23 February 2021

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A look inside in-app advertising

With audiences increasingly turning to their phones and tablets for entertainment in lockdown, in-app advertising is booming. Yet it is often creatively uninspiring and annoying – why? Emily Gosling investigates

Isolation, boredom and increased screen time can prove a heady cocktail, and one that makes us do things we ordinarily wouldn’t and that we might regret in the morning. It’s a perfect storm for advertisers: digital and app-based placements have never been more lucrative.

But there’s a reason that many of us find certain ads worryingly irresistible, and most others very irritating: my rational brain knows I’m buying pointless tat from; my isolated, procrastinating brain still clicks through on Facebook and Instagram, scrolls endlessly and buys wooden percussion instruments shaped like a frog.

Advertisers working in this ‘narrowcast’ way across social and other apps have an advantage over traditional broadcast media thanks to the specificity of their placement. For agencies, this inherently “changes the way you write,” says Isobel creative Tom Dyson. “It’s more like a one-on-one conversation. It definitely changes your creativity. It makes it more pointed.” The most effective mobile ads read the room — or the app they’re served in.

Brands look to in-app advertising for a few reasons: its directness, ease of tracking and gathering user behaviour data, the possibilities for personalisation and multiple formats, and more simply, the fact that ads are scaled to fit and so, in theory, should look better than mobile web ads.

“Outside of social and more sophisticated gaming apps, ads often appear as ugly, clunky banners or interstitials”

Yet outside of social and more sophisticated gaming apps, ads often appear as ugly, clunky banners or interstitials; or as videos interrupting an app’s use in its free, more limited version. Similarly, many games reward ad engagement with bonuses like access to new levels, yet rarely consider how to creatively engage this captive audience.