Katherine Levy: Social media giants will sink or swim in mobile ad waters
A view from Katherine Levy

Katherine Levy: Social media giants will sink or swim in mobile ad waters

Last week, I attended an event at which Dominic Allon, Google UK's director of agency sales, was speaking.

We were both guests of MPG Media Contacts, which held a conference on the Havas positioning Meaningful Brands. It is based on the insight that, in hard times, brands more than ever need to be meaningful and earn their place in people's lives.

In his speech, Allon offered up a checklist of how brands can be meaningful. Top of the list, unsurprisingly, was one of the founding principles of Google - that brands should constantly test and iterate. "Let people decide," he said.

I don't think I'd be the first to point out that it's not just about letting people make a decision - they simply will. In an age when digital interaction can so easily slip from the enjoyable to the frustrating - whether it's a sluggish website or one of those flashy pop-up ads that make you feel like you might have an epileptic fit - the consumer can simply switch off and end the conversation. And then it's too late.

So, in 2012, when it seems we have finally reached the long-touted "year of mobile" after a couple of false starts, encouraging brands to be meaningful has become more relevant than ever before.

This is why Facebook and Twitter, both of which have recently announced new ad products on their mobile apps, should listen to the Havas mantra. Because, although a commercial mobile strategy is the logical next step for the social media giants to take, especially with Facebook's looming IPO forcing it to make big gestures on how it will monetise the site, they are moving into uncharted waters.

Understandably, advertisers are frustrated that Facebook uses its 850 million users as currency to sell against - when, until now, more than half that amount haven't seen the ads on the historically ad-free app. But at the other end of the scale, there is a smartphone user who is unused to ads on their personal pocket computer - and these are the people you really don't want to frustrate.

It seems that both Facebook and Twitter are aware they need to move carefully and start small, with a sponsored story here and a promoted Tweet there in users' mobile news feeds. Facebook has always had the right idea when it talks about these ads as stories, using language appropriate to the social context.

But still the tension remains - if Facebook and Twitter say they will start with one promotion or "story" a day on the phone app, users might not even see it, and the brand will have paid for nothing. But start to bombard the user and you risk putting them off from the app altogether.

It is a very fine line and one that can only be navigated well if a brand on mobile is the most meaningful it can be.