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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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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Jeff Bezos: How Amazon Web Services Is Just Like The Kindle Business

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Amazon Web Services, which provides computing and storage services to hundreds of businesses, began as a seemingly crazy idea in 2006, but it has since grown into a $1.5 billion business this year,  according to a new report from R.W. Baird. It’s believed to be one of Amazon.com’s fastest-growing businesses, the largest piece of an “other” revenue category that grew 68% in the third quarter, to $648 million, far outpacing overall company revenue growth of 27%.

Today, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos offered an explanation of how AWS, often seen as something that has little to do with its core retail operation, fits into Amazon’s business, and how it runs on similar principles. In fact, he says, it’s quite similar to Amazon’s Kindle business, where the company makes little money on the device but a lot more if it’s used–in that case to buy lots of books and movies.

Bezos made his comments, which were webcast early Thursday afternoon, to close the company’s first public conference on Amazon Web Services, a three-day geekfest that started Tuesday in Las Vegas. Following are his edited and sometimes paraphrased comments in conversation with Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology officer, sometimes ranging well beyond AWS to entrepreneurship, rockets, and a humongous clock in the mountains of west Texas. (Unfortunately, he had nothing to say about Amazon’s surprisingly large ad business.) You can view the whole keynote here or click the video above.

Vogels: The last time you were onstage, at the Kindle Fire announcement, you said that Amazon should only win when our customers win, and that’s how the Kindle Fire business works. I’d like to think AWS also works that way, but elaborate on that.

Bezos: It’s very similar to our Kindle device business. We sell our hardware near break-even, so we make money when people USE the device, not when they BUY the device. That is very aligning with customers. It causes us to have the right behaviors.

AWS is very similar. It’s a pay-as-you-go service. We’re not incented to get people to overpay for hardware. In the long run, that will work out very well for customers, and it will work out very well for Amazon.

Vogels: You’ve always talked about flywheels, which in Amazon retail is low prices, convenience, etc. What’s the flywheel in AWS?

Bezos: I always get the question, what’s going to change in 1o years? I almost never get asked, what’s NOT going to change in the next 10 years? That’s the more important question, because you can build a business around things that are stable. One is low prices. Another is faster delivery. Vast selection.

On AWS, the big ideas are also pretty straightforward. People will want more reliability, lower prices, etc. The big ideas in business are often very obvious. But it’s hard to keep a firm grasp of the obvious.

Vogels: What are the real mechanisms of innovation?

Bezos: Innovation is a point of view. You have to select people that want to innovate, to explore. An explorer company isn’t for everybody. But for people who get up in the morning and want to change things, it’s a lot of fun.

Other things important for innovation isn’t as fun. One is you have to have a willingness to fail, to be misunderstood for long periods of time. Then, you can ramp up your rate of experimentation. Successful invention requires you to increase your rate of experimentation. AWS is one of those things that helps startups do experimentation faster. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Apple’s iPad Mini Cannibalizes Other iPad Sales While Google’s Android Tablets Steal Share

Apple Introduces iPad Mini... and some new com...

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Apple’s grip on the tablet market it single-handedly popularized is slipping.

The maker of the iPad line of tablets still leads the market with a 55% share, according to a new report from market research firm ABI Research. But that’s down 14 percentage points in one quarter alone, and the lowest since the first iPad launched in 2010.

The problem, according to ABI, is that Apple was late to come out with a seven- to eight-inch tablet, well after the point at which it was becoming obvious that people really like that size. And when Apple did finally debut the iPad Mini, it was at a substantially high price relative to rivals such as Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire. “With the introduction of a smaller, lower-cost iPad mini, Apple has acknowledged Android’s beachhead of 7-inch-class tablets, though at the same time, it has failed to deliver a knock-out punch through innovation, pricing, and availability during the most critical selling period of the year,” ABI senior practice director Jeff Orr said in the firm’s release.

Worse, ABI says, the iPad Mini didn’t take back share from tablets powered by Google’s Android mobile operating software. Instead, people simply ended up opting for lower-cost tablets. Android’s market share rose to 44%. Another recent report from Finvista Advisors predicts that Android tablet sales will overtake the iPad’s by mid-2013. Android also recently bested Apple in smartphone shipments, at least before the iPhone 5 launched.

It’s not clear from the ABI report which companies benefited the most from the market-share shift. But it wasn’t just Google. According to one report, Google is expected to sell about 4 million Nexus 7s by the end of this year, but that’s somewhat fewer than some analysts expected.

Amazon says Kindle sales are strong, but it’s not providing specific figures to prove it. A report from Pacific Crest Securities says it’s likely to pick up a bit of market share in the fourth quarter, but not much.

The big losers are clearly every other tablet, including those running Windows–though that, too, could change if Microsoft’s new Surface tablet takes off.

