NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In mobile's brief lifetime, marketers have experimented with the medium both as a brand-building and a direct-response channel, with no major proof points having emerged on either side.
The case for using mobile as a direct-response channel, however, could resonate more in the present climate, as marketers -- under pressure to show results -- may shift the objective from consideration to clicks.
Mobile's ubiquity makes it a natural for facilitating lead generation and engagement, something that categories such as automotive have been able achieve with good effect. In third-quarter campaigns run by ad network AdMob, automotive advertising logged a range of click-through rates, between 2.9% and 5.5%, followed by 1.2% to 3.5% for entertainment brands.
"The beauty about mobile is that whenever [consumers] decide to hit that trigger -- 'I am going to find out more about Kia' -- we can be there to enable that experience," said Dave Schoonover, customer-relations marketing manager at Kia Motors. "So for us, it's not enough to just deliver a brand message online, we have to enable the scenario whereby if they decide to take the next step ... they can contact a dealership."
Mobile drives action
Mobile's ability to draw an instant response and identify highly qualified and engaged prospects through capabilities like click-to-call and click-to-SMS makes the medium ideal for driving action. Larry Harris, CEO of Ansible Mobile, sees mobile more as a customer-acquisition channel that's measured in clicks, not eyeballs. For him, impressions, as measured in the traditional cost-per-thousand-viewers metric, do not go hand-in-hand with mobile.
"CPM is more about brand awareness, which most mobile is not. [Mobile] is about getting action. There's no great metrics, in my view, around impressions. When you click through, that's your engagement," Mr. Harris said.
As brand managers are held to greater accountability, there is also a sense that results-based campaigns will move to the fore. Mr. Harris said to expect more performance-based programs that combine cost-per-impression with cost-per-click.
And while cost-per-click wouldn't necessarily be cheaper or more expensive than CPM, advertisers could negotiate more aggressively for direct response buys, media buyers say.
Not ripe for branding -- yet
For now, some say mobile has several strikes against it as a branding channel. On most handsets, the screen is too small and the multimedia capabilities are too limited to deliver a rich, branded experience.
In its current incarnation, mobile also lacks the reach and scale to satisfy the exposure requirements of large-scale campaigns. Though smart phones are on the rise, the vast majority of consumers still use their handsets for voice and text.
"The challenge in the marketplace now is that you can't reach enough people to have that branding effect to affect your bottom line," said Amy Auerbach, senior VP-director of digital at Initiative.
For Ms. Auberbach, the minimum threshold is 3 million people. But as with any new technology, gathering a critical mass will take time.
Makes other media interactive
But while handset limitations and other factors make mobile less optimal for awareness building, marketers can still tap the medium for its interactive capabilities for brand building. In fact, one solution is to use it along with other, less interactive media, such as print or billboards. Tagging a static ad with a mobile call-to-action can add a conversion or click-through metric. Whether the campaign is skewed to branding or direct response, once mobile is inserted into the equation, one-way, passive media becomes two-way, trackable media -- and potentially more accountable.
"There's increasing need for accountability in this space," said Angela Steele, senior VP at mobile marketing firm Hyperfactory. "More and more it's not just impressions and clicks but how mobile is converting."
Some don't view the branding vs. direct response demarcations as meaningful.
"It's like saying television is branding ... [but] if you put on the Home Shopping Network, it's being used as direct response," said Jack Philbin, president of Vibes Media.
Best tied to larger strategy
One way to frame the branding vs. direct-response debate is to draw a line between mobile web banner advertising and mobile marketing, the latter being more about weaving mobile into the overall marketing strategy, Mr. Philbin said. When mobile is part of the broader media mix, "you've got the mobile call-to-action to [TV, print or out of home]; it could be a way to tie all those disparate media dollars together that creates some sort of congruence. Mobile is not its own channel; it's a layer on other mediums."
Increasingly, brands are looking at it this way.
Chris Murphy, who looks after digital marketing for Adidas in the U.S., said integrating mobile into a broader campaign, rather than any single stand-alone mobile program, has guided the athletic shoemaker's mobile strategy. The marketer's "Basketball Is a Brotherhood" campaign featuring print, outdoor and TV invites users to text in and receive calls from NBA all-stars. The goal is to push users to its "Brotherhood" site where a rich, branded experience awaits and let mobile continue the conversation long after the TV spots expire.
"If you did text in, say, from television spots, you can extend the consumer participation and reinforce the message," Mr. Murphy said.
In the end, it's about having something to show for the mobile campaign.
"You don't want to set up a mobile program without some sort of measurement in place to show that consumers actually did see it and interacted with the content," Ms. Auerbach said. "So, whether it's an opt-in or short-code response, unless mobile is part of a bigger program, I don't think branding is worth the trouble."