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.

Sorry, Retailers–Cyber Monday’s Days Are Numbered

Two cliches in one ad!

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Not long after Cyber Monday was invented in 2005 as an online alternative to Black Friday, I called it a “marketing myth” because it was actually not even close to a top holiday shopping day.

Then a funny thing happened–Cyber Monday, created by the National Retail Foundation’s Shop.org online unit, became a self-fulfilling prophecy as retailers jumped on the term and began offering special sales that day after the Thanksgiving holiday. By the following year, it had turned into a real phenomenon, at least for many retailers, and last year it became the heaviest shopping day ever to date. It might even happen again this year.

But now, even as many retailers have made Cyber Monday sales a stock part of their holiday strategy, I’m betting its days are numbered. Why?

* Early sales. Smart retailers noticed that before Cyber Monday, at least (and perhaps still), the period leading up to the big day actually were even more active shopping days. And in their never-ending attempt to get a step ahead of rivals, many retailers ran not just pre-Cyber Monday sales, but pre-Black Friday sales as early as the evening before Thanksgiving. Apparently they worked. They almost certainly will cannibalize Cyber Monday sales. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

LIVE: Facebook Shares Soar As Q3 Ad Revenue Growth Accelerates

DAVOS-KLOSTERS/SWITZERLAND, 30JAN09 - Mark Zuc...

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

After a rocky several months following its May IPO, Facebook finally provided some good news today as it reported third-quarter financial results that outpaced Wall Street expectations.

The key number: 36%. That’s the rate at which advertising revenues grew. And it’s noticeably higher than ad sales growth in the second quarter, which had flagged at 28%. Excluding the impact of foreign currency changes, ad sales would have risen 43% in the third quarter.

Mobile revenues, a key metric for a company that until recently had zero mobile ad revenues and offered little of note to its mobile users, were 14% of the total $1.09 billion in ad sales.

The other key number: 9%. That’s how much shares are rising in after-hours trading. Shares of FB rose a little less than 1%, to $19.50, in trading today. That’s still only a little over half of the IPO price.

* Update: Make that 20%+. After sleeping on it, investors like the results even better the next morning.

Facebook still faces many challenges, such as the need to provide a better mobile experience for users and advertisers. And thanks to rising expenses, including stock compensation and related costs–up 64% from a year ago–it’s actually losing money on a GAAP basis. But if advertising is returning, whether it’s from more interest in its social and mobile ads, in the Facebook ad exchange that’s getting a lot of attention, or even in the new Gifts e-commerce service, that’s good news.

We’ll hear more from CEO Mark Zuckerberg shortly when Facebook conducts its analyst earnings call at 2 p.m. Pacific. I’ll blog the highlights here, but you can also listen to the livestream.

The call begins. Zuckerberg will talk about the vision and strategy of the company–make the world more connected, etc. Three pillars to the strategy:

1) Build the best mobile product. This is the most misunderstood pillar. Mobile allows us to reach way more people, people spend more time on mobile devices, and monetization should be even better than on the desktop.

2) Improve the Facebook platform.

3) Strong monetization engine. On mobile, ads will be more like TV–more integrated into the core product experience, rather than on the side. We’re starting to see better ad products for people and better results for advertisers.

I want to dispose of this notion that we can’t make money on mobile. Until recently, Facebook didn’t even try. …

Read the rest of Zuckerberg’s comments and his Q&A with analysts at The New Persuaders.

Congrats, Facebook, You’ve Hit 1 Billion Users. Now What?

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

So 1 billion people now visit Facebook at least once a month, according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who celebrated with that weird new ad. That’s an amazing milestone for a company only eight years old, fully justifying the glut of press coverage this morning. But is it getting too big for its own good?

I’m not just talking about the usual stuff a company faces as it grows very large–antitrust concerns, privacy worries, hiring quality, and the like. Google, Microsoft, IBM, and many others have faced and still face these issues. But such challenges haven’t taken any of them down. And even as they start (or continue) to be concerns for Facebook, they likely won’t sink it either.

The biggest concern I have is whether Facebook could–as a direct result of getting what seems likely to be just about everyone online to use it eventually–lose what’s special about it. After all, is it enough simply to be the biggest social network? Does being the biggest, as Zuckerberg and many others inside and outside the company implicitly assume, automatically make it the best?

