What If Mobile Ads Just Don't Work?

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An investor makes a strong argument that screens are too small and people are too distracted for mobile marketing to ever be effective.

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Reuters

There's a common wisdom among start-up watchers like Mary Meeker or the guys at Business Insider that mobile phone advertising is a HUGE OPPORTUNITY. That's because people are spending a lot of time on their phones and very little advertising revenue is being generated during those hours. By the iron laws of the universe, where the people spend time, advertising dollars will follow. 

But there is another possibility, of course. It could be that advertising is simply inimical to the smartphone experience. In a great post at Monday Note, investor Jean-Louis Gassée explores this hypothetical and comes away convinced. The screens are too small and people are too distracted to pay any attention to the ads on their phones. And the seeming virtues of location-based ads don't seem that way to the people who'd be receiving them. Mobile ads just aren't going to work, Gassée concludes:

If the industry hasn't cracked the mobile advertising code after five years of energetic and skillful work it's because there is no code to crack. Together, the small screen, the different attention modes, the growing concerns about privacy create an insurmountable obstacle.

The "$20B Opportunity" is a mirage.

This would be a huge problem for just about every company that depends on Internet advertising. Most of them/us are seeing increased mobile usage, which means less and less of the time people spend with their brands is monetizable at the (already paltry) rates they'd come to expect on the web. Also don't forget that hundreds of millions of people in the developing world primarily access the Internet through their phones. So, it's not impossible that the mobile revolution may actually represent a doomsday for free ad-supported content and services.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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