Jide Sobo, Head of Mobile at MEC UK, discusses the possibility of increasingly relevant advertising across multiple devices.

Imagine a world where, as advertisers, we are able to gain real insight into a consumer's need state. A world where we know their interests, and their favourite places to shop. Where we understand what influences them to make a purchase and when those influences are aligned and they are most open to suggestion. A world where we not only know all of this, but are able to deliver advertising that is tailored to the individual, and their circumstances. With the right data, the ability to interpret it, and the ability to deliver the right message, we would inhabit a marketing utopia.

In today's connected world, where so much data exists, just how far away are we from this fantastical world?

The challenge of multiple devices

The modern consumer is increasingly digitally savvy, using many different digital devices throughout the day, often in conjunction with other activity.

The IAB's RealView research states that an incredible 51 per cent of respondents use their smartphone at the same time as their laptop, and 20 per cent use it at the same time as their tablet. Different devices also have a different role throughout the day, at different locations and for different tasks.

Tablets are not, as predicted, our constant companions; they are mainly left in the home, whilst the smartphone continues to be with us throughout the day. According to Bing, the average time from first search to purchase on PC is one month; on mobile this is just one hour. Clearly the role of each device is different, with the PC used more for research, and smartphones used to find somewhere to buy, or for checking prices.

Connecting the dots

If we can join up our advertising across these devices, we can provide rich brand and product content on the PC, and follow up with easy directions to purchase when a consumer is looking for our bricks and mortar store on their smartphone. However, currently, there is no way of linking activity across these devices to provide a joined up view of what a consumer is doing.

When the web existed solely on desktop and laptop computers, it was relatively easy to use cookies to track a consumer's usage and to target them accordingly. There were only two operating systems and a handful of browsers. Screen sizes and resolutions were fairly standard and limited in the number of variants.

Now that the web can be accessed from so many more devices – there are five main operating systems in use, and five main web browsers – it is a far more complicated ecosystem to provide consistency of tracking. And that's before we consider apps, where there is no consistency of identifier with a browser, even on the same handset. Add in that the fact that Apple blocks cookies, as a default setting within Safari, and we can see that cookies can only offer a view on a very small section of mobile traffic.

But even in an ideal world, cookies are based on browsing history and cannot provide any insight into a user's wider context and their need state. We need more, so much more.

A consumer's needs change constantly throughout the day. Whilst location can be an important part of context, it shouldn't be used as a substitute. Someone who is resident in London is going to have completely different needs to a tourist who is visiting for the day, yet they may be in exactly the same location. Context actually consists of many different factors, such as previous locations visited, time of day, device, sophistication of device usage, previous sites visited, apps used or speed of movement. But these factors change by the second, and their relative importance changes at the same time.

Meeting the challenge

The first step is to be able to track consumers across multiple devices and environments. That way we can tie together the disparate usage behaviour across different devices, and form a true view of consumer journeys. This will enable us to see how devices are used at different times of day, the types of tasks that are carried out across each one, and how that varies by industry sector. We can then start to target key moments throughout the day, with messaging that is relevant to that device, time of day and the consumer's likely place in the purchase process.

But a word of warning; "data" is not the answer. All of these signals are not yet talking to one another. They are producing a jumble of barely coherent messages that focus, often myopically, on single devices or functions. We need to understand and interpret all of these signals to create human experiences that delight consumers because they are personalised to their individual context. It is not enough to keep simply pushing out 'ads'.

The creative idea, rather than the device it is delivered on, will become paramount and will need to be delivered across any device or even multiple devices at once.

How far away is this marketing utopia? It's certainly not this year, and probably not next, but it will be here much sooner than any of us imagine. Think back a mere six years to when the iPhone 3G was launched. Who would've thought that we'd be living in a post-PC world, where Twitter and Facebook are the most popular ways of communicating, and we are streaming feature films over mobile networks. The exponential pace of technological change dictates that we will quickly solve our tracking and targeting issues, so we'd best prepare now.