I’m not so sure. And that’s without even falling back on the old look-what-happened-to-MySpace argument. The fact is that Facebook doesn’t do a lot of the social activities people participate in online as well as others. Twitter is way better in many ways for disseminating news. LinkedIn still does professional networking far better. No one has made video sharing easier than YouTube (yes, it’s a social service too). Pinterest, Reddit, and others are seeing massive growth thanks to a pretty clear focus on doing one thing well.

And Facebook? As well as it facilitates connections with friends, its overriding appeal is not any particular features. (OK, except for sharing photos–but even there, it felt the need to spend a billion bucks to buy Instagram.) Facebook’s key advantage now is largely that all your friends are on Facebook too.

Of course, that’s a huge technical and business feat for Facebook–nothing to be minimized, as evidenced by the fact that no one else accomplished it. But is that enough to catapult it to the next level?

Maybe. But as its growth slows, I wonder if essentially becoming a social utility that Zuckerberg long said Facebook should be is distinctive enough a mission to maintain its momentum. One random item that gave me pause today came in passing on a BusinessInsider post on Facebook’s recent move to allow advertisers to “retarget” its users with ads:

The most valuable inventory for re-targeting until now has been Yahoo Mail, because:

  • It has huge scale.
  • It’s engaging enough that you’d only want to click on an ad to leave if you really wanted to leave.
  • The people who use it tend to leave it open as a tab in their browser all day.

In all three ways, Facebook.com is very similar to Yahoo Mail.

Yikes. Facebook is now like a boring email service? Now, it’s probably unfair to extrapolate this comparison in a particular realm of advertising to Facebook overall. But it reflects the reality that Facebook’s ubiquity is inexorably steering it toward becoming something like the new television. Another mass medium, even if it’s a uniquely interactive mass medium.

I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact there’s a lot right with it, for Facebook’s business. I just can’t shake a nagging feeling that achieving this ubiquity–as Zuckerberg put it today, to “connect the rest of the world”–isn’t enough of a raison d’etre.

So the question now is what Facebook will do with that ubiquity. Maybe simply facilitating those connections is enough. But at this milestone moment the company itself chose to highlight, it’s worth posing some existential questions to go along with that existential ad:

Why is Facebook here?

Is sheer ubiquity sufficient for Facebook to achieve Zuckerberg’s lofty goals?

As Facebook becomes a service for everyone, does it become special to no one?

Facebook Live: Charlie Rose Interviews COO Sheryl Sandberg, VC Marc Andreessen

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 28JAN11 - Sheryl Sandberg, ...

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For better or worse, you know a company is serious about putting forward a clear image of itself when it submits to an interview with Charlie Rose.

And so on Oct. 2, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and board member and uber-VC Marc Andreessen talked with the PBS journalist at the annual ad confab Advertising Week in New York, clearly in hopes of persuading brand marketers to invest much more on the No. 1 social network. Here’s a live account of what they had to say, paraphrased at times (especially when it comes to fast-talking Andreessen):

Rose asks Andreessen where advertising is heading in the Internet age.

Andreessen: People love the Internet and there’s such a powerful global phenomenon putting the world in people’s hands. We have the fundamental challenge in advertising and media: Most of the money is trapped on the wrong side. We still don’t have most of the money and advertisers moved over to online. We now can see that transition happen, particularly with mobile.

Sandberg: You went from radio to TV and print and then to online. We think Facebook represents the next stage of online and we’re still in the very beginning. Ads online today are onetime and one-way, no ongoing relationship. We’re at the very beginning of changing that. Businesses have an opportunity to change their relationships. They can establish an ongoing relationship. And members have 130 friends they can pass messages along to.

Rose: What are the challenges of mobile for Facebook?

Sandberg: Mobile is a huge opportunity for Facebook. There soon will be 5 billion phones. The engagement opportunities for us are obviously much, much higher. Our mobile users are much more engaged, and that forms the basis for monetization.

Also, the marketing messages can be put into the newsfeeds.

Rose: But does it in any way make the user unhappy?

Sandberg: We’re looking very carefully at this. We’ve been very pleased with the results. We’ve also seen a real improvement for marketers.

