Moving beyond Kate Upton

Context needed to replace the IAP kings

We’re all numb at this point to seeing Kate riding around on her horse and watching the cute Clash of Clans characters all over our screens. Given their ubiquity, it is easy to forget these are mobile games and not Hollywood blockbusters.

Stop me if you’ve seen this one. Machine Zone spends > $500k daily advertising Game of War.

Having worked in mobile for a long time, a small part of me is excited that these mobile businesses are so profitable they can afford to spend like this. A larger part of me is annoyed that we are subjected to these ads over and over despite demonstrating our apathy.

These gaming leaders have ROI down to a science, and are clearly getting enough value to outbid everyone for coveted spots on Facebook and across the major ad exchanges. Instead of blaming them, a better question to ask is why aren’t we seeing more relevant mobile ads?

Advertising isn’t going anywhere and is responsible for so much of the free content we enjoy. Improving the experience is better for everyone involved - so what’s the problem here?

Targeting People

The vast majority of mobile ads today in app are targeted at people. Your device identifier is programmatically put up to the highest bidder on Facebook or the major exchanges. You might be worth more or less whether you “look like someone” or are a “similar demographic” or “follow similar people.” There is nothing wrong with this - it’s similar to buying ads on television or sending mailers to a certain demographic.

But the opportunity on mobile exists for so much more than basic user profiling. Ads should help us browse related content, tempt us to buy stuff, or help us take action.

Good advertising is relevant and should entice users to engage with it. However in order for this to happen, you need to have an understanding of what the user is currently doing. This simply doesn’t exist today inside mobile apps.

Using Context

Yes, that’s an actual screenshot with real data. And we do change his diaper more frequently that every 12 hours.

My Baby Tracker app is a perfect example. If I’m using the app, it means I’m a parent and there are all sorts of things I could be interesting in doing or learning about. I can assure you that new parents are goldmines for marketers based on our recent spending habits.

Our adorable baby Jack is by far our household’s number one line item —, Amazon Prime, clothes, toys, food, gifts and new things I haven’t discovered yet. However, in our baby tracker app it remains Game of War and Candy Crush over and over.

The Baby Tracker app should be able to show far better ads — by better I mean more relevant for the user resulting in a higher monetization rate. Eventually, understanding should move past even just “new parent.” Jack is nearly 6 months old now and our needs have totally changed from when we first brought him home. If the publisher was able to transfer that context — they would make a killing and the ads would offer a far better experience for users.

But what about privacy - you just mentioned that ads targeted at people were part of the problem? And why should advertisers know you are a new parent?

That’s the power of contextual targeting. The advertiser doesn’t need to know who I am or what device I use; just that I’m actively feeding or changing my newborn. A straight contextual ad is far safer than cookie tracking, IDFA targeting, or any number of digital techniques used today.

What needs to happen

The problem today is the mechanism to signal user intent doesn’t exist inside apps. In other words, the Baby Tracker app should be able to declare “show me the best ad for a parent of a 6 month old in San Francisco interacting with their baby right now.” Amazon should be all over that one — are you ready to order some size 3s?

Enabling apps to take advantage of context is at the core of the deep linking and app indexing initiatives today. In order to utilize context, the ecosystem needs to be able to better understand the content inside apps and how to access it.

Google and Apple are pushing hard to incorporate app content into search. In doing so, they are teaching developers how to structure their apps in a way they can expose what is happening at places inside the app and how to navigate there. If I can share the Pampers refill link with Google Now or Siri, I should be able to distribute the link broadly wherever parents might show intent for it. Over time, the advertising ecosystem will be able to ingest this information and serve up far better ads.

In the meantime

We’ll just have to put up with more install ads from games and the latest on demand company to raise a huge marketing war chest. And for those of you who are thinking I wrote my first post on Medium just so I could get a picture of Jack online for Father’s Day, you are probably right.