Nearly three years ago, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that the "iPad's not mobile....It's a computer. That's a different thing." Since then, Apple's iPad and competitors such as the Amazon Kindle, Samsung Galaxy Tab and Microsoft Surface have sold millions of units while making the experience of seeing a tablet in public routine.
So, are tablets "mobile," or are they more akin to laptops, as Zuckerberg implied? Around the ad industry, opinions vary even years later, and sentiments are strong. Marketers like their terminology to be clearly defined, indeed, and many think smartphones and tablets are too different to lump together—which researchers do more often than not.
"I think that it is critical that we separate the phone from the tablet in [the mobile-ads] discussion," commented Richard Guest, president, U.S. operations at Tribal Worldwide. "The tablet is, most likely, the future of advertising because of its potential to serve as the lean-in, immersive companion device to traditional television screens."
Kevin Scholl, Red Roof Inn digital director, had a starkly different outlook, contending that tablets are becoming carry-around devices that are replacing laptops and even, in some cases, smartphones—especially for travelers. "Just generally, consumers are turning to tablets as their go-to device for the Internet," he said.
Though Lee Zalben, president of Peanut Butter & Co., leaned more in the direction of Guest's take.
"While most online marketing analytics platforms report tablets as mobile devices distinct from desktop computers, it's clear that for many people, tablet use is functionally very different than smartphone use," Zalben said. "For example, while most people carry a smartphone while they shop for groceries, far less walk the aisles with a tablet at their side."
And then Eric Bader, CMO of RadiumOne, said tablets are "absolutely" part of the mobile marketing ecosystem.
"'Mobile' is not a description of a particular device; it's a segment of consumers that are readily moving," he asserted. "As far as advertisers are concerned, much of the consumer behavior taking place on a tablet is similar to a smartphone, less the phone calling. What illustrates the mobility of the tablet is when it's so commonly used during a commute. It has built-in cellular service, which most laptops do not, and would be just the right screen for Starbucks to promote morning coffee at your destination."
Given the popularity of tablets, it's a distinction worth arguing over. After all, researcher Gartner predicts there will be 320 million tablet sales in 2015 versus 316 million desktop/laptop units.
Meanwhile, Guest, Scholl, Zalben, Bader and others concurred that marketers are going to increasingly be challenged to find the best ways of reaching consumers across devices. (Guest and Zalben, to be clear, believe the smartphone is a huge medium going forward along with the tablet.) So the debate about whether one throws tablets in either the "mobile" or "digital" bucket may be obscuring a more important point.
"Marketers must consider the consumer's entire shopping journey on their path to purchase and the role various devices play," said Michael Kelly, marketing rep for the American Licorice Company. "Relative to smartphones, consumers are more likely to use tablets to research, make purchases and write reviews, so they are an essential part of any cross-channel marketing campaign."
***Check back tomorrow to read about the advantages that mobile ads have over desktop ads—and vice-versa—as part of our mobile-focused series for Advertising Week.