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.

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FTC Lets Google Off The Hook In Search Competition Case

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

In a case that some people thought echoed the Justice Department’s landmark antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft in the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission today announced it has closed its case against search giant Google. The upshot: Google essentially got off scot-free on the key issue of its search practices.

The deal concludes that the key issue that would have potentially rewritten how Google does search–whether the company engaged in unfair competitive practices with its industry-leading search engine–was not sufficient to require Google to make any changes, let alone pay any fine. Instead, it requires the company to take only voluntary measures that likely won’t have a significant impact on Google’s business. From Google’s own blog post on the deal:

  • More choice for websites: Websites can already opt out of Google Search, and they can now remove content (for example reviews) from specialized search results pages, such as local, travel and shopping;
  • More ad campaign control: Advertisers can already export their ad campaigns from Google AdWords. They will now be able to mix and copy ad campaign data within third-party services that use our AdWords API.

In a somewhat more significant part of the deal, Google also agreed to make its standards-essential patents available on so-called fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms without using injunctions to block their use by rivals.

Again, from Google:

In addition, we’ve agreed with the FTC that we will seek to resolve standard-essential patent disputes through a neutral third party before seeking injunctions. This agreement establishes clear rules of the road for standards essential patents going forward.

Here’s more from the FTC release: …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

How Did I Do On My 2012 Predictions?

2012: The Year Ahead

Photo: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

It’s that time of year: time to reflect on the past year, time to get wasted and watch a glass ball smash into the ground, time for people like me who foolishly offered predictions for the past year to face the music. So here’s how I did on my 2012 predictions:

* Facebook goes public, but won’t start an IPO landslide: Bingo! Indeed, Facebook’s ill-received IPO led to a months-long drought in IPOs as investors realized they were not a sure route to riches. The situation may be improving, but mostly for enterprise more than consumer companies.

* Facebook’s ad business booms–but not at Google’s expense: Bingo! While Facebook’s revenues slowed even before its IPO as it continued to experiment with new ad formats and scrambled to provide mobile ad units, ad revenues have since accelerated, up 36% in the third quarter over last year. At the same time, while Google’s revenue growth disappointed investors in the third quarter, it was mostly thanks to the impact of its Motorola acquisition, not a shortfall in its core ad business.

* Image ads finally find a home on the Web: Half-right. YouTube proved there’s a real market for TV-like video ads if you give viewers the choice to view them or not, as its revenues were expected to hit $3.6 billion in 2012, according to Citibank. But Facebook’s struggles to attract brand advertising despite a TV-scale audience, while partially successful, show that no one has yet come up with brand ad formats that work consistently and at large scale online. Or at least brands, which still spend most of their money on TV ads, don’t believe it yet. And they write the checks.

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Peering Over Fiscal Cliff, Marketers Cut Global Ad Spending

adrevsFrom my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Global ad spending is slowing down, prompting a prominent market researcher to cut its estimate of growth this year. eMarketer says ad revenues worldwide will rise 5.4% this year, to $519 billion, down from its 6.8% growth estimate seven months ago.

The culprit, not surprisingly: worries about the economy. No doubt the last couple of months of concern over the U.S. going over the fiscal cliff, thereby potentially triggering a recession, has marketers spooked about committing too much when it looks like consumer spending could follow national finances off the cliff.

That 5.4% increase is still a big improvement over 2011’s 3.6% growth, though partly thanks to the Olympics and the election. And eMarketer, whose forecasts are based on analysis of economic conditions and other researchers’ estimates, reckons growth will be fairly steady at about 5% through 2016.

What’s more, online ad spending, not specifically addressed in this report, is expected to grow much faster. In particular, mobile ad spending, while still relatively small, will grow like crazy–nearly tripling this year, to $4 billion in the U.S. thanks to surging “native” ads from Facebook and Twitter.

But slower-than-expected ad spending could have ripple effects on a wide swath of companies depending on a strong advertising market, from Google and Facebook to hundreds of startups.

And it gets even worse for the many companies chiefly dependent on ad spending in North America, the world’s biggest market. Here, eMarketer expects growth of 4.9% this year, dropping precipitously to 3.5% next year and bumping up and down around that rate for several more years.

Propping up growth are surging ad markets in China, India, Indonesia, South America, and even Russia.

Going Native: Disqus Says Promoted Discovery Ads Getting Traction

disqusadFrom my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Any blogger or media site knows there can be a lot of garbage in the comments on their posts and stories. Now, there’s a little gold in them, too.

