One of the things I’ve noticed as we’ve been out talking with (potential) customers is that we are much more interested in mobile and location than a lot of “social media agencies.” That’s a shame, as it appears to me that mobile is where social can make a big difference, as I’ll explain below. But the problem is, like most new ad mediums, our industry is getting mobile all wrong.

This has been on my mind for a while, but hit me over the head of late: Last week I went to an AAF Dallas luncheon about mobile, leading me to tweet:

Then came a New York Times article on problems with smartphone ad formats being the fly in the ointment. Hyperbole aside, it was one of the most naive and myopic things I’d read in some time, the nut being that because you can’t put big invasive ads on a device and use cookies to tie to longer-term behavior, mobile ads just aren’t so great. Even worse:

Another reason advertisers don’t value smartphone ads highly is that users tend to lack a receptive mind-set when using their phones. “It’s an activity you do for a short burst of time,” Ms. Chen says. “It’s very functional.” That is not a good time to try to make users stop what they are doing and give their attention to an advertiser’s message.

That’s one way to look at it. The other is that if you use often readily-available geographic and contextual information, there is no better time to reach someone. But the author clearly wasn’t interested in talking to anyone whose view didn’t fit the narrative.

This shouldn’t surprise me, I guess. Even Apple has gotten this space wrong, as I presaged in an email exchange with Steve Jobs in 2010. While I’m not suggesting I had all the answers, iAds performance has been beyond disappointing.

In the recent iPhone 5 keynote, Johnny Ive pointed out that the smartphone is the most personal device we have – which I’d argue makes it the most likely to make a dent in commerce. But that’s not about a better weather-suggested creative for a hotel chain or a branding exercise. It’s about two critical factors:

  1. Place
  2. Time

Those are the holy grail of commerce for any retailer. If I know those two things, I can send you something interesting. Add intent, and it’s a slam dunk.

And that’s regardless of creative. Maybe it’s even despite creative. Note that two of the three companies the Times article lauds for success in mobile, Twitter and Foursquare, are using primarily non-traditional ad units. The third, Pandora, is a radio-esque play which uses a more narrative-oriented format than a banner ad.

What’s going to drive commerce in local mobile isn’t a great new ad unit. It’s going to be words. Simple words, along these lines:

Because you are nearby and likely to need what I have, I’d like to offer you a deal to come buy from me right now. And if you don’t mind, tell your friends?

That’s what we’re trying to help our clients say.

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