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We're in the midst of a great migration to portable devices and the opportunity for marketers is immense.

It will be much tougher to cultivate a relationship with users than it was on the web, but if handled properly we’ll find the perfect balance between the ultimate user experience and advertisers’ agenda.

One thing marketers can all agree on: advertising makes the digital world go 'round. What's less a settled matter is how, exactly.

We are a hefty two decades into the commercialization of the internet, and this newest medium is still supported by one of the oldest broadcast models in publishing.

Sure, there are refinements: laser-like targeting almost down to the individual versus the scattershot of broad demographics and imperfect information that is television. But the basic idea hasn't changed: gather a crowd and sell part of their attention to a third party so you can put on a show.

Publishers had scarcely begun to figure out how to monetize the web when mobile started to become the digital venue of choice for netizens. The trend, or course, shows no sign of abating as sales and use of smartphones and tablets and connected ultralights surpass traditional tabletop computers.

There is no doubt that mobile is rapidly becoming a target-rich environment: The IAB recently estimated that mobile-ad spending in the first half of 2013 totaled $3bn, up sharply from $1.2bn in the previous year.  

According to Gail Tifford, Unilever's media director of the company's North America business: 

Shifting dollars to mobile is a 'no brainer' when you look at the time consumers are spending on their devices. 

Now even web publishing success stories, eager to follow customers into their pockets and briefcases, are facing a new watershed moment. The irony is that this great migration is not dissimilar to the dilemma faced by their print cousins who saw their customers run to the web: what works in one medium doesn't neatly port to another.

The jury isn't exactly out on that score. On the whole, banner ads are ubiquitous, yet often ignored.

The pursuit of new ways grab a little attention has littered the web with a dizzying array of ads that test the patience of readers as much as they challenge the notion of user-friendly page design – particularly on the small screen of mobile.

While many mobile ads are ineffective, research – and, arguably, profits – has shown that those built for the small-screen that allow users to choose whether or not to activate the ad, drive more interaction and deliver a far better experience than standard banners.

User initiation is key

When someone chooses to engage, that’s the opportunity for marketers to really deliver an experience that is favorable and welcomed. Where a lot of advertisers go wrong is creating experiences that are disruptive and jarring, forcing people to leave the page.

It’s essential to keep users on the page so they can easily go back to their original content at any time.

The question, then, is how to serve up ads that are not unwelcome guests, whose messaging fits the medium. Because ads can only be effective if readers aren't thinking about them as ads. They have to be noticed, but not noticeable. In the context of what they’re reading or searching for but not interruptive.

Optimizing for this kind of experience on mobile presents unique challenges,  chief among them is the obvious: the amount of real estate at one's disposal is miniscule by web standards.

That single limitation alone requires a new way of thinking. Mobile has pitfalls and opportunities, for publishers and marketers alike. The smart ones will try to imagine what could be and adapt rather than imposing their will.

At their finest, mobile ads should feel like part of the experience, using the precise form of non-linear story-telling that web hyperlinks made possible.

We're in the midst of a great migration to portable devices and the opportunity for marketers is immense. It will be much tougher to cultivate a relationship with users than it was on the web, but if handled properly we’ll find the perfect balance between the ultimate user experience and advertisers’ agenda.

And, hey, maybe when the dust settles we will have learned a thing or two about how to advertise on the next shiny new device too.

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Published 26 November, 2013 by Timon Chiang

Timon Chiang is Product Management Director at Vibrant Media and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

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