Apple’s announcement that it plans to include tools in app developer kits for iOS 9 that would block ads in its Safari browser have ignited debates around online advertising  The argument that pop-ups and banners are an intrusive annoyance for consumers has led to calls for ISPs and OEMs to adopt ad-blocker software as standard. Some have even gone as far as to suggest it should become a legal requirement.

This is causing something of a panic for marketers and brands that are looking at how they can adjust their models in the wake of this backlash. Even without agreements between ISPs and legislation a May 2015 report by media analyst Frederic Filloux found that 15 to 17% of the U.S. population already uses ad-blockers, with the numbers concluded to be higher in Europe. The fact is, the pop-up/banner model just isn’t working with modern consumers.

Now is the time to move away from a ‘spray and pray’ strategy and instead become more customer-centric, allowing the consumer to engage on their own terms.

Brand engagement doesn’t work the way it used to

Legal action has failed to halt the snowballing popularity of the ad-blocker. In May of this year, German broadcasters RTL and ProSiebenSat1 lost a court action against Eyeo, the maker of online ad-blocking software AdBlock Plus. These decisions are likely to set a precedent in Germany and possibly lead the way for positive adoption of the software across Europe. Even Google CEO Larry Page conceded that advertisers need to create better ads, in response to the rise of ad-blockers.

Apple’s announcement moved the conversation – as it has done so many times before – from desktop to mobile. The company’s statement that iOS9 is its most popular update yet reinforces the irresistible shift to a ‘mobile first’ market. Mobile, particularly for millennials, is the way the average person interacts with brands whether it’s shopping online, in apps or through Twitter. Mobile is integral to the consumer journey.  Perhaps more importantly, consumers are interacting with brands how they want to, rather than vice-versa. This might mean shopping at 3am when they can’t sleep or checking out the latest offers on the train home from work. Time and location aren’t really a factor. This is perhaps one of the greatest reasons there is such a strong fatigue with distraction marketing methods such as pop-ups, and banner ads.

That’s not to say that all mobile advertising takes an ‘interruption approach’ but greater focus on the user experience should be placed on any mobile engagement strategy. With ad blocking technology, once it’s turned on, consumers may never know if a brand got it right after the debate. That means that popular retargeting tactics that offer adverts based on the pretext of previous browsing patterns may no longer be possible for the ad-blocking demographic. This recent “holy grail” for marketers is no longer a scalable option.

The new age of mobile powered contextual commerce

This means marketers and brands need to be a little more accurate in their approach – they can’t just broadcast, cross their fingers and see what sticks. A mobile engagement strategy is crucial to improving the customer experience so that any form of engagement is smart – just like our devices – relevant and personalised. By compiling contextual mobile web and app data including both real-time location and location-history of a device, marketers can establish location as a proxy for a consumer’s real-world activity, interests and intent. With the increasing popularity of artificial intelligence (AI) and bluetooth low-energy (BLE) wireless technologies such as Digital Genius,Google’s Eddystone and Apple’s iBeacon that can provide even more mobile data for ultra-personalised services, the opportunity is larger still.

The delivery mechanism for a two-way, user-centric and personalised engagement on this platform will be via intelligent SMS solutions, especially for consumers on the go. At OpenMarket we commissioned eDigital Research to find out which platforms were preferred by shoppers, for a number of use cases. The results show there is no one size fits all solution. Different approaches work better in different settings. What the research showed was that when the message is time-sensitive and when the consumer is on the move, SMS is the best choice.  Not only does it deliver open rates of over 95%, in contrast to email and push notifications, but it is also prioritised by 83% of consumers.

SMS soft engagement tactics combined with AI such as DigitalGenius has worked for a number of brands including Unilever, who use the technology to power a virtual cooking assistant. According to Dmitry Aksenov, founder and CEO of DigitalGenius, the app allows a consumer to “text in ideas for a recipe for fish, or tell it you have five people coming for dinner and need ideas. It will recognise your request and can tailor all communications around your mobile number. For example, it will remember that your spouse is a vegetarian. The levels of engagement are exceptionally high.”

Even start-ups are looking at SMS as a marketing engagement tool. Digit, a tool that promotes savings asks its users to sign up for the service on its website. Users then key in their mobile phone number and bank account number. Amongst other features, the software can analyse spending patterns and automatically set money aside in a savings account. With the widely documented onset of consumer app fatigue, SMS is becoming the universal UI.

Mobile First means Customer First

Former Tesco CEO Philip Clarke summed up the engagement challenge nicely: “It’s about putting the customer in control, and enabling him or her to engage and transact with Tesco in whatever way best suits them – physically or digitally, transactionally or non-transactionally. In an age where customers have more choice than ever in how to shop and who to shop with, loyalty is harder to come by, and easier to lose, than it ever has been.”

The opportunity that personalised soft services delivered via SMS bring to reach the user, influence them and market to them is one that businesses should be looking at carefully. Business leaders and marketers above all should be considering how they currently build this as a key cornerstone of their mobile engagement strategy.

Oisin Lunny

Oisin Lunny


Oisin Lunny is Senior Market Development Manager at OpenMarket.