Gadgets: Ad Land’s Newest Inventory

Ask any interactive shop to build a campaign and you’ll likely get a digital centerpiece that costs a small fortune, such as a mobile app for iPhones or a team of bloggers driving cross country bragging about your brand via Twitter and a microsite. This blockbuster approach appeals to both CMO egos and agency paychecks, putting the client at the center of a new communication hub.

It’s also wrongheaded because in a world of billions of Internet-enabled devices with fragmenting formats, any attempt at building a single portal will fail. The only way to succeed in our tech-morphing landscape is to treat device proliferation as a new form of media inventory, and to vastly increase placements in each category.

We’re talking frequency, people. Costs are falling for digital production, so it’s time to put thousands of hooks in the ocean. Just as you’d never run one 30-second TV spot and call it a day, you can no longer launch one Web site or mobile app every year. You now need repeat launches across gadget platforms.

Why? Here are some things that shops pitching $100K iPhone apps typically don’t put in their PowerPoint show:

Most apps are quickly forgotten. A recent study by Pinch Media of 30 million app downloads found that only 20 percent of people continue to use a given smartphone application after 24 hours, and after 90 days only 1 percent of users continued tapping.

Mobile ad demand does not exist. If you think ads work well in mobile, follow these bouncing forecasts: In 2007, Strategy Analytics predicted mobile ad spending would be $14.4 billion by 2011; in 2008 eMarketer said $6.5 billion by 2012; in 2009, the Kelsey Group suggested $3.1 billion by 2013. The falling expectations make mobile advertising the Great Pumpkin of the industry, a specter always almost about to appear.

Viral is unsustainable. Admit it, you want to go viral. But from Skittles’ 2009 tweet-stream home page to Lindsay Lohan fighting the E*Trade baby this month, any buzzworthy event in social media slips away as quickly as it scales. Punch a few hot topics into and check the falloff. How many topics triple in chatter and then sustain that level for more than two weeks?

The browser is fading. Wall Street analyst Mary Meeker has noted the world soon will have 10 billion Internet-enabled gadgets, and many won’t run Firefox or Microsoft Explorer. Giant Google itself hinted in its most recent annual report that search volumes in traditional browsers may be cresting. Your new Web site is a stake in old ground.

“Wait!” you may protest. “Our mobile app will break through, our Facebook fan page will have fans!” But denial is not a success strategy. Devices have proliferated. Content inventory is through the roof. Formats are fragmenting. Thus the value of any campaign impression has been devalued.

Here is how to respond:

Treat gadgets as a media “market entrant.” Build a three-year forecast for new device formats likely to be adopted by your highest-value customers. The iPad for affluent businesspeople? Mobile-based social media games for 40-something women? In-car connectivity systems such as Ford’s SYNC for families? Your media plan should now include a matrix of customer demographics and associated gadgetry — not just media consumption.

Build both a testing and frequency strategy. Allocate 3-5 percent of your budget to explore media formats that don’t involve broadcast, paper or browsers. For large budgets, this allocation may seem high — but consider the benefit of avoiding a 30 percent loss in sales two years from now when a competitor eats your lunch in new media.