American Marketer


Making the case for responsive ad units in midst of mobile design debate

February 6, 2014

Salim Hemdani is vice president of software at Mixpo


By Salim Hemdani

While Mashable deemed 2013 “the year of responsive design,” we believe 2014 will be the year of responsive ad units.

There has been a lot of hype about publishers’ shift to responsive design, but for the most part, the shift has been slow or incomplete. Even pioneers such as Mashable do not yet have responsive ad units.

The good news is that of the premium publishers we surveyed, 80 percent believe that it is extremely important to use responsive design on their Web properties.

In Feb 2010, a Morgan Stanley report forecasted that the mobile Internet market would be twice the desktop Internet market within five years.

Now, market researchers such as comScore can predict with a high confidence that 2014 will be the year when, globally, mobile users will surpass desktop users.

Publishers experience this trend first hand.

Small print is big news
According to Leslie Grandy, senior vice president of product and development digital media at Discovery Communications, “There is exploding growth in video consumption from non-PC based browsers. Our stats, like those of many publishers, show a steep rise in mobile access to our content.”

The same trend is visible at Univision.

“Nearly 65 percent of Univision’s traffic is from mobile,” said Eric Simuro, account manager at Univision. “Viewers aren’t consuming content on desktop, but rather on tablets and phones.”

That is the primary reason that these and other premium publishers either already have, or are currently making the leap to fully responsive Web properties in the first half of 2014.

The shift in consumers’ content consumption behavior from desktop to mobile creates a unique set of challenges for publishers and content providers.

First, as publishers saw a dip in desktop usage and a rise in mobile consumption, many rushed to create unique mobile experiences to increase audience stickiness.

Some publishers did a better job than others, but trying to provide an experience that is unique to mobile is easier said than done.

Fair-weather systems
Creating different experiences for different screens is an execution nightmare for publishing teams.

That is why at The Weather Company all its properties will be fully responsive by the first half of 2014.

According to Alex Linde, senior vice president of monetization at The Weather Company, “We've always taken mobile seriously, but as our audience grows – nearly 120 million downloads of our apps and 60 million uniques a month across mobile and desktop Web – it's not practical to see one screen as primary and another secondary.

“To ensure we have consistency,” he said, “the most practical approach is to have a single team building a single experience for Web.”

Responsive design is not a new concept.

A quick definition: responsive design enables sites to very elegantly optimize the site layout and content for the screen size of the device on which the content is consumed.

In the words of Ms. Grandy, it allows publishers to truly embrace a “create once and publish everywhere” content philosophy.

Secondly, probably the bigger challenge is the unique monetization methods for different experiences.

Platform issue
Ad inventory for desktop, tablet and mobile began by being sold separately and priced separately, creating unnecessary operation inefficiency across the board in the ad ecosystem.

To address this, Discovery Communications is taking a multipronged approach that begins with the user experience.

“We must embrace our new responsive capabilities to create innovative experiences that attract, enthrall and retain users,” Ms. Grandy said.

“We must encourage them to stay longer and consume more content because it is easy, accessible and unfettered by their choice of device, browser or OS,” she said.

“If we do that for consumers, then we must be able to do the same for our advertisers' content as well. Our secret sauce then becomes how we integrate ad units into our interactive designs to create a high level of engagement between our consumers and our advertisers.”

For The Weather Company, it is fully embracing a single platform in hopes that consistency will help better monetize its Web properties.

“Our consumer and content teams can execute much more quickly across all screens, and consistency really is our theme for monetization in 2014,”Mr. Linde said.

The most extreme case is that all of Univision’s new ad products are now designed mobile first.

“All new ad products are first tested on mobile,” Mr. Simuro said.

That makes sense because its viewers are increasingly consuming content via mobile.

OCD, but not RCD
Our analysis suggests that while responsive design solves for user experience and publishing efficiency, consistency in monetization of that content is still an industry-wide challenge.

More publishing sites are going responsive, but ads placed on those sites are not inherently responsive in nature.

Despite the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s early efforts on responsive creative design (RCD), the industry has made little progress.

There are very few companies that offer RCD for ad units. The availability of RCD ad products across the industry is super slim. One might argue this is a classic chicken-and-egg situation.

Discovery Communications is testing video ads to make its interactive video ads responsive just like its Web content.

The Weather Company developed its sites to be smart enough to select the correct ad sizes depending on the device that is accessing the content.

“This first step helped with the transition to responsive,” Mr. Linde said.

The broadcaster is also seeing that advertisers are increasingly interested in cross-screen ad products, particularly with video ads.

Making sure all its content is responsive, including ads, “continues to be an experiment, since article content tends to flow much more easily than ads,” Mr. Linde said.

IN THE VERY near future, all major publishing sites will be responsive in nature.

With the speed with which devices of different screen sizes are proliferating in our lives, going responsive is not just a nice to have, it is a must-have for all publishers.

With publishers stepping up their game, 2014 will be the year for ad ecosystems to embrace, adapt and develop responsive ad products.

Salim Hemdani is vice president of software at Mixpo, Seattle. Reach him at