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A primer on mobile display ads

The digital landscape for marketers is evolving quickly, and it can feel overwhelming to keep up. Starting with the basics can help you get a handle on the types of ad options available.

10 min read

Digital Technology

Relevance Raises Response: How to Engage and Acquire with Mobile Marketing

Bob Bentz

Consumers are interacting with their smartphone more than ever, and in new ways. The digital landscape for marketers is evolving quickly as a result, and it can feel overwhelming to keep up. Starting with the basics can help you get a handle on the types of ad options available. Bob Bentz, president of the mobile-first digital agency Purplegator, has written a book, Relevance Raises Response: How to Engage and Acquire with Mobile Marketing, that offers insights into how marketers can make most of evolving digital platforms. This excerpt offers a breakdown of the varying times of mobile display ads and how best to use them.

Types of Mobile Display Advertising


Mobile display banners are the standard when it comes to mobile advertising. Inventory is plentiful and advertisers need to produce multiple sizes to adhere to the many formats that publishers offer.

The mobile banner ad is usually placed at the top or the bottom of the screen, although some opportunities do exist for middle or side screen placement. They are the cheapest form of mobile display advertising. Banners need to have a small but eye-catching image with concise and powerful text to get the consumer to tap on it. It is best to use unique brand photos rather than stock photography, but either can work. Aspirational imagery works best. Aspirational imagery is a foundational concept across all modern marketing. It suggests that a consumer will relate more strongly to the improvements that your product (product A) will make to their lives than the specific benefits of product B. If you can tap into what your customers want to become, then you can position your product or service as the way to get there. An example of aspirational imagery might be an advertisement for a financial services company that shows a businessperson on his computer on the beach. The image signifies the financial independence that the product will ultimately provide.

With little space to provide much detail, the banner ad is a simple and effective way for a brand to get its product to quickly reach as many people as possible. Standard image ads that run on Google’s mobile AdSense platform utilize the following sizes, although this is nowhere near the complete list of sizes that an advertiser may need:

  • Mobile leaderboard (320×50)
  • Large mobile banner (320×100)
  • Small square (200×200)
  • Square (250×250)
  • Medium rectangle (300×250)

Since mobile banners have been around the longest, there is not a lot that is sexy about them, but they remain the single most important and used type of mobile advertising. They are cost effective, easy to create, and can be utilized quickly. Since they can be avoided and ignored by users, they are not a problem or annoyance. The negative, of course, to banner ads is that they will not get a huge amount of tap-throughs compared to other rich media types of mobile advertising. Since they are small ads on a small screen, it is difficult to make them visually compelling.

One of the tactics that can be used to add a bit of excitement to banner advertising is to use mobile adhesion banners. An adhesion banner is usually at the bottom of the page and it remains intact regardless of how the user is scrolling. An adhesion banner will always remain above the fold, because even when the user scrolls down, it remains in the same position on the mobile screen. Adhesion banners are clearly a premium product that can provide significantly more engagement. Therefore, they will likely be sold in premium marketplaces.


Interstitial ads are ones that display across the entire screen. They are most commonly used in mobile games. In most instances, interstitials display while the app or mobile website is loading. Often, the user is required to close the interstitial before continuing the intended mobile experience.

Because it is full screen and uses more appealing graphics, an interstitial will have greater tap-throughs and installs than the more passive banner ads that are intermixed with on-screen content. One of the biggest complaints about mobile advertising is banner blindness and that advertisements can’t be found on the smaller screen of the mobile device. Not so with interstitials, which take up the entire screen. Interstitials force the user to engage by making a decision to either tap the ad or “x” out of it. On some interstitials, the x out is adeptly hidden and not in an obvious spot, so it takes the user longer to actually tap out of the advertisement.

On the other hand, because of the pop-over nature of interstitials, marketers need to be cautious, because Google now denotes interstitials as not meeting its mobile-friendliness algorithm. Further, interstitial ads can become annoying to users if they are shown the same ad continuously. If ads are in-app, the annoyance factor of installs can create less user satisfaction and lead to app uninstalls. With an interstitial, there is no way that the consumer is going to miss the ad and, therefore, it is also much more likely that they will be annoyed by its presence. Therefore, it is increasingly important that an interstitial offer extremely creative content and a compelling call to action that will encourage the user to tap through before tapping out.

