Rise of the Mobile Oligarchs

Facebook and Twitter will shape the future mobile media economy

Mobile is the future. This statement is both undeniably true and, like any mantra, irritating the 300th time you hear it.

Illustration: Davor Pavelic

And you hear it a lot in my business, although you don’t need to be a media or technology whiz to recognize how fundamentally human behavior has changed since the advent of mobile computing—a lot of people looking at a lot of small screens, a lot of the time.

But despite this, for many brand marketers, particularly those who came of age during the “traditional digital” era, when the PC and the third-party cookie were reliable constants, mobile may be the future, but right now it is different and weird and hard. Yes, the creative experience often sucks, both the ads themselves and the post-click experience. Additionally, cross-device user attribution is unreliable (how do I know it’s the same person on his iPhone and laptop and tablet? The answer is I don’t). And old targeting strategies need not apply (how do I re-use the audience segmentation and targeting tactics that served me so well on desktop? You guessed it, I can’t).

Even more frustrating can be the awareness that, in 2014, many factors are fundamentally working on mobile. User attention is massive and growing, and in-app monetization is starting to scale in a big way. Also, in-feed, native advertising seems to really work (unlike that misfit from another medium, the resized desktop banner), and the associated ad revenue is growing significantly. For example, Facebook now derives 59 percent of its total ad revenue from mobile. For Twitter, that number climbs to 80 percent.

Enter the oligarchy. On mobile, first-party media entities like Twitter and Facebook (and a couple of notable others, like Google and Amazon) are particularly well positioned to push would-be mobile advertisers onto the slope of enlightenment. To this end, Facebook and Twitter each possess a powerful collection of assets including large, first-party authenticated cross-device audiences (try saying that 10 times fast), effective mobile ad formats and tons of user data.

Bringing these assets to bear is part of a strategy that is continuing to roll out this year. In the first stage, Facebook and Twitter figure out what works within their own mobile ecosystems in terms of ad formats, user targeting and monetization (both seem to have nailed this part).

Next, and this is the stage we’re currently in, they extend the “what’s working” model to publishers outside those immediate ecosystems—to MoPub (mobile ad exchange) in Twitter’s case and to Facebook’s ad network partners. Brands and their agencies, who, in the meantime, have become quite familiar with Facebook and Twitter’s advertising buying tools, now gain a reliable and familiar means of reaching mobile users via those additional publishers.

Then, having successfully extended the mobile ad model to other publishers, Twitter and Facebook can also extend user authentication into these expanded networks, thereby giving advertisers a reliable way to identify users across smartphones, tablets and desktops.

The importance of this last point cannot be overstated. For advertisers to spend really significant money in mobile—in areas beyond just app downloads and search—an infrastructure must exist that supports the targeting, measurement and attribution of ad campaigns, reliably and across devices.

In the era of the PC, digital advertising built its infrastructure on top of the third-party cookie, a reliable workhorse that wasn’t exactly controversy-free, but at least remained nonproprietary. In our post-PC world, however, it appears that the infrastructure we need will be provided by large and proprietary first parties.

As we have heard, mobile is indeed the future. And in this, as in many other ways, it will not resemble the past.

Josh Engroff (@jengroff ) is chief digital media officer at The Media Kitchen and managing partner of kbs+ Ventures.