Context: The Most Important Mobile Ad Attribute

Publishers have had to have a mobile strategy for quite a while now, but in the past year many have realized they have to be mobile first, or even mobile only to meet their customers. This has required a new understanding of context — how to reach those customers, understand them, and offer them services that do not offend.

This requires an understanding of context: what devices and screens their users are on, the patterns of usage, which networks they’re on, what plans they’re on, and more. In human history no other devices has presented such challenges.

For most users, mobile means apps, especially for digital media consumption.

A study by cross-device identity and advertising platform provider Drawbridge found that in just six months, from August to December of 2016, the top 15 ad-supported iOS apps grew 32.5% in monthly unique users to nearly 137 million, while the top 15 ad-supported Android apps grew five percent to 606 million monthly uniques.

In 2016, for the first time, mobile surpassed desktop as a means of consuming digital media, and equally important was the growth in mobile advertising, which also surpassed desktop.

In mobile, context takes many forms. Creators have come to realize that mobile is a new surface, and that they can’t just re-package their old content, TV ads, or display ads. Mobile can tolerate special sized vertical video, swiping in multiple directions, and geolocation. It is far more interactive than the desktop, and therefore open to bigger challenges as well as opportunities.

Publishers must be able to know whether a visitor is viewing their content on the subway, standing in a store, walking, or just waiting to know what kind of ad that person would be willing to see. As Grapeshot points out,

In the mobile sphere, the content being consumed in the moment sends powerful signals as to the context of the person consuming and interacting with it.

Contextual understanding adds a layer beyond what audience data can provide. Knowing what media are being consumed signals a person’s current state of mind, their current preferences, even their level of engagement and degree of attention.

Correctly executed, contextual advertising puts brand messages where consumers will accept and even welcome them. It also protects brands from dreadful adjacencies, such as hate speech, porn, and terrorist propaganda.

A few years ago, a startup then named Proximic tried to sell the idea of brand safety to both advertisers and publishers. It had the capacity to scan over a hundred languages in real time to find brand safe locations for ads. No one seemed to care. The company was sold to ComScore, and is now called Activation, but now Grapeshot has come along,  and using similar machine learning algorithms to target suitable ad placements.  And on mobile, the suitability of placements has become far more important.

For example, since most of consumption activity takes place in apps, it is imperative to understand the context of apps into which messaging can appear safely without either compromising brand safety or interrupting a consumer intent on an experience. Page-level understanding of what’s inside apps is still in its infancy and the industry is still using workarounds developed by verification services like MOAT.

But these are tools for the post-bid environment, and the problem won’t be solved until we find a pre-bid solution.