Rich Media

Rich media mobile advertising is mobile advertisements that go beyond just displaying text, images, or video. High-profile advertisers prefer rich media mobile ads because they create an exciting and engaging user experience that conveys the advertiser’s message with greater recall. Rich media ads are customizable ads that allow viewers to be drawn to interact with the mobile advertisement. Design of rich media ads, often done in HTML5, is only limited by the imagination of the developer’s team. With rich media, for instance, an advertiser has virtually no limitations for design, because size often becomes less standard to the designer. Imagine a rich media auto ad with the car scooting along the bottom of the mobile screen.

There are numerous types of creative that can be used for rich media—each can accomplish different things. For example, a user might tap on an ad to make it full screen. These are called “expandable banners” and they are the most widely used of all rich media options. Other things that rich media can do include: embedding a video, adding animation and animated GIFs, embedding audio, enabling radio, adding flash games, enabling a gyroscope, accessing the phone’s camera, accessing GPS, adding events to a calendar, sending an SMS, and enabling a tap-to-call.

The high quality of rich media ads helps to boost engagement with the ad. This increased interactivity leads to high tap-through rates and conversions. Also, when consumers have an opportunity to interact with a brand in a fun and easy manner, it is surely going to increase brand recognition and satisfaction. Publishers also love them because they are so entertaining. Rich media is the only kind of advertising that truly improves the user experience on the publisher’s mobile site or app.

One of the added bonuses of rich media is that it is nearly impossible for an advertiser to become a victim of fraud. Because a tap-through requires a specific act, it is unlikely that it will be fat fingered, and it is virtually impossible to create nasty bots that can exploit the more sophisticated interactivity found in rich media ads. While fraud may be more difficult, it is certainly not impossible, so it remains critical for the advertiser to measure all secondary actions after the consumer tap-through.

Because of the nature of rich media creative, highly dynamic ad creation is going to require a higher skill set and cost significantly more. They are also going to cost a lot more because publishers charge a significant premium for them. And, because the advertiser has so much invested in the creative, it may be more emotionally difficult to remove the ad creative if it is not performing up to expectations. Rich media has to be tested by focus groups and then done right the first time. Rich media will not be easy or inexpensive to switch out like it might be with standard banner advertising.

Since rich media ads are nearly impossible to miss, they can quickly become annoying, so precautions should be made to not continue to serve the same rich media ads to the same users. Advertisers should limit the use of the ads to shorter time periods in order to maximize their effectiveness, as they will quickly suffer from ad fatigue.


Native ads are advertisements that do not really look like ads and are not intrusive, which is why they are found in many popular and well-respected mainstream sites and apps. Native ads do not interfere with the customer’s user experience and in many cases users do not even recognize them as advertisements. Rather than present a banner with potentially irrelevant information, native ads attempt to seamlessly integrate with the publisher’s app or mobile site and bring added value to the existing content. The basic idea behind a native ad is to make the content relative, thus making the user feel that he is not actually being advertised to. Think Facebook News Feed, Instagram advertising, or Twitter’s sponsored tweets. It is usually tremendously targeted to the interests of the user. Moreover, it is packaged into a format that blends in naturally so it looks like just another post similar to the interests of the potential customer.

The origins for native advertising are in traditional media. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was an early example of native advertising. Today, native advertising allows advertisers to reach their audiences in a relevant and engaging way and possibly avoid ad blockers that may eliminate non-native mobile advertisements.

Native advertising does not always have to be traditional posts with images. In some instances, it is articles as well—articles that are so cohesive with the page content that they appear to be a natural part of the site or app. Forbes, for example, accepts native advertising from Fidelity and even promotes Fidelity on its cover. Inside are articles written by Fidelity about retirement. No doubt that Fidelity has found a great platform to get the right message to the right audience—an audience that will be highly engaged by valuable content that discusses retirement.

That being said, it can be expensive for an advertiser to continue to create varied and timely content that fits with all of the mobile sites or apps where it is being presented, but that’s just one part of the problem. Remember, native advertising does not come cheaply. In fact, it is sold as a premium to ordinary advertising. This makes native content advertising difficult to scale. That is why it is so important that native advertising target the best audience with content that is ideally suited for it.

Some advertisers, however, can take native advertising too far. Imagine a very creative and entertaining television commercial, but the viewer can’t recall the sponsor immediately after it airs. It is the same with native advertising. There’s no point in advertising if the consumer is not aware of who the advertiser is. Brands need to be transparent with native advertising and operate with a soft sell mentality. If readers feel duped by the content, research shows that the native advertising efforts can actually have a net negative effect. When it comes to native advertising, a brand needs to lead with the content and avoid the hard sell.

Bob Bentz, president of mobile first digital agency Purplegator, is the author of Relevance Raises Response: How to Engage and Acquire with Mobile Marketing, available at or Amazon.