Category Archives: Monetization

Why OpenGraph helps Facebook become a $100 billion company

I had the good fortune of being able to attend Facebook’s F8 conference today. While I’ve been quite the Facebook (as a business) fanboy for some time, after today I’m absolutely convinced that with OpenGraph, Facebook has finally exposed the true power of its platform in a way that will help it create incredible value in the coming years. Today’s discussion at F8 didn’t directly touch upon the value of OpenGraph to Facebook, but I believe that the value of the data that Facebook will collect and organize via OpenGraph will allow it to build search and advertising businesses potentially more powerful and sizable than those of Google.

I’ve written before about the importance of data in advertising and the trend towards buying audience rather than impressions. Facebook’s OpenGraph will create the richest user profiles yet, enabling advertisers to target specific audiences based on their friends, Likes, and activity, anywhere that audience can be found on the web. This kind of data and targeting differs from Google’s search-based intent data in that it helps advertisers reach their target consumers earlier in the purchase funnel, enabling what Facebook has called demand generation. This data, combined with the potential of earned media via Facebook and its social plugins, could be the key to shifting billions of dollars in brand advertising spend to the web.

Potentially more important is what I consider to be an entirely new category of search, which I refer to as “subjective search”, that may finally be realized because of OpenGraph data. While Google will likely continue to dominate search for queries where there are objective results, my view is that Facebook will become the default search provider for queries that are subjective in nature. After all, with a graph of my preferences, those of my friends and those of the broader web population, won’t Facebook be in the best position to tell me what Italian restaurant to eat at in Palo Alto, what action movie to see on Friday night or where to go on vacation with my family?

I’m not sure that anyone could have honestly envisioned that we would see another Google-type business in our lifetimes. But by wielding the power of OpenGraph, Facebook could build yet another incredible business based on search and ads. My frequent comment that Facebook will be worth $100 billion sometime this decade has regularly been met with laughter and ridicule. I wonder if that statement will still get the same response after today.

YouTube and FreeWheel grease the wheels for online video advertising

I try not to write about portfolio company news or announcements but some recent press about FreeWheel Media is worth trumpeting given the potential significance it has for the entire online video advertising ecosystem. YouTube has historically made it incredibly difficult for content owners to sell advertising against their content distributed through YouTube. Unlike traditional online advertising which is automatically delivered and optimized via third party ad servers, video content owners working with YouTube needed to hardcode the advertising or have YouTube’s ad operations team traffick the campaigns on their behalf. The integration of FreeWheel’s platform with YouTube changes these old rules of engagement for all of YouTube’s content partners. Now, using a single platform, those partners can easily and automatically scale their video monetization efforts across distribution partners, including YouTube. Some of the specific benefits of the YouTube and FreeWheel integration are:

– Greater ad format options, including pre-rolls and companion banners

– More ad targeting options, including contextual and behavioral

– Automated ad optimization across campaigns and third party ad networks

– Consistency of campaign and metrics across YouTube and other distribution points

The net result is that the online video advertising market can begin to operate more like the traditional display advertising market. Advertisers can expect consistency in delivery and metrics. Content owners can offer consistency in formats and targeting. And distribution partners can expect lower operating costs and greater sell-through. Everyone wins. And that is why all of the players in the online video ecosystem should be paying attention to this news and coming announcements from other FreeWheel partners and customers, like Blip.tv. The YouTube-FreeWheel announcement represents a major tipping point for the online video advertising market and the ability of companies to turn online video in a viable business.

3 reasons that data will save online advertising

It’s been nearly 15 years since Rick Boyce and HotWired famously popularized the use of banner advertising campaigns as a model for generating revenue online. Since then, there have been many, significant innovations in online advertising, including new ad formats, new pricing models, new targeting technologies and new metrics for effectiveness. Yet the value of online display advertising is being questioned now more than ever before, particularly in the current economic environment. Numerous organizations are projecting that online display advertising spend will be flat or slightly down in 2009. Growth is expected to recover in 2010, but at much lower rates than earlier in the decade and than search advertising. But the explosion of data and its increasingly effective use hold great promise for online display advertising. There are many types of data for online advertising, including keywords, contextual, behavioral, semantic, demographic, psychographic and social. The relative value of each of these forms of data is still an unknown, but I believe that the value (and cost) of data will soon exceed the value of inventory, which is already deteriorating. Here are three reasons that the use of data will save online ads and help restore their growth.

