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Evan Wray: digital advertising – moving the conversation beyond emoji in 2016

To say that digital advertising underwent some massive changes in 2015 would be an understatement. The influx in ad blockers, the long-awaited death of Flash and things like emoji becoming a more prominent piece of the vernacular of Fortune 1000 brands, stole headlines. Emoji was perhaps one of the most pivotal advertising plays of the past year, especially when it came to engaging millennials and young consumers on mobile.

Dell, Ford, MillerCoors and Universal Pictures were among the many brands to successfully test the waters – using branded emoji as a part of major advertising campaigns. Whether the emoji phenomenon is a passing phase or here to stay remains to be seen. One thing is for sure – brands are looking to capture the hearts and minds of millennials and young consumers in new ways. Reaching them with engaging branded content in mobile, the place they spend a good chunk of time, is working. They’re learning that traditional forms of advertising like banners and interstitials are not nearly as effective in reaching this audience.

Branded emoji have proven to be an effective, engaging and viral way for brands to unobtrusively insert themselves into consumer conversations – without feeling like an advertisement. For instance, during the Super Bowl earlier this year, MillerCoors ran a campaign in the Viber messaging app where they offered Viber users 12 branded emoji of things like two bottles of Miller Lite clanking together saying “Cheers” and other football related images and sayings. Of the entire sticker pack, the two Miller Lite bottles clinging together received the most shares. The emoji pack was downloaded nearly 500,000 times and the emoji shared more than a billion times.

For a brand or advertiser, having your brand and product at the center of a conversation is a dream as well as an effective way to get people talking about the brand without making it an obvious hard sell. Mediums like mobile messaging and other mobile apps have opened doors for advertisers and brands to reach this captive audience in inventive new ways. The research tells us that these mediums continue to grow at a rapid pace.

According to research conducted by Activate, Inc., mobile messaging has been the fastest growing online behavior within the social landscape over the past five years, with 2.5 billion registered users today and an additional 1.1 billion new users expected by 2018.

So what’s next? How can brands continue to capitalise on these new mediums, in ways that are engaging and exciting for consumers? Through conversations with hundreds of brands over the past couple of years – we’ve found there’s a yearning to funnel more advertising dollars to non-traditional mediums like mobile messaging, dating and social apps. This is both due to the success of the early campaigns and a way to circumvent the uncertainty that ad blockers are creating for traditional digital advertising. But the biggest question that remains: how do we do this effectively and differentiate ourselves from other brands in these places?

In 2016, we’ll see a major turning point in the digital advertising industry. There will be more ways for brands to engage millennials and young consumers with branded content that allows consumers to personalise their conversations within these mobile environments. In fact, we’ve already seen this trend shaping up. Earlier this year, Skype introduced Mojis, which allows users to share short clips from movies and TV shows within their chats. Popular photo editing app PicsArt allows consumers to style their digital photos with branded frames and emoji.

Things like official brand accounts in mobile messaging apps will be another way for brands to reach consumers at scale – but in a way that is voluntary on the consumers’ behalf. With branded accounts, brands can engage “fans” on a one-to-one basis and drive continued interactions to their audience by offering coupons, videos, chats, contests and more. Say a popular shoe manufacturer is introducing the latest “must have” for sneaker fanatics. They can use branded accounts to promote the release date, post images, and provide incentives for consumers to buy the shoes at various retailers with coupons or exclusive offers.

One of the major hurdles for brands in entering this market is uncertainty of “how to buy” these brand integrations. As most brands and advertisers are used to purchasing ad units, largely based on the metrics and KPIs of a broader campaign – they have often struggled on how to delegate budget and effectively measure the success of singular/one-off campaigns – let alone where to accurately find their audience among a growing ecosystem of apps.

emoji-1Increasingly, we’ll see things like branded emoji, videos, GIFs, branded accounts offered to advertisers much like a traditional ad network offers banner or interstitial “buys”. The market is maturing in a way that allows brands and advertisers to set the scope of success, determine which audiences they want to reach, how long they want a campaign to run and understand the benchmark for success in these new environments. Emoji were a nice “test to invest” exercise, but as the market matures and this way of advertising becomes the norm, we’ll start to see more traditional “buy” models be applied to the branded content market.

What we know is that the growth of mobile messaging and other apps are not subsiding. If anything, they’re taking over the likes of Facebook in popularity. We know that consumers love personalising their conversations with fun, engaging branded content. And we know that advertisers are seeing positive early returns in reaching a captive audience of millennials with these methods.

With that, we believe 2016 will be a big year for bringing the conversation beyond emoji. The most important thing is that these new methods of audience engagement can’t lose the genuine and unobtrusive look and feel that have made them such a success.

The opportunities for brands and advertisers are endless and we look forward to seeing how it continues to evolve.

unnamed-6Evan Wray is a co-founder and vice president of Swyft Media.

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