Not to sound very 2019, but remember the "Year of Mobile"? For a while it felt like you couldn't attend an event without someone christening it THE YoM (ahem) – a watershed moment where smartphones started to attract more screen time and spend than desktop. Yet while it was a convenient, if overused, catch-all for the inexorable rise of smartphones, in the context of 2021, the concept now seems a bit reductive.
Don't get me wrong, our love of smartphones has flourished unabated throughout 2020 and 2021. Despite the fact that we spent the past 18 months largely immobile – stuck at home through the trilogy of lockdowns – we've been spending more time than ever on our mobiles. According to our Real Living 2021 study, smartphones are our most used digital device, with 80% of us using them every day and 41% saying their phones have changed how they consume entertainment at home. Watching, streaming, listening, gaming, chatting, scrolling, shopping... it's all mobile.
But when it comes to ads, we still talk about "mobile advertising" as if it's an entity in itself, one that should be optimised for the screen and highly clickable. In reality, mobile advertising has evolved to encompass a hugely diverse range of opportunities that can't be lumped together as one homogenous format. From an advertising perspective, "mobile" should be seen as a device that spans contexts and mood states, requiring a nuanced, tailored approach to creativity.
Real Living 2021 – a deep dive into the changing digital lives of Brits – reveals that our online habits are grouped into three distinct areas. In a nutshell, we have immersive environments (such as online retail, podcasts and streaming music), lean-back environments (mobile gaming, short-form video and online radio) and discovery environments (news, emails and online searches).
There are some overlaps, with social media bridging "lean-back" and "discovery" and VOD being both "immersive" and "lean-back". Yet what fascinated me about this guide is that all of the day-to-day activities it encompasses are, pretty much, mobile. We do all of these things (bar console gaming) on our phones, and we are channelling all of these different versions of ourselves into our phones.
So what does this mean for advertisers? First of all, brands need to be really attuned to people's mood states while they are engaging in these different activities. Mobile is no longer just about making sure an ad is optimised for the screen. It's about appreciating that smartphones now sit at the core of everything we do and crafting a message that resonates with that particular mood and moment.
For mobile gaming ads, that's respecting the highly immersive environment and entering into the gameplay to enhance the experience or offer rewards. For social media ads, it's tapping into the fact that we're in a curious frame of mind, open to being distracted and looking for inspiration.
Advertisers need to be taking these varying considerations on board, while at the same time being aware of the fact that our smartphones are an inherently intimate environment. Like it or not, they are an extension of ourselves – both a portal of escapism and an irreplaceable tool that helps us get things done. Whether we're plugging into a favourite podcast, scouring Insta for interior inspo, smashing it on Candy Crush or simply getting the groceries in, this is a personal space, and advertising needs to get the targeting balance right.
That means being relevant and respectful of the context, but not over-targeting or over-personalising creative, both of which are a big turn-off to an increasingly digital savvy audience, according to our research. It is, of course, far more challenging to do this in-app, given Apple's IDFA changes, but utilising context and reassessing the value of non-addressable data is an essential first step.
So, two years after what I think we decided was the actual Year of Mobile, what does a successful "mobile" strategy mean in 2021? It means applying a more nuanced lens to the huge range of opportunities that mobile encompasses. It's about taking the time to understand the different ways that people are using their mobiles and tailoring creative that will resonate with and enhance that mood state. And it means being willing to think differently about what mobile ads can achieve when it comes to storytelling and brand building – beyond performance metrics.
With more adspend than ever being channelled into this area – it now accounts for 64% of all digital investment – I believe that there is still plenty of charge left in mobile advertising if we're embracing all that it has to offer.
James Chandler is chief marketing officer of IAB UK