– Data makes media buying easier: Data from comScore, the IAB and others suggests that while the top 50 online publishers only account for 25%-35% of user attention, as measured by page views or time spent, they represent about 90% of online advertising spend. Why is that? As I’ve written before, the job of an online media buyer is seemingly impossible. Audience fragmentation, the proliferation of ad networks and the emergence of ad exchanges have created incredible amounts of complexity in the marketplace. Learning about all of these sources of inventory, let alone buying from them, is an unenviable task. On the other hand, buying from large, known publishers is simple. This is the default behavior for many online media buyers because it doesn’t entail extra effort or risk. Further, the buying of traditional media, rightly or wrongly, is done largely based on gross rating points, viewership, circulation, listenership, etc. Media buyers purchase audiences at scale. In the online world, media fragmentation has made it a necessity to buy from multiple places to achieve desired scale. Data allows traditional buying behavior (again, independent of whether it’s good or bad) to be replicated online. Data enables media buyers to purchase a specific, consistent audience at scale across many different publishers. Data makes the jobs of media buyers easier, allowing more dollars to be spent online.

– Data increases the value of remnant inventory: Somewhere between 30%-40% of online ad inventory at most major publishers goes unsold by their direct sales organizations. That number is closer to 80-90% for most social media sites, the fastest growing segment of inventory and the one with the most ad effectiveness challenges. Remnant inventory is the direct result of highly ineffective ads that are not relevant to the consumer. There was a time when NYTimes.com could sell its inventory because of the association with its brand. That time is long gone as metrics have told advertisers that they are not earning a return on their dollars. Getting value from advertising on social media, where consumers are largely not engaged in commercial activity, is even more difficult. And inventory, both premium and remnant is increasingly being commoditized by the ad exchanges. Effective use of data for targeting (with more engaging creatives) the right audience yields better ad performance and generates real value from remnant inventory. In the end, today’s gap between demand and supply diminishes as data-defined audiences, rather than impressions, are being purchased.

– Data is available to all: The traditional ad agency model is widely recognized as broken. The economics of the agency business dictate that they find more efficient and effective ways to engage consumers on behalf their advertising clients. Along these lines, agencies have come to realize that one of their greatest assets is their consumer and ad performance data. Data, in combination with more innovative creative, can target the right audience at the right time with the right conversation, interactivity and engagement. Publishers also see that it’s becoming more difficult to aggregate sizable audiences and to sell their ad real estate. Differentiation in the face of commoditization comes from their data. And ad networks know that they are in danger of being disintermediated unless they bring unique value to the both advertisers and publishers in the form of greater access to data or better targeting through data. Fortunately, all of these players have their own data assets and increasingly have access to data from traditional offline data vendors, such as Acxiom and TARGUSinfo, as well as from emerging online data exchanges, such as BlueKai (where I am an investor) and eXelate. The competitive dynamics in the online ad industry dictate that the various players leverage data to provide greater value to their constituents.

While data doesn’t solve all of the problems in the online advertising market, it’s clear that data is going to have a huge impact on the future of the industry. The companies that develop the platforms, tools and services to make it easier to aggregate, analyze and utilize data will be the next category of winners in the online ad market. More importantly, they will help grow the online advertising market for all of us. Even as the value of inventory decreases, the increasing use and value of data and the resulting greater sell-through of inventory will yield a larger online advertising market.

Bigger (advertising) is not better

Recently, two dozen members of the Online Publishers Association, a trade organization comprised of some of the most well-known and well-respected publishers on the web, announced their solution for attracting more brand advertising dollars….bigger ads. While I’m over simplifying the group’s initiative, it shocked me to see that the best that some of the leading online media brands could come up with was combining a few (already commonly used) interactive elements with a larger number of pixels. If this is the state of the art in online advertising, it’s no wonder that brand advertisers have been reluctant to invest more.

