The One Missing Ingredient In Facebook’s All-Out Drive For TV Ad Dollars

From my Forbes blog:

Beyond plans to spend like crazy on everything from search to virtual reality, Facebook gave investors little to complain about in its fourth-quarter results reported Jan. 28. Ad revenues jumped a stunning 53%, and they would have been five points higher but for currency fluctuations. Mobile ads rose to 69% of those revenues, up from 53% a year ago, a sure sign of the company’s progress in making advertising on phones and tablets compelling. Annual revenues blew past $10 billion for the first time.

But investors pay for future profits, so it’s important to step back a bit and assess how well Facebook is positioned vs. an always-growing pack of rivals–Snapchat, Pinterest, Google and YouTube, Twitter, and yes, even Yahoo. In particular, it’s not yet clear that Facebook has cracked the opportunity for brand advertising, the kind of image ads that dominate television, where most advertising dollars are still spent.

What’s the problem? One ad agency executive I talked to has an idea, and it involves not only advertising but the reality of Facebook’s core service, its news feed. The issue, says Craig Elimeliah, senior vice president and director of creative technology at RAPP, is that Facebook has saturated its most lucrative audience, the U.S. and to some extent Europe. There’s the rest of the world, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the Internet.org effort to get them online is one of Facebook’s 10-year projects, not three to five years.

To keep growing–not just audience but time spent on the site, which leads to revenues–Facebook must give people more reasons to use it than they have, Elimeliah says. While Facebook has frequently changed up the look and the algorithms of the news feed, we’re still doing basically the same things on it that we have for years: watching a bunch of cat videos, fake news stories from the Onion, and photos from friends. Nothing wrong with all that, but it’s pretty passive, especially for a social network in the hyperconnected age of Snapchat.

“They really haven’t evolved the engagement on the platform much,” says Elimeliah. “There’s a lot of noise and clutter.” He thinks the rise of Snapchat shows how young people want closer, more immediate interactions with friends, and advertising that works in that context. Indeed, Elimeliah says he’s “blown away” by Snapchat Discover, its just-announced content and advertising service (check out the video below). The “low-friction” experience is already getting kudos from media types. “It blows Facebook out of the water from an engagement standpoint,” he says, because it fits so well into the intimate and yes, ephemeral Snapchat service.

Facebook needs to make sure it provides the right context for those ads–a place where ads not only seem natural but play in a context that isn’t quite as noisy and distracting as the current news feed. Video ads also seem unlikely to be effective unless they are made to be consumed on the go and provide actionable information–so they can’t be simply downsized TV spots. “I don’t know if the Facebook platform can make that kind of change,” Elimeliah says. …

Read the full story.

Sorry, But Twitter Will Never Be Facebook

From my Forbes blog:

Twitter’s shares look to stage another swan dive Wednesday morning as investors continue to focus on the only disappointing piece of data in its first-quarter earnings report: continued anemic user growth.

Higher growth would be better, of course. But the clear implication of an after-hours selloff of 11%, to a little under $38 a share, is that Twitter needs to be more like Facebook: Only by growing like crazy, the thinking goesFacebook-crazy, that is–can Twitter build the next great online media business.

On that point, investors are utterly wrong. If anything, Twitter needs to make sure it doesn’t try to be more like Facebook.

Now, that could well mean that Twitter will never grow to Facebook’s size. That would indeed be disappointing to many. When investors bought into Twitter’s initial public offering last year and ultimately drove shares to a closing high of $73.31 the day after Christmas, that potential is clearly what they were buying.

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But that’s their mistake. It’s no knock on Twitter as a potentially very successful advertising medium. After all, ad sales more than doubled in the quarter. And with a number of still-nascent ad products waiting in the wings, there’s little reason to think that growth–you know, revenue growth–won’t continue or even accelerate.

The problem is that most investors and advertisers alike still don’t understand that Twitter isn’t Facebook and never will be–and that that may very well be a good thing. Craig Elimeliah, a VP and director of creative technology at the ad agency RAPP, said in an interview that most people don’t understand the true reach of Twitter, which extends well beyond  the Twitter app and website to television, news sites, blogs, and even our culture at large.

“The engagement of a person on Facebook is worth so much less than on Twitter,” he says, because Twitter offers in-the-moment context that Facebook can’t. “I don’t think Twitter is meant to have a billion [actively tweeting] users. It’s meant for a highly vocal, highly engaged but smaller group.” …

Read the rest of the commentary.

Why You Won’t Really Mind Facebook’s Coming Video Ads

From my Forbes blog:

Nobody outside a few advertising partners has even seen Facebook’s coming video ads, but already the sky is falling. Critics are labeling the social network a “super troll” (whatever that means) for its plan to “blast” the “intrusive” ads into news feeds and predicting that the ads will annoy users so much that they’ll be driven away.

That’s doubtful. Here’s why:

* There won’t be all that many of them. Despite complaints about the increasing ad load, you can still scroll through many screens before you encounter more than an ad or two. You can bet that Facebook will be very careful about letting advertisers run too many of these things. Anyway, relatively few advertisers will be allowed to run them or, at $2 million for a day, afford them.