A couple of months after quietly rolling out an ad system to select advertisers and publishers, commenting service Disqus is revealing a bit about the initial results. The ads build upon an article discovery feature Disqus introduced over the summer, a box below the comments that provides links to related articles either on the site or elsewhere on the Web. Disqus, which claims 75% market share among independent commenting systems such as those from Facebook and Livefyre, says 900 million unique visitors a month view 6 billion pages monthly on 2 million websites.

Promoted Discovery units are a way for publishers and advertisers (which also may be other publishers) to buy links that will send traffic their way. They barely look like ads, but that’s the point of so-called native monetization, also employed in Facebook’s Sponsored Stories and Twitter’s Promoted Tweets: They seek to avoid disrupting the flow of what people are doing, especially in a social setting–or, if you’re a cynic, they seek to conceal the fact that they’re ads. Either way, though, they often get more clicks and other engagement. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

 

Instagram Backs Off New Photo Policy–But Here’s How It Might Really Make Money

Image representing Kevin Systrom as depicted i...

Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom (Image: CrunchBase)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Not surprisingly, the Facebook-owned mobile photo-posting service Instagram has backed off the language in its new privacy and terms of service policies that set off a firestorm online. The worry was that people’s Instagram photos could be sold without users getting compensated (never really true) or could be used in ads (which did certainly look likely).

Apparently, neither will be the case, at least for now. Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom just posted on the company’s blog under the title “Thank you, and we’re listening”:

I’m writing this today to let you know we’re listening and to commit to you that we will be doing more to answer your questions, fix any mistakes, and eliminate the confusion. As we review your feedback and stories in the press, we’re going to modify specific parts of the terms to make it more clear what will happen with your photos.

Legal documents are easy to misinterpret. So I’d like to address specific concerns we’ve heard from everyone:

Advertising on Instagram From the start, Instagram was created to become a business. Advertising is one of many ways that Instagram can become a self-sustaining business, but not the only one. Our intention in updating the terms was to communicate that we’d like to experiment with innovative advertising that feels appropriate on Instagram. Instead it was interpreted by many that we were going to sell your photos to others without any compensation. This is not true and it is our mistake that this language is confusing. To be clear: it is not our intention to sell your photos. We are working on updated language in the terms to make sure this is clear.

Systrom then provides clues to how Instagram might really make money from advertising on the site:

To provide context, we envision a future where both users and brands alike may promote their photos & accounts to increase engagement and to build a more meaningful following. Let’s say a business wanted to promote their account to gain more followers and Instagram was able to feature them in some way. In order to help make a more relevant and useful promotion, it would be helpful to see which of the people you follow also follow this business. In this way, some of the data you produce — like the actions you take (eg, following the account) and your profile photo — might show up if you are following this business.

The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we’re going to remove the language that raised the question. Our main goal is to avoid things likes advertising banners you see in other apps that would hurt the Instagram user experience. Instead, we want to create meaningful ways to help you discover new and interesting accounts and content while building a self-sustaining business at the same time.

So it seems that whatever advertising Instagram does, it will be quite a bit like Facebook’s Sponsored Stories, or even precisely like them. Although that won’t comfort people who don’t like the possibility that their actions can become an ad, they’re already subject to those terms if they use Facebook.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Instagram follow Facebook’s well-worn playbook, which calls for the company to push the envelope, then back off a bit, rinse, repeat. But for now, pending future changes, your cute cat photos are safe from becoming ads for your local pet salon.

Google Cuts ‘Fat Finger’ Accidental Clicks On Mobile Ads

gmobileadFrom my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Advertisers have long known about a problem with mobile ads: fat fingers.

That is, people accidentally click an ad on those little smartphone screens thanks to clumsy digits (or purposely big or hard-to-avoid ads). Realizing their mistake, they back up instantly, but the advertiser gets charged while getting only a wisp of attention from a consumer they probably didn’t want to reach anyway. Today, Google is introducing a tweak to in-app image ads that should reduce those unintentional clicks considerably.

It’s a big issue. Recent studies indicate that up to about 40% of mobile ad clicks are accidental or even fraudulent, based on the fact that people “view” the ad two seconds or less. The result, of course, is not only that advertisers get charged even though consumers had no interest in the ad, but that they obviously aren’t going to end up buying the product or service.

This may be one reason advertisers pay much less per impression for mobile ads. And that’s a problem that has investors concerned about every company from Google and Facebook to a raft of mobile and app startups, as more and more online activity moves from stationary computers to smartphones and tablets.

Google found most of the accidental clicks on app image ads happened at the outer edges of the ad, no doubt because people were trying to scroll up or click on adjacent content. So now, Google has added a prompt to “Visit site” whenever people click on the outskirts of the ad. It’s an extra click, but it also ensures that’s really what the person wanted to do. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

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