I previously wrote about how the model for so much of online advertising is broken. And I think it remains true that the industry’s approach to creative has not evolved to engage consumers on their own terms and in their own language. The fact is that the value of media (the real estate) in the online advertising equation is diminishing greatly. Volume growth in the online media exchanges is commoditizing media. Recognition by agencies that their long-term sustainability is tied to their data assets is increasing the importance and availability of high quality targeting data across the industry. While media and data are getting increasing attention, it seems that the third leg of the online advertising stool, ad creative, is still being ignored by most agencies and marketers. Without question, attempting something new with creative entails risk. But you rarely get skewered for attempting to engage your audience. In fact, in most cases, you only incite the wrath of consumers when you ignore, insult or bore them. Take the well-publicized Skittles example or the myriad other brands that have embraced the fact that online media allows them to engage and listen to consumers in an entirely new and valuable way. Consumers have spoken and they want to participate in or direct the conversation, not be broadcast to by brands.

Smart companies such as AppsSavvy, Context Optional and Dimestore Media are taking the lead in reinventing ad creative to deliver unique experiences to consumers and greater value to advertisers. I’m hopeful that we’ll see more of this innovation from the larger agencies as well as from startups. As an industry, we need widespread acknowledgement of the need for new creative models to avoid stunting the growth of brand advertising online.

Right message, right person, right time. Wrong answer.

I met with an entrepreneur late last week and he mentioned that he had read my blog (I didn’t believe him either) and that he was curious as to why I think online advertising will continue to be effective when all of the data shows that consumers are increasingly ignoring online ads. I realized that as much as I write about online advertising on this blog, I haven’t really defined what form I think it will take over the coming years to be effective. It turns out that The Cluetrain Manifesto had it at least partially right years ago. To paraphrase and to put in the simplest terms, marketing is about conversations.


The right message. The problem with online advertising to date has been that it has taken the form of delivering a one-way message and talking to a consumer, much like in traditional media. In today’s web world, consumers realize that they aren’t a captive audience. They are free to continue doing whatever it is that they came to a website to do, either by ignoring or skipping ads. That is why the “right message” doesn’t work any more. Online advertising in the coming years will be a dialogue between brands and consumers and amongst consumers themselves within the context of a brand. Widgets and dynamic rich media in various forms, such as games, review panels, and personal utilities, will take the place of banners and text ads (although probably not for search). Interactivity, community and engagement will be top of mind when developing campaign creatives.

The right person. The targetability and measurability of internet advertising will continue to improve. With so much anonymous and user-provided data available on the web to be used for targeting, finding the right person with whom to engage in a conversation will be easier than ever. Contextual targeting and the current approaches to behavioral targeting have not proven to work well in many contexts. Certainly, new targeting models will emerge and prove effective for discrete online environments.

The right time. The traditional purchase funnel (roughly defined as awareness, consideration, intent and purchase) isn’t such a straight and narrow path any longer. The idea of finding online consumers at exactly the “right time” in the funnel (again, with the exception of search) isn’t just difficult, it’s also outdated. The focus of agencies and brands will be in building relationships with consumers at all points in time, because on the Internet, information and influence is coming constantly and from all directions. The only way to rise above the noise will be to engage consumers in a sustained conversation using the new, rich tools available to marketers.

 

So what’s the right answer? Hopefully, the right conversation with the right person whenever possible.

Making a (belated) resolution to monetize social media

Looking back on 2007, I think that there is no debating that social media and user generated content were important components of the overall online media market and that they will only be increasing in significance over the coming years. After all, it has been fairly widely published that social media properties account for somewhere between 20% and 30% of all page views online and nearly 45% of all time spent online. However, advertising spend on social media is less than 2% of total online advertising expenditures. The poor performance of the monetization models that have been attempted to date is well documented. But I believe that there are a few models that are emerging that have the potential for success because they may do a better job of engaging and targeting the right audience. Of course, more compelling advertising creatives, specifically designed for the social media environment, are as important for engaging consumers as is the monetization approach.  

