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Lifting the lid on Mobile World Congress 2016, where consumer experience trumped monetisation

More than 100,000 people descended on the mammoth Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona this week, to watch experts from around the world share their views on where ‘mobile’ is heading. But going ‘mobile’ is not without its issues and every year MWC brings forward new topics of conversation. So what were some of the overriding themes from MWC 2016 and what does it say about the future of consumer habits and advertising? Also, does the conference live up to the hype?

MWC16 is a huge event with even more people than last year, multiple floors and several football fields’ worth of mobile focused businesses. While it’s easy to get conference fatigue, a couple of things that hit you about MWC is that everyone is open and excited about what is going on in the industry. It’s not your typical digital event full of sales people; there are lots of technical executives ready to teach you about their technologies.

On day one, technology’s superstar Mark Zuckerberg made an impromptu speech at Samsung’s Galaxy S7 unveiling, causing a mad hustle of photographers rushing to snap the icon. His presence seems to underpin the importance of the event for the mobile industry, as well as the mobile industry’s importance to Facebook.

It is also one of Mark Zuckerberg’s latest projects that the conference takes as its main theme this year virtual reality (VR).

Virtual reality: the new ‘reality’

Everywhere you look (without a headset on) you will see rooms full of thick black headsets and slowly swaying heads, all experiencing their own new personal realities. At MWC, it‘s all about VR; everyone and their grandmother is working on it. Samsung had a VR theatre; a theme park style snowboarding simulation ride. Samsung, LG, HTC, and Facebook have all either released or are about to release their own VR products. According to Juniper Research, by 2020 there will be 30 million headsets shipped globally, and Goldman Sachs believes it will be worth $80bn by 2025.

VR – computer simulated three-dimensional environments – and AR – digital information layered in screen over the physical world – development is new and exciting, and it’s where the mobile industry is focusing its attention. People don’t know how far it’s going to go and they’re taking Zuckerberg’s lead.

Stating the obvious, the most popular use of VR today is gaming. Headsets like Google X and Oculus Rift are ideal immersive environments for action based games that require reflex sensors. What this means for advertising is that in-app gaming will continue to dominate the inventory available. But where will VR take us beyond gaming? Virtual meetings, marketing, education, training, medical, social and therapy are a few possibilities.

One further area laid out is spectator sports on TV in 360-degree video, virtually taking a viewer on their sofa at home to a football game – live. For future advertising, this holds interesting opportunities – particularly for tying together digital and OOH brand advertising at games. VR brings the potential to hyper target individuals and will raise new questions of measurement. What constitutes an impression and the concept of viewability will need to be redefined. Will it be someone glancing at the advertising on the bleachers and for how long?

As Zuckerberg put it in his keynote session, ‘the richer the forms of media we consume, the higher the empathy levels’. For consumers and brands alike, this is another level in terms of connection. The amount of personal data collected on the headsets means that targeting will be tailorable, emotional and distinct. This data will likely be held by the telco manufacturers like Samsung and HTC, along with walled garden ecosystems like Facebook. Aside from actually glancing at advertisements, eye sensors will be able to detect emotional reaction through pupil dilation, meaning that messaging and creative changes could be made to advertising to increase appeal to the consumer. It is programmatic advertising many levels up.

What missing digital ‘issues’ tell us

What was clear from this conference is that mobile development has a different focus to display. The internet of things was highly billed on the agenda, but on the ground, from a media perspective apparent references and relevance were diminished. There was very little mention of fraud or ad blocking and no DMPs were to be seen. Last year, cross device attribution challenges were called out, stemming from a fragmented landscape and black box algorithmic attribution. This year, the same challenges are still present and advertisers are attempting to find less complex multi-touch methods beyond last click – but there has been much less noise around them.

At MWC, the gadgets and consumer experience take precedent over advertising and monetisation of conversations. With that in mind, Mobile World Congress 2016 is one of the few conferences to get it right. Technology companies are there to serve the consumer, not the advertiser. It’s a fresh and exciting environment to be involved in, and one the rest of digital can learn from.