13 Questions For 2013 In The World Of Online Advertising

questionsCross-posted at my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For the past few years, I’ve offered predictions here and on The New Persuaders for what’s likely to come in the next year. I viewed them more as an agenda for what to watch for in the next 12 months than as firm predictions.

But it was too easy sometimes to state the obvious so they’d end up right by year-end. So this year, I’m going to shake it up and throw out a few questions instead. I think I know the answers to some of them, but if many won’t be answered definitively by year-end, they remain top of mind for me and probably for many others in online media and advertising.

So in this, the first full week of the new year, here are some questions to which I hope to start finding answers (and if you’ve got ‘em, sound off in the comments below!):

* Will image advertising finally take off online? I have to believe that as people spend more and more time online instead of reading print publications and watching TV, brand marketers will want and need to reach them there with ads that are aimed at creating consideration for later purchases, not just eliciting an immediate sale like Google’s search ads and too many banner ads. We’re already starting to see signs of such advertising with the early success of Facebook’s Sponsored StoriesTwitter’s Promoted Tweets, and YouTube’s TrueView ads–not to mention the explosion of tablets, which provide a lean-back experience more compatible with image advertising. This won’t be a sudden change, since brand marketers and agencies don’t move quickly, but you can’t tell me there aren’t going to be increasingly compelling ways for brands to influence people online.

* Will native ads reach broad scale? Well, perhaps they will on platforms such as Facebook and–well, Facebook–that already reach hundreds of millions of people. Sponsored Stories clearly have gotten some traction, even on mobile devices. But marketers and agencies won’t create multiple versions of campaigns to serve every new ad format that publishers claim work better than banner ads. Which brings up a related question:

* Will any standards emerge around the social gestures that most of these native ads embody? That’s really the only thing that will ensure that marketers can reach scale across many sites. That wouldn’t be in the interest of big companies such as Facebook and Google, which benefit from proprietary ad formats that can reach their huge audiences. But standards, whether it’s banners of a particular size or ad networks, create a more liquid market that helps hundreds of publishers survive as they provide marketers scalable opportunities to reach big audiences. So are there atomic units of social gestures that could carry brand messages across multiple native ad formats without destroying the appeal of native formats? Maybe there’s a technological fix for this, but it’s clear that a lot more needs to be done.

* Will the long-predicted shakeout in ad tech companies finally happen? It didn’t really occur last year despite a few middling-big acquisitions by Oracle, Salesforce.com, and Google. This year, perhaps new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer will corral a few to try to recharge the company’s ad business. Google, Adobe, and IBM have built out “stacks” of ad tech, but no doubt they can each fill out their offerings. Then there’s Facebook, whose ad exchange is likely to need fleshing out. But even if they each write checks for a few three-letter acronym startups apiece, don’t call it a shakeout. Given the rapid evolution of advertising technologies, and the reality that using data to refine advertising is still in its infancy, it’s a good bet that more companies will still be created than disappear. That should keep the Lumascape as crowded as ever.

* Can advertisers and publishers make ads more personal without scaring people? That’s the $64 billion question, and it likely won’t get answered in full this year. It’s easy for headline-hungry politicians to make a big deal out of Facebook’s latest privacy gaffe or the Wall Street Journal’s or the New York Times’ latest scare story about an ad that followed somebody all over the Web. That’s especially so since Facebook really does push the privacy envelope too far at times, and too many advertisers idiotically chase one more sales conversion at the cost of scaring off hundreds of others or inviting onerous legislation. But making ads more useful to each individual person is not only crucial to online commerce, it’s potentially better for most consumers as well–seriously, I don’t need to see another ad for a fitness center or a new credit card, but that ad for Camper van Beethoven’s new CD had me in a split-second. The answer lies in these two words, everyone: transparency and choice.

* Will mobile advertising work? Well, some of it already does, to hear Google and Facebook tell it. And while those already devalued digital dimes so far turn to pennies when it comes to ads on smartphones and tablets, this still feels more like growing pains than a crisis in online advertising. Sure, the screens are small and people don’t like to be interrupted in their mobile cocoons. So a different kind of advertising is probably needed–clearly, banners don’t cut it on a four-inch screen. But the value to advertisers of knowing your location and maybe the apps you’re using, coupled with knowledge of what your friends like–all with permission, of course–is huge. That permission may be really tough to earn. But if advertisers can offer tangible value, perhaps in the form of useful services related to what you’re doing or looking for or shopping for–and isn’t that the ultimate native ad?–people may loosen their hold on that information.

* Can Larry Page keep Google relevant in the social media age? So far, the no-longer-new CEO has at least kept Google’s mainstream ad business humming. Page has outlasted a year or so of missteps, missed opportunities, antitrust investigations, and bum vocal chords, and arguably emerged with a company that’s leaner, more focused, and more potent than ever. Not only does the recent antitrust victory appear to leave it free to compete unimpeded, but Android is doing better than ever even vs. a very strong Apple ecosystem and Google is about to emerge as a powerhouse in the other half of online advertising: display ads, whether on the desktop or on mobile devices. Page’s big challenge looms as big as ever, though: Can Google play in the social Web vs. Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and more? I don’t know, but this may be the year Page has to provide a more definitive answer.

* Will TV and Web video ads finally come together on Connected TVs, tablets, or other devices? Sure, at some point. Video is video no matter where it runs, and while personal computer users bristle at pre-roll video ads, I’m betting viewers are more amenable to various kinds of ads when they view video on Internet-connected TVs or tablets. And even on PCs, YouTube’s TrueView ads, which you can skip after a few seconds, have proven successful to the tune of several billion dollars last year. Traditional TV advertising will continue to thrive thanks to unassailable economics of the cable-content cabal. But given extensive work by Nielsen, comScore, and others to provide metrics that can extend across TV and the Web, the latter may finally get some serious coin from brand marketers–if not this year, pretty soon thereafter. Especially if Apple works its magic on the television.

* Will Facebook really tick us off with a new feature or privacy “improvement”? Is Mark Zuckerberg CEO of Facebook? Nonetheless, Facebook’s well-worn playbook of pushing beyond social comfort levels, then pulling back just a bit, means we’ll probably see privacy norms get stretched once again.

* Will Apple ever make a real splash in advertising? Don’t bet your iPad on it. I think even the post-Steve Jobs Apple still views ads the way a lot of Silicon Valley still does (mostly in error): ineffective, inelegant, and crass. Apple itself can make great ads, but selling them is an entirely different matter.

* Will Amazon make a real splash in advertising? Oh yeah. All the pieces are in place, from a huge shopping-focused audience to a nearly bulletproof technology infrastructure. Again, it won’t set the world on fire this year, but we’re likely to see the smoke.

* Will Marissa Mayer turn around Yahoo? Not this year. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to see signs of a real turn for the first time in about five CEOs. But the real turnaround will take years–if Yahoo’s board has the patience. That’s still an iffy bet worth about as much as a share of Yahoo stock.

* Will I ever figure out the appeal of Reddit and BuzzFeed? Gosh, I hope so. I get that these guys attract massive traffic, but neither site does much for me. Reddit, in particular, seems so random that I guess it must be the channel-surfing of today’s generation, only with somewhat more worthwhile nuggets. But for pete’s sake, there’s so much noise for the signal you get, and even the most popular noise can be many hours, days, or even months old. Go ahead, call me a geezer who doesn’t get it. You wouldn’t be the first, and maybe you’re right. So I will continue to click over to them until I see the light, my brain explodes, or the next phenom looks more worth wasting my remaining years on.

I have a lot more questions, but I’ve got to stop before too much of 2013 is gone.

What do you think?

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