Better mobile ad formats can save the free web.

Imagine you picked up a magazine about running that never mentioned shoes or sports nutrition. Or a fashion publication void of beautiful photos spotlighting the latest pieces of haute couture. Or a home audio journal without gear. Publishers exist to create content and dialogue to serve a tribe. These tribes care about running, fashion, home audio, and any other topic of interest no matter how general or niche. Publishers aim to bring to the fore the most relevant topics for their tribes, captured by incisive and insightful journalists who know their audience well. Readers devour the content, aiming to advance their knowledge of the topic. Some of those readers may even be in the industry that serves these tribes. They’re making products, services and experiences to advance how runners train, stylists define the next fashion movement, and audiophiles get great audio in every room of the house. They participate in serving their tribes not through journalism but through the fruits of industry.

As media has moved from print to radio to television to digital and mobile, technologies have been implemented that help publishers reach their tribes and help marketers do the same. The age of digital media has made it easy for individuals to not only consume, but also participate in a stream of information. We demand that this information is uniquely relevant to us and instantly curated and accessible on our personal devices.

We are now empowered to become publishers ourselves through democratized digital publishing. We’re empowered to become entrepreneurs and marketers by leveraging platforms that help us connect with potential customers. Google brought an interface to this stream of information that is powered by our written intent (in the form of search queries driving PageRank and the AdSense marketplace of ideas and products.) Facebook has done this through social connections, stated interests, and the News Feed marketplace of ideas and products. The lines of power have blurred to the point where multinational, billion-dollar organizations contend with individual content creators for attention on Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, and the like.

Interestingly, each of these platforms brought a new format to the consumption of information from journalists and marketers reaching their tribes. Twitter has Tweets. Snapchat has Snaps and Stories. Pinterest has Boards. The ever-present, always-on, intimately-personal mobile channel is a core element of these tech companies and their format for delivering content. Somewhere between the 2007 launch of the iPhone and today (muddied by the market correction of 2009) publishers took their content to mobile in the form of responsive mobile pages and dedicated native apps for iOS and Android. The format of publisher content started to be at odds with the format of marketer content. The technologies that empower the delivery of marketer content on publisher content have established an industry that has left their audiences scratching their heads. The ad formats that publishers leveraged to deliver marketer content on mobile alienated their tribes. The IAB (Interactive Advertising Bureau) recently called foul on the format standards they helped set, starting the explanation for their remediation plan (called “LEAN”) with the self-indictment “we messed up.”

The behavior of the crowd tells a clear story. Publishers see the majority of their traffic on mobile devices and a stark minority of their revenue from mobile traffic. The emergence of ad blocking is categorically misaligned to the free flow of information, though it has served as a canary in the coal mine for mobile publishing. The fundamental ingenuity and creativity of great publishers and thoughtful advertising by talented creative agencies has been undermined by the fragmentation and insular ad tech industry that provides the infrastructure and ad formats for this mobile age. Pop-ups, interstitials, pre-roll, sticky footers, and roadblocks are offensive ad formats. They’re a core part of the suite of ad tech products that publishers use to monetize their work. The market has reacted viscerally to these products and is moving to alternatives. Ad blocking cuts off the revenue stream to publishers. Facebook’s Instant Articles, Snapchat’s Discovery, and Google’s decision to move pages with pop-up ads down in PageRank are all moves to effectively cut traffic and revenue to owned and operated publisher properties.

Ad formats are products. They’re B2B and SaaS products that are ultimately consumer-facing. Ad formats require talented teams who are deeply tuned into the multi-sided needs of readers, publishers, and marketers. They require insights, prototypes, development, scalable architectures, and of course, market adoption. Ad formats are products that the walled-garden platforms we use have continuously innovated and experimented with to optimize for desirable user experience, viable business models, and feasible technical architectures. We’re due for a renaissance in ad formats for the broader internet and it will happen on mobile. It will be powered by the intimacy of the mobile device, the ubiquity of devices, the underutilized onboard sensors, the emergent standards of mobile behavior (swiping, scrolling, tilting, etc.,) and the unprecedented access and demand of content.

Publishers deserve to define the editorial experience on their owned and operated digital properties. Marketers have the opportunity to reach their audiences on these highly relevant content channels and find fantastic return for their marketing budgets. However, there’s a stalemate where publishers want to improve the ad experience on their pages but need marketers to bring demand to those improved mobile ad formats.

The path forward is for CMOs at large brands and the Chief Digital Officers (CDOs) at brands and ad agencies to demand a user-centered approach to mobile. CMOs and CDOs should expect and demand mobile products and technologies that resonate with their users. The incessant user-centric focus that publishers bring to their editorial and brands bring to their product should not be diffused by the pervasive bad mobile ad formats that are the convenient but crumbling standards. Right now, CMOs and CDOs have the deciding power to propel digital media in a direction that amplifies the powerful network of content from journalists and marketers to the tribes they aim to serve. How might we encourage CMOs and CDOs to demand a better user experience on mobile from their agencies, buyers, planners, and publisher contacts? I’d love to hear your thoughts.