Imagine trying to squeeze a department store into a street corner kiosk. It would be impossible without losing vast amounts of inventory.
And yet that's the challenge digital publishers face, as they make the painful transition from being desktop advertising businesses, to becoming mobile advertising businesses.
It's not a choice any major publisher has made willingly. Nobody woke up and decided to move from the wide screen utopia of near endless pixels to a world where space is almost comically limited. No, the choice was made for them by their users. The proportion of people accessing the web using mobile devices hasn't just grown, it's exploded. Near vertical growth charts speak for themselves.
But what to do? Well, there are plenty of options, of course, even if Facebook is very publicly struggling to figure it out. Mobile ad revenue is rising for most publishers. There are some great ad networks and agencies specialising in the mobile space.
There are real benefits for advertisers too. Eye-tracking studies have shown visitors to desktop sites focus almost exclusively on the editorial content, ignoring ads in the margins. On mobile there are no margins, making it far more likely that your ad will be seen. If you can capture someone's attention within the confines of their phone then you really do have their attention.
And yet problems remain. We commissioned a survey of UK mobile users and asked a simple question: 'In the last six months, do you recall having seen an advert of any kind whilst using the browser or apps on your smartphone?' Incredibly, only one in five of the 1,014 respondents said 'yes'.
How is that possible? On desktop it's more understandable; ads are often placed out of the line of sight. But on mobile? On a screen that small there's literally nowhere to hide. If an ad is present, how could four in five people not notice it?
When looking at this further, even the fifth of respondents who could recall seeing a mobile ad in the last six months had a hard time remembering what those ads were actually for. In fact, the majority of them, 53%, couldn’t tell us what brands, products or services were being promoted in the mobile ads they’d seen.
So, if the ads are there, why aren’t they sticking in the minds of the people that do notice them? Of course, the adverts themselves could simply be forgettable – which was the explanation for 34% - but the biggest problem shown from our research was that the ads were "too distorted" to be able to tell what they were for. This is clearly a huge problem.
Brands may well be pumping money into advertising on mobile, all for nothing. If the leg work doesn’t go in to making sure the adverts look good, are clear and, most importantly, make sense, they’re going to be ignored.
The knee-jerk reaction, of course, is to make mobile ads more interruptive. If people choose not to pay attention, then make them pay attention with ads that expand, auto-play, takeover or interrupt.
But that won't work either. People are surprisingly adept at avoiding annoyances. Ads that auto-play get auto-closed too, with no mental effort expended. It's not that people don't see mobile ads, it's that they don't process them. One slightly pixelated rectangle looks a lot like any other.
So, ads that announce themselves like drunken gatecrashers are a no-go, as are the wallflower types that sit at the top of the page, silently blinking. The mobile ad space needs to change; the ads must become part of the content being viewed in order to be effective. Squashed logos, distorted pictures and interruptive and irrelevant material won’t wash with mobile users.
As the whole digital ad space evolves to keep up with the volume of gadgets being designed, created and release, mobile is certainly the area that needs to catch up. Even online adverts need a lot of work, to move them from the traditional banner ads to something more effective, but mobile has a long way to go.
All in all, mobile is a problem at the moment for advertisers and a very real one at that. But it doesn’t have to be. There are already ways to make ads clearer, more fitting to the content being viewed and more likely to be clicked on. Sure, it’s a hurdle, but creative solutions can be found when you think outside the box (or rather, the rectangle) and try something new.
It's something we know we'll all need to keep doing, as mobile certainly won't be the last thing to disrupt this space.
Guy Cookson, co-founder, Respond, and director, Azullo