Rose: Has the monetization been slower than you expected?

Sandberg: Marketers understand they can’t just do the same campaigns. Then we have early adopters, and we’re working to help them understand. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Facebook’s New Gift Service: Nice, But Not Yet An E-Commerce Game Changer

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Just in time for prime gift-giving holidays like Friday’s World Rabies Day (or if you prefer, Ask A Stupid Question Day), Facebook today launched a social gift service. It’s rolling out to only a select few for now.

I must be one of them, because I was able to send something to my wife to try it out. But in its current form, I doubt I’m going to use it much.

This isn’t the 2.0 version of the Facebook Gifts virtual-gift service that the company shut down two years ago, by the way. In fact, the new Gifts is built upon, and run by, the folks at Karma, the gift-giving service Facebook acquired in May.

It actually looks pretty good. And while I have ordered precisely one gift that obviously has not yet been delivered, so I can’t judge the entire gift-giving process, it worked quite smoothly. I clicked on my wife’s Timeline, clicked the gift button, and off I went to order her some caramels. She can even pick her own flavor–that’s pretty cool.

In this case, I obviously know her address, so one advantage of Facebook Gifts–not having to know or ask for someone’s address–is moot in my case. What’s more, I didn’t get an automatic reminder I might get if it were her birthday, so that bit of friction elimination wasn’t a factor for me either. But it’s fast and easy to send gifts to friends, and that’s great–not just for consumers, but for Facebook, which can use a service that brings in revenues not dependent upon its brand of advertising that many large marketers are still doubtful about.

So what isn’t great, at least for me?

* A lot of the most prominent gifts are pretty vanilla–teddy bears, spa appointments, flowers, cupcakes. Maybe they’re fine products. Maybe they’re the sort of thing most people give their friends. But for a service with a tagline “real friends, real gifts,” too many of these products seem just too impersonal. Products, especially gifts, are not necessarily fungible, and all the less so for close friends for whom you’re supposed to be getting something special. And if they’re not close friends–and let’s be honest, most people don’t have several hundred close friends–I probably won’t be sending them many gifts, from Facebook or anywhere else. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Google Research: No Mobile Site = Lost Customers

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Google has increasingly pushed its advertising customers to create special mobile websites because, as we know all too well, most conventional websites look awful on a smartphone. Now, Google’s providing more research to back up its advice.

The search ad giant is hoping, of course, that the better mobile experience people have, the more they will use Google search to find sites and products. A poor mobile experience reflects badly not only on the sites but on Google searches that sent them there. That’s especially worrisome today as Facebook, to name one rival, and Twitter, to name another, double down on mobile advertising. And it happens that Google has some relatively new mobile ads to hawk as well.

So in a survey of about 1,100 U.S. adult smartphone users (not tablets, in this study) conducted by  market research firms Sterling Research and SmithGeiger and released this morning, Google offers advertising folks ammunition to get their laggard information-technology and marketing chiefs moving. A few of the highlights (or, in some cases, low points):

* Two-thirds of smartphone users say a mobile-friendly site makes them more likely to buy a company’s product or service, and 74% say they’re more likely to return to the site later. “Mobile is creating massive opportunity,” says Jason Spero, head of Google’s global mobile sales and strategy.

* 61% says that if they don’t find what they’re looking for (probably within about five seconds), they’ll click away to another site. Half say that even if they like a business, they’ll use its site less often if it doesn’t work well on their smartphone. “This is a wakeup call,” says Spero. “You will lose customers at the moments that matter” without a site specifically made for mobile devices.

* 72% of users say a mobile-friendly site is important to them, but a nearly unanimous 96% have visited sites that aren’t. “When you offer users a desktop experience on mobile,” Spero notes, “it’s kind of crap.”

Google’s advice: Create a fast mobile site with big buttons and text, keep steps to complete tasks to a minimum, and–you knew this was coming–promote the site with Google mobile ads for the two-thirds of people who use search to find a site. That last may be self-serving–though one Google mobile advertiser, online discount perfume merchant FragranceNet.com, told me that the ads were a significant factor in a 48% jump in mobile sales following its creation of a mobile site. But it’s hard to argue with the rest.

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