Game of PhonesIt’s no secret that mobile advertising is “the next big thing.” In fact, the hype around mobile ads has been nearly inescapable for the last year. The Internet is riddled with articles about how to get the most out of your mobile advertising dollars. Most of the “tips and tricks” are things we’ve all heard of and have probably already implemented: Target your users! Test your ads! Write compelling ads! And the list goes on.

In reality, it’s rarely that simple and the results on mobile advertising seem to be a mixed bag at best. One advertiser may see wild success with mobile advertising while another may experience dismal failure. The question is, why?

A recent study published in the Journal of Marketing Research may help to answer that question. Rather than looking at what ad characteristics work best on mobile advertising, researchers aimed to determine what kinds of product characteristics worked best on mobile advertising.

The study looked at how product type affected consumers’ attitudes toward and intentions to buy different products. It spanned three years and nearly 40,000 consumers across 54 mobile display campaigns.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of it, here’s the primary finding of the study: Mobile Display Ads (MDAs, from here on out) work best for more important purchases.

Obviously, this needs a little more explanation and there are a couple of caveats, but that’s the gist of it. Now, getting into meat of it…

The Study

First, we need to define what we mean by “important purchases.” Researchers categorized products along two dimensions: whether the product or service serves a necessary function (utilitarianism) and the degree of risk or personal consequence that is carried with the decision to purchase (involvement).*

So, in this study, important products or services are those that both serve a necessary function (utilitarian) and have direct personal consequences (highly involving). Think of it like this: A refrigerator is an item that serves a necessary function for the buyer and there are personal consequences directly related to whether or not she has a refrigerator. On the other hand, a new Blue Ray or DVD is a more pleasure-oriented (hedonic) purchase and it does not have direct personal consequences for the buyer (low involvement). Here’s some visualization.


A screwdriver may be something that you need, but you’re not likely to put much thought into what screwdriver you buy or the consequences of buying a screwdriver. You may, however, put a great deal of thought into what cruise you should go on, even though you probably don’t need to go on a cruise and it won’t serve a necessary function in your life.

What this study found was that MDA campaigns work best for products in the upper left quadrant of the above table: products that have direct personal consequences (highly involving) and are functional (utilitarian). Consumers who saw campaigns focused on those kinds of products had more positive attitudes toward products and greater intent to purchase than those who saw campaigns for the other three product categories.

There’s another important finding tucked away in this paper. The (likely) reason why MDAs are most effective for important purchases is because they trigger consumers’ memory of those products and services. In other words, MDAs work best for important products and services when the consumer is already aware of them.

The Takeaway

If you don’t feel like reading through the entire study, I want to point out that there are several solid, actionable takeaways from this study.

  • First and foremost, mobile display ads are most effective when the advertised products and services provide a necessary function and have direct personal consequences for the buyer. If you’re selling those big ticket items, great! It may be time to take a closer look at mobile advertising. If you sell smaller ticket items, consider potentially changing your tactics. Even if your product or service doesn’t provide a necessary function, try framing it that way in your ads, focusing on the functional aspects of your product or service. But, keep in mind…
  • In general, the MDAs studied were not terribly effective at inducing positive attitudes toward or intentions to buy a product. Only about one-third of the 54 campaigns studied produced any positive effects. So, even if you’re selling those functional, highly involving products, don’t expect miracles. Finally…
  • Mobile Display Ads may be most effective as a remarketing tactic. Attitudes and intentions to buy were most positive when consumers were already aware of the brand or product, suggesting that MDAs work best when they act as reminders of the product or service.

While, this article doesn’t completely crack the code on mobile advertising, it does offer valuable insight into what leads to success in some for some advertisers but not others. Usually, the academic research tends to be behind the curve when it comes to industry application. In this case however, they’re at the front of the pack.

If you have a mobile display campaign that has soared, tanked, or just been sort of okay, let us know! We’d love to hear how this plays out across industries in real life. Just remember, when you play the Game of Phones, you win and they buy.

*This is a very simple explanation of one facet of Involvement. Please see the original study or contact the author of this post for further explanation.