Here are a few models that I hope to see being tested by startups over the next few months. The models have potential for all types of social media sites, including social networks, media-sharing sites, virtual worlds, etc. 

         Leveraging the various types of data available from a social media site to target audiences, rather than context or page views, on the site. Clearly, the content alone from social media sites hasn’t been valuable enough information on which to base ad targeting.  But combining context with other data, including user activity, demographics and geography, and potentially even sharing that across social media sites, could yield strong results for delivery of advertising, commerce and content.

         Consumer endorsement of brands, products or content that begins by providing them with value from and control over the messaging initiated by them and their activities. Widgets and RSS are powerful tools to be used within this word-of-mouth-marketing model, which helps advocates and influencers spread the word about the things with which they associate themselves.

         Mining social media to better target audiences on non-social media properties. The participatory nature of social media makes it an incredibly rich platform from which to extract targeting data that is unavailable elsewhere on the web. This provides a unique opportunity for social media sites to share that data (in a privacy-friendly way) with other web publishers so that value can be generated for both groups. 

I expect 2008 to be the year in which clear monetization models emerge for the social media properties that experienced fantastic growth in 2007 (eMarketer has one or two forecasts of its own). My somewhat belated resolution is to support those companies that are taking innovative approaches to generating sustainability for a thriving, important and exciting medium.

The calm before the widget storm

After a summer where seemingly every article about the web and social media included discussions about widgets as the next big thing, there has been a relative lull in the widget hype during the fall. Given that widgets themselves are nothing new to the Internet, the period of calm should have been expected. Code and applications that can be embedded and executed in web pages have been around since the first page view counters and banner ad tags. More recent examples of “widgets” include Google AdSense, the YouTube video player and Facebook applications. But that is not to say that the whirlwind of widget press should be ignored altogether. The proliferation of social networks, blogs, media sharing sites, start pages, etc., are all indicative of an overall fragmentation of the web. Anyone interested in reaching consumers needs to be where they are, not where they want them to be.  The portability and interactivity of widgets enables the desired connection to consumers to be made simply and effectively. For that reason, and many others, what we are currently experiencing is likely only the calm before the widget storm.

 

When widgets first got the attention of the media, it was largely because of the novelty of allowing consumers to embed widgets in the same way that they were previously embedded by website owners. Companies such as Slide and RockYou established themselves as early leaders in the creation of widgets for consumers. Other companies, like MuseStorm, Clearspring and Goowy Media emerged to provide applications and services to enterprises for widget authoring, distribution and tracking. Over the past few months, each of these enterprise-facing companies seems to have reached the same conclusion….that an end-to-end solution, including monetization, is the best way to attack the market.

 

The market for banner ads provides an interesting model for the potential development of the widget market. Ad serving technologies became a commodity over time because they only enabled publishers to distribute and track banner ads. The authoring was left to agencies and the monetization was left to publishers and third party ad networks. The most value accrued to companies like Google, which provided all of the needed capabilities. Given that ad serving platforms are now embedded at most agencies and publishers, the preferred infrastructure for distribution and tracking is largely in place. The successful widget companies will integrate with and complement these existing systems by providing tracking, analytics and monetization capabilities that are unique to widgets. Consumer-facing widget companies will need these same capabilities internally to establish sustainable business models.

 

The recent monetization partnership announcements by Clearspring and KickApps may be early indicators of the maturation of the widget market and a flurry of economic activity around widgets. Like banners and search before them, and like video and mobile now, widgets are a new form of media that require their own infrastructure and monetization models. The companies that deliver those solutions will be the ones that survive the coming storm of widget activity and avoid being washed away with the widget companies that have not established a firm foundation for their businesses.

Building vertical ad networks to survive

Vertical ad networks have become all the rage over the past few months. The acquisition of Jumpstart Automotive, the pending financing round for Glam Media and the launch of network after network on the Adify platform have all contributed to rampant investment activity in the vertical ad network market. Within the past two weeks, there have been announcements for new vertical ad networks from Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (home and lifestyle), Reader’s Digest (food) and BiggerBoat.com (entertainment). But the announcement that signaled the peak of the vertical ad network bubble for me came yesterday from NBC and P&G. If Pets.com was the peak of the e-commerce bubble, does a pets-focused vertical ad network signal the peak of the vertical ad network bubble?      

