Today, our readers are on their smartphones, glancing at the headlines, checking movie start times at their local cinema, viewing the weather forecasts. And what’s that at the top of the screen? An ad appears at the top of the browser screen. A banner ad!

If it appears on your news site, it’s probably served by an ad network or sold by your news media ad sales staff. So it’s a new revenue source for us in the new digital world. But is it effective from the point of view of the advertiser’s return on investment?

After all, it’s not the most creative of ad formats. And while a whole range of newer formats (which are more rich and more creative) come to the fore, we mostly are all still left with the banner ad.

The question is, can such a small, even unimaginative, banner ad be effective — especially when it is arriving when attention is divided? Advertisers are truly betting that it can be (along with that growing range of ad formats).

Global spending on mobile advertising topped US$8.4 billion in 2012 and is expected to soar to US$36 billion by 2016. This growth is fueled by the huge growth of Internet-connected mobile devices, as well as the increasing tendency for consumers/readers to access Web sites on their smartphones.

An increasing proportion of mobile ads come in the form of display ads on smartphone Web browsers, which, due to mobile screen sizes, have a limited capacity to communicate valued information. Indeed, most display ads can include only a brief promotional message or slogan, sometimes just a logo.

Yet surprisingly, research studies* have shown that these ads can have a positive effect on consumers’ attitudes toward a (news) brand. Given the limitations, it might seem these ads are most likely to be effective for products or services that demand relatively little attention before a purchase is made, i.e. inexpensive, everyday items.

However, research from the University of Pittsburgh, USA, shows ads work best for “high-involvement” products, that is, much news media or big money items that receive a relatively high level of attention before a consumer decides to make a purchase (e.g. cars, high-end electronics etc.). And the ads work not by providing new information but by reminding consumers of information and product knowledge they already know.

The research says the higher people’s motivation (i.e. if the product is of “high involvement”), the more consumers tend to use rational decision making. 

It can take weeks or even months before a consumer decides to make a high-involvement purchase (such as a motor car or, to a lesser degree, a year’s subscription to your newspaper). And during that time, there is much mental debate about which model of car the consumer should buy or even which newspaper.

Display ads that show up at random moments, unexpectedly, seem to help reinforce what consumers already know about your particular brand. As a result, companies can now predict whether their products and services are likely to benefit from mobile display ad campaigns.

If marketers are planning a cross-channel campaign, for instance, it might help to launch the mobile display ads after the product has been advertised in other media. That way, some awareness and information about the product has been generated, which can be easily triggered as a reminder when lined up with a mobile ad.

Digital advertising in mobile channels is now beginning to experience explosive growth. Since advertisers are starting to put larger proportions of their budgets into mobile, it’s becoming even more important to have a detailed realisation of when these ads are effective.

Get on board the "mobile banner bus.” If you’re not on the bus, you can’t experience the ride! A ride that will see us come across new ad formats in 2013 that use the properties and functions of the phone.

The questions that will emerge next include: How do we make it all easier for advertisers to buy into our offerings in this space? Is standardisation of formats across the industry the answer? Will that stifle creativity? Is there room for both?

Well, why not join the debate? Come along to my mobile session at this year’s INMA World Congress. At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, 28 April, we will tackle this and a series of other hot topics in the word of mobile and news media.

See you there.

The researchers in Pittsburgh studied data from more than 50 mobile display campaigns that reached nearly 40,000 U.S. consumers, involving a wide range of industries such as automobiles, packaged goods, health, and finance.