Can Mobile Save the World from a Dystopian Ad Future?

By Oisin Lunny, Senior Market Development Manager, OpenMarket for The Guardian

Like many children of the 1970s, I spent many hours immersed in the futuristic visions of the comic book 2000AD, whose Judge Dredd stories were compellingly dystopian. One memorable storyline involved two lovers courting, blissfully alone, by the light of a full moon. A young man kneels down to pop the question of questions. All of a sudden the perfection of their romantic interlude is shattered, as blaring adverts are projected on to the surface of the moon itself. In the fictional future of 2000AD, mega-city populations were tormented by inescapable advertising.

Fast-forward to 2015, when formerly outlandish predictions from comic books are furiously filling the news feeds on our pocket supercomputers. In a few months from now, a Japanese soft drink manufacturer is scheduled to place the first advert on the moon. Advertising is indeed ubiquitous, colonising social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and most recently Instagram. Paying to avoid advertising is sometimes an option, but in many situations it’s simply unavoidable. But how are marketing and technology companies ensuring we don’t experience some sort of dystopian advertising burnout?

We are witnessing a new kind of relationship between consumer and seller, facilitated by the very cutting edge of mobile technology. Here are three key trends helping us move from the “spray and pray” interruption advertising of yesteryear, to contextual commerce, and beyond.

  • The quantified consumer

The customer is key at all stages of the purchase lifecycle. Retargeting, the offering of adverts based on the context of previous browsing patterns, is one of the holy grails of marketing.

There are some interesting startups extending this to retail locations by leveraging mobile devices. Semseye allows retailers to track and analyse consumers’ paths and decision-making processes throughout their stores, via their mobiles, and then delivers predictive forecasting based on context such as weather forecasts. Wiforia adds a marketing technology overlay to free public wireless. Meanwhile, Apple announced iPhone support for store payment and loyalty cards at its Worldwide Developers Conference this year, artfully extending the dovetail between its existing iBeacon proximity marketing ecosystem and ApplePay.

  • Tech rich, time poor

“Our always-connected lifestyles are changing the structures of our brains,” says Mick Rigby, founder & CEO of Yodel Mobile. “This means we are consuming more information, more often, but are less inclined to deep-dive. We will pay for someone else to do it for us instead.” Indeed, US retailer Nordstrom is now offering a shopping-by-SMS service, but we are also beginning to see universal personal shopping assistants such as Awesome in the UK and Magic in the US. These virtual PAs turn SMS dreams into reality. You can now text to buy anything, as long as it’s legal.

Filip Perkon from Awesome explains: “Our clients simply SMS us anything they want. You text, we buy and deliver; it’s that simple. Our team utilises the artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities of DigitalGenius in the same way as Iron Man’s suit, to engage in super-informed conversations and provide quick, uniquely tailored shopping experiences.”

The opportunity for brands to engage in new ways on mobile doesn’t end with eCommerce. Dmitry Aksenov, founder and CEO of DigitalGenius, says mobile messaging is a huge opportunity for brand engagement and is helping brands that have never directly communicated with the consumer before. “Our AI technology powers a personal cooking assistant for Unilever,” he says. “You can text it asking for a recipe for fish, or tell it you have five people coming to dinner and need ideas. It will recognise your request and we can tailor all communications around your mobile number. For example, it will remember your spouse is a vegetarian. The levels of engagement are exceptionally high.”

  • Buy buttons everywhere

As recently reported by KPCB’s internet guru Mary Meeker, there is a huge shortfall between mobile advertising budgets, and our skyrocketing levels of mobile media consumption. I believe this is due to the personal nature of our relationships with our mobile devices, where interruption advertising simply doesn’t work. However, mobile advertising is evolving toward some interesting new formats.

Earlier this year, Google launched an ingenious “local inventory” option. When people search for products, Google will list where they can find them nearby. This is a great user-centric solution, driven by the consumers’ immediate desire and delivering instant value.

The planned introduction of a buy button is one of many Google projects aimed at streamlining the consumer’s path from search to purchase. Google won’t take a cut on the sales, but given their stellar position in the search ecosystem, their new buy button will have a major impact on competitors like Amazon and eBay. As Google searches on mobile devices now outnumber those on personal computers in 10 countries, including the US and Japan, this new ability to buy anything anywhere could hugely boost the significance of achieving meaningful Google search results.

New age of mobile-powered contextual commerce

Mobile devices are increasingly seen as the unique identifier for a consumer, the invisible glue between our physical and digital lives. Retailers and technology companies alike are understandably investing in ways to map our lives as consumers by using multiple discreet technologies, and delivering marketing opportunities underpinned by mass personalisation. Although buy buttons are omnipresent on social channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, its telling that Facebook is now handing out free beacons to retailers, and Twitter is also investing in the space.

All of these developments mirror our collective evolution to what the Economist referred to as phono-sapiens. We have less time to think about what we want, but we want it quicker. We expect companies to know our preferences from device to device, and demand finely nuanced, intelligent commercial interactions. We might even expect services to read our minds using AI, based on beacon proximity, history and context. In the new age of contextual commerce the companies that provide frictionless mobile engagement technologies, from search to retargeting to purchase through to advocacy, will win consumers hearts, minds and ultimately their wallets.