 

Historically, vertical ad networks have succeeded against traditional, broad ad networks because they aggregated a defined, highly desirable audience that could be purchased by advertisers through a single source. The focus of the networks allowed them to truly understand the audiences of their publishers and generate higher CPMs. Advertisers were provided with ease of administration and creative guidance for developing highly engaging ads. All of this worked well for the ad networks when there was a single one in each of a few high value verticals and when the only alternatives for publishers were either incurring direct selling costs or turning to a broad ad network. But the recent proliferation of vertical ad networks, and various ad networks in general, may have changed the dynamics of the business for the worse.

 

When it comes to changing ad networks, the switching costs for publishers have always been close to zero. In a market in which publishers have many ad networks to choose from, the ad inventory simply goes to the network that delivers the highest effective CPM (or provides the highest revenue guarantee). Furthermore, because ad networks don’t control the inventory that they sell, what is there today could be gone tomorrow. When a publisher reaches a certain volume of page views and unique visitors, it’s typically more economical for the publisher to begin selling ads directly. Over time, the ad network is allocated a smaller, less attractive portion of the publisher’s inventory. Further, advertisers look to buy media at scale. Publisher and inventory churn makes it increasingly difficult for a network to build and maintain the critical mass needed to attract campaign dollars from advertisers. In my view, it’s difficult for ad networks to build defensible, sustainable businesses if they don’t address these issues and do more than just aggregate audiences.   

 

I think that there are several potential strategies for creating a lasting, high-value vertical ad network: proprietary distribution, proprietary targeting, a portfolio of products and exceptional service. Proprietary distribution means either owning a significant portion of the network’s inventory or having exclusive access to it for a lengthy period of time. Google is so successful financially because much of its ad inventory, and hence revenue, is generated by Google.com and because advertisers can’t go anywhere else to buy that prized inventory. Proprietary targeting provides advertisers with a unique ability to select specific members or groups within the target audience for receipt of their ad content. When this targeting proves effective, advertisers are willing to pay significantly higher CPMs, which in turn generates more value for publishers. Advertising.com was acquired by AOL because it had developed a novel methodology for identifying which site visitors would be most receptive to the message of a particular advertiser. A portfolio of products allows a network to deepen the relationships with publishers. Publishers are then faced with having to forego value beyond monetization when considering whether to switch to another network. Web analytics, ad serving, content syndication and site search are all examples of services that publishers need, that they value and that could be provided by networks. Lastly, and potentially most importantly, exceptional service matters greatly in what is inherently a people-driven business. Decisions in the advertising business are often made based on established relationships, personalities and perceived commitment. No ad network can survive over the long term without dedicating itself to putting the customer, whether advertiser or publisher, first.

 

In today’s market, it isn’t enough to attempt to aggregate an attractive audience when your competitors are competing heavily for scale and dollars. My guess is that the majority of vertical ad networks that have launched in the past 12 months will fall by the wayside within the next 18 months because they haven’t established any true, sustainable differentiation. What are your best guesses for which companies will be the Pets.com, eToys and Webvan of the ad network category?

Close encounters of the Facebook Beacon kind

I had my first experience with Facebook Beacon this past weekend when I purchased movie tickets for “American Gangster” from Fandango.com. Moments after my purchase a notification popped up in the lower right hand corner of my screen (similar to the email notification in Outlook) asking me if I wanted to publish my purchase to my Facebook. I chose the “No thanks” option given that I didn’t want to effectively recommend the movie without having seen it at that time. Later, when I visited Facebook, I had an alert asking me whether I wanted to publish my Fandango “story” for other users to see. I was given the option of publishing my purchase, opting out of publishing that specific purchase or opting out of publishing actions on Fandango altogether.

