create a Flash-based online video advertising experience for consumers. The impact of this new development was described in On2 Technologies’s press release:

  “For the first time, web content can easily be made available for mobile services,” said Bill Joll, president and CEO of On2 Technologies.  “On2 VP6 based Flash video has taken the Internet world by storm with the creation of tremendous amounts of new content, but that content was not available on mobile devices until now. The new Flix Engine 3GPP changes that.”

As a side note, JavaScript is another programming language that is being integrated into the newest generation of mobile browsers. While JavaScript can animate objects in a browser and supports user interactivity, rich media ads developed by combining HTML/DHTML elements, graphics and JavaScript are approaching extinction and there is no reason to expect rich media of these types to cross over into the mobile community.

Bandwidth Requirements

The third consideration is bandwidth capabilities. To properly conduct “m-marketing”, it is necessary to have sufficient bandwidth to transmit the ingredients of interactive marketing – text, picture, voice video, or multimedia – to the user’s device. The 3G communication technology, the abundance of wifi access points, and other wireless data connection networks support the ability to send data back and forth from client to server (Turban, Efraim, et al. Electronic Commerce 2006: A Managerial Perspective).


But the real question is – how will customers react to interactive ads? Action Engine CEO, Scott Silk believes the mobile market must overcome several hurdles before accepting rich media ad formats:

“1. Perceived cost – What is this advertisement costing me?
First, subscribers do not want to feel like they are paying for mobile advertising.

2. Personal relevance – What does this advertisement mean to me?
Second, subscribers do not want non-relevant advertisement — and in most cases, neither do the advertisers.

3. Ease of use – Is this mobile advertisement degrading my user experience?
Third, more subscribers avoid data services because they are too difficult to access and operate than because of cost.

There are indeed other issues that will arise from the foreseeable deployment of rich media advertisements aimed at handheld users that e-marketers must address. One example is how to fully capitalize on a mobile user that has clicked a multimedia advertisement and has general interest in the product or service offered. In this example, depending on the purpose of the website, an “interest form completion” or website registration may be the optimal conversion mode of the marketers, but not for the user who is restricted to an abbreviated keyboard and smaller screen.

Thank You For Reading!

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