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Learning more about iAds

December 22, 2010

Since iAd Producer debuted for developers on Monday, I’ve had the opportunity to correspond with a few Apple support and sales agents about iAd and how it fits in with the ad agency model of doing business (at least as I’ve experienced it).

  • iAds are for large, nationwide campaigns. Apple is looking to land “large, national brands” according to the sales agent I corresponded with. Smaller, regional or local campaigns don’t yet have a place in the iAd network. Individual and corporate developers, of course, are welcome to promote their iOS apps, specifically, using iAds, with the iAd for Developers program.
  • To test your ads on Apple’s servers, you must have a media buy and contract in place. The iAd Test Server is meant as a last step before deployment, and is available only to the group that has the iAd contract with Apple, and has paid the money to place the ad. While the sales rep didn’t say specifically, it stands to reason that either the client (that is, the brand that’s placing the ad) or their agency (who is buying media on behalf of the client) can arrange this contract. It’s unclear, though, what the terms of the contract are — and if they restrict who exactly Apple’s relationship is with.
  • Where does that leave small service providers, like Honest Code? Pretty much nowhere. Even though, as an industry segment, we could be a lucrative funnel for iAd contracts, Apple is making no overtures to digital service providers. The Apple sales rep I corresponded with said, “you would need to have one of the agencies you work with reach out to us with an interested, large advertiser account. [That] advertiser would need to sign a contract before you could get [their] ad … tested and certified to run on the iAd Network.”

Fine and dandy. You’re a Fortune 100 client with eleventy billion dollars to spend. Apple deems you worthy of an iAd contract, and you’ve got one in place. The work to produce the iAd finally trickles down to the service provider (namely me) to implement the creative and strategic vision the client has. What sort of limitations are there to the iAd format you should be aware of?

  • No outbound links are allowed from the iAd. That’s right, once the user is in an iAd, they’re in a room with one door. Alternatively, iAds can be just like traditional web banner ads, and just take the user to a website. However, if your iAd has pages and menus and videos, you can’t close the iAd to send the user to another website. “That’s part of its beauty,” says one Apple support rep. “The user is in charge of closing an iAd.”
  • So what can you do? You can:
    • Save images to the local device. (Perhaps a coupon with a barcode.)
    • Purchase content from iTunes.
    • Add calendar events.
    • Compose an email or SMS message.

    The support rep also said that iAds could initiate phone calls with a user’s permission, but I’ve seen no documentation on how exactly to do that. Using HTML and the MobileSafari “tel:” URL scheme sounds like the easiest way, but that violates the “no outbound links” rule already established. I’m waiting for a final answer on that.

  • You can have as many pages as you want within the iAd. All is not lost. Whatever information you might have communicated to the user elsewhere on the Internet can be built into the iAd with relative ease, provided the content fits with iAd’s bandwidth requirements (less than 100K for each image, and 10 MB for each movie, roughly).
  • Forms with fields are allowed, but transmitting information out of them is not. (I’m still waiting to hear from Apple for a definitive answer on this one.) While you can use JavaScript to take the values of the forms and do neat things with them within the iAd, you can’t transmit the form data elsewhere, so far as I can tell. While this isn’t a hard technical requirement, obviously, it’s a business rule that Apple can enforce by removing your iAd from their network.

These rules make a lot of sense, as a user, and I think that most ad agencies will fall in line if their clients (large clients, at least) want to play by Apple’s rules (which, historically, has been a good decision). I hope that — like any ad network — once Apple has some good bread-and-butter clients, they’ll start accepting smaller ad campaigns, and maybe even develop relationships with smaller agencies and service providers.

Newtella: iAd Producer

December 21, 2010

I’ve had the morning to toy around with iAd Producer, now available from Apple if you’re a registered iOS developer. It hits a real sweet spot for me, personally, as I have more than a handful of ad agency clients whose customers are undoubtedly interested in having some of these ads produced. Speaking technically, the app excitingly blends graphic design, user experience planning, web development, and iOS development.

The nice thing about iAd Producer is that there isn’t a lot of code necessary to get started. It’s a drag-and-drop type interface — sort of a downmarket Interface Builder — that generates iAd-compatible JavaScript, HTML, and CSS on the back end. You can view the code if you want to, and it helpfully provides you with comments guiding you how to address and manipulate objects you’ve dragged onto the screen.

iAds behave more-or-less like self-contained mini-sites. At minimum, they must contain:

  • A banner (that the user will tap to bring up the iAd)
  • A loading screen (that may or may not contain a pre-roll video)
  • A content screen

Optionally, iAds can contain:

  • A menu of pages
  • As many sub-pages as you want (all on the same level)

What’s impressive about iAd Producer is how easy it is to assemble an iAd with little or no coding. Most of Apple’s iOS interface toolkit is included, replicated in HTML5 and JavaScript. So, a certain fraction of your iAd’s file size (about 650K) will be the foundation to make the whole thing work, including image assets you probably will never use. I don’t know if you can safely remove these items from your iAd’s bundle, at least until I try submitting an iAd.

Testing iAds is simple enough — you can use either the iPhone Simulator (via a helpful iAd Tester app) or in Safari. It appears that you can test iAds on a mobile handset, but since I don’t have an iPhone or iPod touch cable of running iOS 4.0 or above (sad trombone) I couldn’t get it to work. I would assume iAd Producer can somehow install iAd Tester on a compatible networked handset.

One can also upload iAds to the iAd Test Server. This seems a little mysterious as yet, and I’ve contacted Apple for a little more information about how this works — that is, as a service provider, and not someone buying media.

I mentioned on Twitter that the bundles that iAd Producer creates can be, with little effort, turned into functional mini-sites that behave exactly the same way as the iAd does. After some experimentation, this comes with a sizable caveat: The custom iAd JavaScript and HTML 5 that iAd Producer uses limits the target browsers to only the latest versions of Safari and MobileSafari. Even Chrome won’t render the page.

There’s a growing amount of speculation that a version of this tool could be Jeffrey Zeldman’s mythical WYSIWYG web development app. If that’s the case, Apple’s tool will work well, but for a specific market: Simple Applications. Even if they make the exported code work with most modern browsers, the underlying methodology for creating these sites (mini, mobile or not) is that the tool has shifted the burden of displaying the site’s content to JavaScript, and away from HTML. If good visual markup is designed to gracefully degrade, doing the best it can with what it has, the code generated by iAd Producer behaves like a spoiled two-year old — obstinately displaying a blank page if it doesn’t have its way.

In any case, iAd Producer is a very useful tool that will allow even non-technical designers at ad agencies to produce appealing, complex iAd units with minimal effort. How iAds fit into the traditional agency model of designing, buying, and placing media, however, is a story for another day.


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