 

I had three reactions to this rather alien experience, which if shared by other consumers, do not bode well for Facebook’s Social Ads. First, I was irritated that despite having opted out while on Fandango, I was still prompted to publish my purchase upon my next visit to Facebook. Second, although I was given the ability to opt out of having Fandango send purchases to my profile, it was frustrating to see that I will still get notifications whenever I take actions on Fandango itself. Lastly, it was worrisome that my actions on Fandango seemingly will continue to be recorded by Facebook, even though I opted out of publishing them to my profile.

 

Aside from the obvious privacy issues associated with collecting information on my actions without my consent, there are fundamental consumer issues with Beacon which should concern Facebook. The experience of having a Facebook notification appear while on another site will likely be unsettling for most consumers. I will be surprised if the opt in rate for publishing actions at that point in the process is significant enough to generate much volume for Social Ads. If Beacon becomes widely implemented, the sheer number of notifications on Facebook and other sites could become a serious annoyance for consumers, leading to further opt out or even abandonment of Facebook altogether. With only a small number of actions likely to be published to profiles, the potential inventory for Social Ads becomes limited. Any advertiser that elects to target more granularly than a specific action will be addressing audiences that incredibly are small. Advertisers are not interested in actively managing a marketing channel that only reaches a small audience and generates an even smaller number of qualified clicks. Unless Facebook addressed the consumer experience with Beacon, there may be no viable option for advertisers interested in the Facebook audience.

 

Clearly, Facebook intends to iterate on the Beacon model, but I think that when it comes to the consumer experience, the first impression matters a great deal. Unfortunately for Facebook, this close encounter of the third kind with Beacon may leave consumers feeling like their actions have been abducted by aliens rather than used to communicate effectively and privately with their fellow human beings.

I can’t be the only one without a Facebook post!

There is no shortage of commentary on the $15 billion valuation of Microsoft’s deal with Facebook. As Facebook’s investors have said themselves, Facebook needs to perform incredibly well over the coming years to grow into the valuation. So how exactly is that going to be done?

 

To date, Facebook’s monetization strategy has centered mainly on attempts to sell sponsorships for groups or user profile-based text ads called Flyers. A recent conversation with one of the big agencies revealed the cost associated with sponsoring groups, as measured by people and activity in the group, far surpasses traditional CPMs. Yet, the same agency pointed out that no agency employee is getting promoted without having purchased a sponsored group on Facebook. The promise of building relationships with users that are passionate about brands is a major lure for advertisers. How long can Facebook count on agencies to ignore the poor fundamental economics and effectiveness of sponsored groups? It would seem that the revenue realized from groups this year is a temporary anomaly, unless something fundamentally changes in user behavior.

 

As for Flyers, Facebook doesn’t even provide advertisers with click-through rates for the Basic version, suggesting instead that “the value proposition of Flyers is primarily the high volume and localized exposure of your ad, not click through rates”. Flyers Pro is a cost-per-click product that doesn’t address the needs of brand advertisers or those interested in “engagement”. Further, I’m told that click-through rates are only slightly better than for standard banner ads, yielding only a nominal effective CPM for Facebook. This matches the experience that we had at Google working with social networking sites like Orkut, MySpace and Hi5 on various targeting techniques. The fact is that targeting ads based on user profile information performs only marginally better than contextual targeting or no targeting at all. It’s also incredibly difficult for advertisers to purchase campaigns at scale when segmentation and targeting get too granular. So don’t count on Flyers to be the magic monetization bullet either.

 

Recent reports suggest that we will have a much better idea about the future of advertising on and potentially off of Facebook after its big advertising announcement in New York on November 6th. Let’s hope that the new targeting models and ad formats introduced are dramatically different than what we have seen to date.  Importantly, they need to engage users within the context of the primarily communication-oriented activities that take place on Facebook. The success of advertising on Facebook is important not just for the company, but for all of social media, which now accounts for over 25% of all web page views. Someone is going to crack the social media monetization problem. To live up to its expectations and valuation, Facebook better hope that it has devised the scalable, effective social media monetization solution that has so far eluded its competitors and its recent investor.