Now, Apple’s share decline may well reverse in the current quarter, the first full one for the iPad Mini and other new iPad models, squarely in the heart of the holiday shopping season. And of course, it’s far better for Apple to cannibalize its own products than let others do it.

Problem is, it’s too late, at least for the moment. Now, rivals are eating some of Apple’s lunch, too.

What Storm? Google Keeps Apple War Hot With New Tablets And A Phone

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

After Hurricane Sandy forced Google to cancel an event planned in New York today to show off new Android devices, it’s launching them anyway–keeping the search giant in pitched competition with Apple.

Google introduced two new sets of tablets, in addition to a new version of its intelligent personal assistant Google Now:

* A Nexus 7 seven-inch tablet with 16 GB of memory, double the previous low-end memory, for $199, the same price, and a 32 GB model for $249.  A new version of the Nexus 7 with a cellular connection and 32 GB for $299.

* The Nexus 4 smartphone, developed with Korea’s LG. As expected, it has a 4.2-inch display, as well as wireless charging so you don’t have to plug it into a power adapter. It’s $299, on sale starting Nov. 13.

* The Nexus 10 tablet, developed with Samsung, that adds a new full-size tablet to Google’s lineup. Available Nov. 14, it costs $399 for a 16 GB model and $499 for a 32 GB model.

The smaller tablets are intended to counter last week’s announcement by Apple of the iPad mini, its don’t-call-it-a-seven-inch tablet. Apple itself has clearly felt the new heat of competition, so while the iPad mini will likely sell well during the holiday season, Google’s new devices–along with Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire tablets, which Amazon says are selling well, and perhaps even Microsoft’s Surface tablet–help make it a real contest.

Apple CEO Tim Cook Is Blowing Smoke When He Dismisses Rival 7-Inch Tablets

Apple Introduces iPad Mini... and some new com...

Apple’s iPad mini

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

As a company that way more often than not comes out with superior products, Apple rarely appears defensive. Today was an exception.

On Apple’s fourth-quarter earnings call, CEO Tim Cook took repeated potshots at small tablets of the kind that–yes–Apple itself just debuted. The iPad mini is clearly aimed at blunting the appeal of seven-inch tablets such as Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire.

While I think Cook is probably right that the iPad will continue to dominate tablets, and even that it continues to make the best ones, his overenthusiastic criticism of seven-inch tablets struck me as surprisingly defensive. Saying Apple didn’t set out to build a “small, cheap tablet,” he called the competitors “compromised” products. “We would never make a seven-inch tablet,” he sniffed.

Why not? Because they’re too small, he said. The iPad mini is almost an inch larger, which means a 30% larger screen and 50% larger viewing area. I’ll grant that that is noticeable, and appealing.

But c’mon. These are all tablets you can hold in one hand, and acting as if the iPad mini is something utterly unique–“in a whole different league,” as he put it–comes off more than a bit desperate. Apple is clearly playing catch-up here, and trying to position the iPad mini as nothing like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire only serves to make us realize that Apple actually does feel threatened by these devices that beat it to what has turned out to be a real market. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Apple Leaves Gaping Price Hole Between iPad Mini And Rival Tablets

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Let’s just get it over with at the outset and concede that Apple’s just-introduced iPad mini will be a holiday hit, selling millions of units to people who know they can’t go wrong giving a gift of a new Apple product.

And at a starting price of $329, that gift-giving isn’t a budget buster for many people. Let’s face it: Apple has yet another great-selling product on its hands, this time in the palm of ours.

And yet, I wonder if Apple just punted a chance to grind its rivals in smaller tablets, chiefly Google’s Nexus 7 and Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire, into the dust. The Nexus 7 starts at $199, the Kindle Fire even lower at $159. But Google also may release a new Nexus 7 model next week at an Android event, potentially dropping the price of the current low-end model to just $99.

OK, so let’s get something else over with. By all early reports so far, the iPad mini is better than either of those two existing devices. It feels better, it looks better, it’s lighter, it’s thinner, it even still has a noticeably larger screen and especially viewing area than the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire. Not least, it has Apple’s App Store, with apps that fit the tablet form factor rather than plastering smartphone apps onto a bigger screen.

So yeah, millions of people will love it.

But millions of other people will be hearing a lot about the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire, too, and Google and Amazon.com have a huge incentive to advertise the heck out of them. Honestly, if you don’t do a side-by-side comparison, which is tough to do, you may pick up a Nexus 7 or a Kindle Fire and say, “Hey, this looks pretty good. Why do I need to spend an extra $130, or even more?”

That’s why it’s surprising that Apple, whose CEO Tim Cook has talked about not leaving a significant price umbrella for Apple products, did just that with the iPad mini.

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

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