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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Move Over, PayPal Mafia. Meet The Google Mafia

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

PayPal, the online payments company that eBay bought in 2002, is legendary in Silicon Valley for spawning an incredibly talented group of founders, investors, and executives at startups that read like a Who’s Who of Web success stories. The so-called PayPal Mafia includes Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, LinkedIn cofounder, angel investor and Greylock VC partner Reid Hoffman, hedge fund and early-stage investor Peter Thiel, Yelp cofounder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, YouTube cofounders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, and many more.

Now, it looks like a new corporate organization is moving in: the Google Mafia. With the surprise appointment today of longtime Google executive Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo, it now appears that the Google Mafia could prove almost as powerful, though in a different way: It’s more of an executive mafia than a startup mafia. But these former Googlers are now in high-profile positions around the Valley and the larger tech industry, in very influential companies. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

What Google Veteran Marissa Mayer Can Do As Yahoo’s New CEO

Marissa Mayer

Marissa Mayer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

In a surprise move widely viewed as a coup, struggling Yahoo has just appointed Marissa Mayer, a highly visible longtime executive at Google, to be its new chief executive. The appointment, initially announced through a New York Times story, now has been announced officially.

Mayer, who for years ran Google’s search products after joining as employee No. 20 13 years ago, more recently had moved to head its local business efforts. But last year, Jeff Huber was appointed senior VP of local and commerce, seemingly a management level above Mayer, though Google tried to say the move wasn’t a demotion.

Mayer, 37, wasn’t mentioned as a possible Yahoo CEO successor to Scott Thompson, ousted in May after revelations about a falsified resume. Instead, it was becoming more likely that interim CEO Ross Levinsohn would step up to the permanent post, if any CEO job at Yahoo, which has run through multiple CEOs in recent years, can be said to be permanent. On the other hand, delays in the decision indicated the board wasn’t going with the seemingly easy choice.

In an interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times’ Dealbook column, Mayer said that despite “an amazing time at Google” for the last 13 years, the decision to take the top spot at Yahoo was “relatively easy” because it’s “one of the best brands on the Internet.”

The job will be a big challenge for Mayer, as it would be for anyone, because Yahoo has been losing ground on virtually every measure, with sales flat or down for years. What’s more, there has been a steady exodus of talent as Yahoo changed direction and leadership multiple times in recent years and laid off thousands of workers.

Mayer faces an additional challenge because she has never run a company, let alone a large one that’s essentially fighting for its life vs. runaway competitors such as Google, Facebook, and even Twitter. Even more important, perhaps, though she was apparently moved over to Google’s local efforts to revive them, she hasn’t faced a true turnaround situation before. She could face a skeptical reception from investors, analysts, and especially Yahoo employees, who have seen two other outsider CEOs, Thompson and Carol Bartz, depart without making any headway. …

On paper, a charismatic product chief from the company largely responsible for Yahoo’s decline as an online advertising powerhouse looks like just what the Web pioneer needs. But her success now will depend not on what she has done in the past at the world’s most successful Internet company but what she can do next at the least successful one.

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Here’s One Thing Google and Facebook Can Agree On: Fighting Scam Ads

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Google recently has stepped up a drive to stop ads that hawk counterfeit goods or send people to sites that try to scam them or install malicious software on their computers. But up to now, Google and other companies from AOL to Facebook have attacked the problem individually, leaving holes in their defenses.

On June 14, the nonprofit group StopBadware, backed by Google, PayPal, Mozilla, and others, will launch the Ads Integrity Alliance to present a more united front to scammers and also educate policymakers on potential legal or legislative remedies.

StopBadware was formed in early 2006 as an experimental anti-malware project at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and since spun out into a nonprofit group. Executive Director Maxim Weinstein says bad ads are a natural extension of the mission, partly because malware often is distributed via online ads. “It’s a similar threat in that it undermines trust in the Web,” he said in an interview. “Those ads are what pay for all the services on the Web.”

Although Google and no doubt others spend millions of dollars a year to fight bad ads, scammers continually exploit automated and human safeguards and loopholes in site policies. “The more companies can learn, the better,” says Weinstein. “Once you get to a consistent set of principles, the bad guys find it harder to squeeze through.”

At least that’s the hope. …

Read the full post at The New Persuaders.

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong at TechCrunch Disrupt: Content Still Rules (and Will Make Money. Eventually)

Long an apparent candidate for permanent obscurity after its ill-fated merger with Time Warner, the now-independent AOL has been getting more interesting lately. That’s thanks to its high-profile acquisitions of prominent online brands such as TechCrunch and Huffington Post as well as some interesting services such as About.me. So I’m tuning into the livestream of CEO Tim Armstrong‘s interview with TechCrunch editor Mike Arrington at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: Is any of this stuff going to work? Can you make money off all this content? Armstrong: Yes (what else did you expect?). I love the fact that people think content isn’t a good business. It keeps other people out of it and attracts people who believe in it.

Will you do other deals? Armstrong: Holding off for now, but there could be more. I have a list in my head and ongoing discussions with people in this space. I see five or 10 companies in this space that are interesting.

Q: Yahoo? Amstrong: Implies no, not surprisingly.

Q: What would you do to run Yahoo? Armstrong: We had a leadership meeting in California recently with Yahoo executives. We were talking about what it takes to be a great company. One is having a real clear vision for the future. Second is having a clear execution plan with metrics. Third is culture, a good culture.

Q: What’s the deal with all the Thursday night drinking parties, given AOL’s official rules against drinking on the job? Armstrong: Doesn’t answer. It doesn’t have to do with drinking. It has to do with the culture we’re trying to create.

Q: When will you start monetizing the products being developed in Brad Garlinghouse‘s group (in Palo Alto)? Armstrong: I’ve told Brad for the new products I’m not concerned about monetization. I’m concerned about consumer usage. We’re working on nailing the consumer DNA.

Q: Won’t AOL and Yahoo be the same company in a year? Armstrong: Why? Arrington: Both companies are struggling. Armstrong: We clearly know where we’re going. We have more work to do. But we’re making tremendous progress. On target to get to industry growth rate in the second half of the year. I don’t think there’s any competitive dynamic in the market that prevents us from being successful.

Q (from Google’s Don Dodge): Why don’t paywalls work and why does local content monetize terribly? Armstrong: Local content doesn’t monetize terribly. I think local is going to monetize at a great level. Paywalls do work. How you pay matters a lot. Micropayments? Our strategy has been free content but I am a long-term believer in paid content for the Web. We’re at the start of the next evolution for content.

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