Are Tablets Mobile Devices?

Since the iPad debuted in 2010, most marketers and media owners have placed tablets alongside smartphones in the “mobile” category. However, as data around use of the devices becomes more robust and the market accelerates, two trends are becoming clear. First, tablet users display substantially different behaviors to smartphone ones. And, second, advertisers are much more interested in reaching the former than the latter.

“It’s a new device entirely,” said Pat McCormack, who heads up mobile sales and strategy for The Weather Channel, adding, “It’s commonly bundled with mobile because they’re based on the same source of technology, so it makes logical sense to compare them that way. Technically there may be similarities, but from a user’s point of view and an advertiser’s point of view, it’s a new screen.”

Although The Weather Channel operates a cross-platform sales team selling online, smartphone, and tablet media, McCormack said the company charges a premium for access to its tablet audiences, thanks largely to the nature of the device. “The amount of real estate and interactivity you can give the user is unlike any other device. … What you can do on the tablet is not something you could do on a smartphone,” he said.

The Weather Channel is not alone. Most publishers consider their tablet audiences far more valuable than their smartphone audience, and they package and price them accordingly. Conversations with mobile ad sales executives at major publishers and online media companies frequently revolve around the potential of tablets rather than the growth of smartphone banner ads, for example. If a publisher were able to choose iPad or iPhone for the same consumer to view the same piece of content for the same amount of time, it would surely choose the tablet.

Ultimately, that’s because tablet inventory is easier to sell. Brands are still excited by the prospect of being associated with emerging devices, as they were following the introduction of the iPhone, and many are eager to reach their audience of early adopters. Coupled with the creative possibilities and the consumption-oriented experience the devices offer, tablets provide a different type of ad opportunity than smartphones.

So perhaps it makes sense to think about smartphones and tablets as individual channels. After all, media is already being sold across the two channels in very different ways. Most tablet ads are being sold on a share of voice basis, for example, while smartphone ads are often traded by the impression. For a publisher, “share of voice” means more money.

According to Paul Gelb, mobile practice lead at digital agency Razorfish, it’s still a little early to carve out a separate category, as much as publishers might want agencies to do just that.

“The best way right now is to look at this operationally,” he said. “It’s about how we as marketers or publishers provide the best experience to users, and at the moment it makes more sense to include tablets in the mobile segmentation just because of similarities in terms of knowledge and expertise and process.”

Despite the differences he highlighted between the device types, McCormack agreed. The Weather Channel, for example, has mobile specialists that help educate its sales teams and advertiser clients about the opportunities tablets and smartphones present, as opposed to organizing its sales staff into separate teams.

As Gelb notes, though, perhaps the most important question isn’t about device type, but about context. For example, iPads are being used both in and outside of the home for vastly different reasons, and the same can be said of smartphones. Although iPad owners are already renowned online shoppers, for example, a user searching for a restaurant while they’re out of town is probably less likely to respond to an ad from an online furniture retailer. Likewise, a smartphone user sitting on their couch might already be aware of the businesses located directly around them and might be more receptive to a brand-oriented ad as they’re sitting in front of the TV.

“In the long run we’re probably going to be looking at segmenting on context and behaviors. … In that case you might have a business more segmented by at home, at work, or in-store contexts,” Gelb said.

Until the ad-sales system catches up, however, those contexts will continue to be lumped together based on what type of device a user happens to be holding.

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