* You’re already seeing video ads on Facebook anyway. Marketers have been creating video posts on their Facebook page and then running those posts as ads. So it’s not as if these new video ads are all that new. The new part is that they will play automatically. “We’d note that we’ve personally been seeing autoplay video in our newsfeed on desktop recently, and been pleasantly surprised that it actually improves the user experience, in our view,” Macquarie Securities analyst Benjamin Schachter said in a note to clients today. “The auto-play feature is relatively unobtrusive and calls our attention to the video without expanding over other content or playing audio. We can see how it could increase video views on Facebook meaningfully.” …

Read the rest of the post.

With Graph Search, Can Facebook Kill LinkedIn, Yelp–Even Google?

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduces Graph Search (Photo: Robert Hof)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Facebook took pains today to tell the world that its new social search serviceGraph Search, is only a very limited tool that it will roll out very slowly over a period of months and years.

But CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his search staff couldn’t help but reveal their enthusiasm for the vast possibilities. For all their professed modesty, what struck me at the company’s press event introducing the service was how specific and broad-ranging Zuckerberg and his Graph Search leaders were about what it could provide: just about everything, potentially, that every company from LinkedIn to Yelp to Foursquare to Match.com to … yes, even Google provides today.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, that even Facebook folks surely didn’t intend. All of those companies have distinct, well-developed services with extensive user bases that are unlikely to shrivel up no matter how good Graph Search turns out to be. In most cases, they will probably retain a durable advantage for years to come. And as Zuckerberg said, it’s very, very early for Facebook search, and search is a devilishly complex discipline to do well.

Still, to hear it from Facebook itself, Graph Search will offers ways to provide similar services, sometimes in potentially easier and more effective ways:

* Recruiting: One of the first examples Facebook provided today was that Graph Search could help in finding qualified candidates for jobs. For instance, Lars Rasmussen, the Facebook director of engineering who heads the Graph Search team, mentioned that he could find people from NASA Ames Research Center who are friends of Facebook employees.

As investors, who bid up LinkedIn’s share a fraction today, no doubt recognize, that company has a pretty good if not exclusive hold on recruiters. And given that finding friends who worked somewhere is a rather specific subset of qualified candidates for a position, there’s not much chance recruiters will abandon LinkedIn for Facebook anytime soon. But Facebook, already used in various ways by recruiters, could siphon off activities that might otherwise have gone to LinkedIn. … Read more at The New Persuaders. But to conclude …

No, Facebook won’t kill any of these companies, certainly not anytime soon. They’re too strong, Facebook has too much still to build and then to prove, and rarely does a company kill another healthy company no matter how good its products are.

Investors may be thinking as much, as they sold Facebook shares to the tune of a 2.7% drop in price today. But if anyone doubted Facebook’s ability to keep disrupting the status quo, they surely shouldn’t doubt it anymore. Even with its baby steps into the search business, Facebook has again set new terms of engagement in the battle for the soul, or at least the cash register, of the Internet.

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. 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:

* 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.

* 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.

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

Check out more questions at the full post.

Why Do Obama Supporters Appear In Facebook Ads As Romney Fans?

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Recently, I’ve been seeing a Sponsored Story ad on Facebook pages indicating that several friends “like” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. No surprise there. Sponsored Stories are those personalized ads the social network allows advertisers to run that show friends have “liked” a brand, and they’re increasingly common as Facebook doubles down on social advertising.

But what on Earth was the name of a friend, who I know is a vocal Obama supporter, doing on a Romney ad? The answer raises questions about how effective, or at least how accurate, these ads are–not necessarily due to a particular fault by Facebook but thanks to the byzantine rules and privacy features that have developed over years of user outrage and resulting Facebook accommodations.

Anyway, I asked my friend if he knew he was shilling for Romney. His response:

“Lol…..I liked him so I could see his FB feed. You should read my comments.” [Hint: They’re not complimentary.]

To be clear, you can see Romney’s posts on his page without “liking” him, but to see them in your own news feed, you need to “like” him. And once you do, like it or not, you become potential fodder for an ad that will appear to your friends.

Another friend of a friend who’s an Obama supporter also was surprised to see his name on a Romney ad. He told his friend:

“I never liked his page. I commented on one of their crazy lies.. gave them a serious piece of my mind ya know!!!!! All kinds of people have been telling me why do u like Mitt???? I’m pissed!!!” …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Facebook’s Mobile App Install Ads Get Moving

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Exhortations to install apps are likely a significant chunk of Facebook’s advertising revenues, and now they’re poised to become an even bigger factor in the social network’s future. Today, two months after offering app install ads for mobile devices to a select group of app developers and their marketing partners, Facebook opened up the ads to anyone.

These ads appear right in people’s mobile news feeds, providing prime placement for games and other apps in Apple’s App Store for iPhones and iPads and Google’s Play store for Android devices. Not surprisingly, Facebook says in a blog post that mobile app install ads are already working:

In early results, beta partners like Kabam, Fab, TinyCo and Big Fish were able to reach a more relevant audience and efficiently drive installs. For example, TinyCo saw 50% higher CTRs and significantly higher conversion rates compared to their current mobile channels, as well as a significant increase in player engagement.

A select subset of Preferred Marketing Developers (PMDs) has been testing mobile app install ads and saw similarly positive results. For example, Nanigans’ clients efficiently achieved 8-10x the reach compared to other mobile ad buys. Ad Parlor saw consistent CTR’s from news feed of 1-2% from engaged users looking for iPhone and Android games that their friends were playing.

No doubt those numbers will come down as the novelty factor in any new ad or feature wears off. Still, even a fraction of those results would still be valuable to advertisers.

That’s assuming–and this is a fair assumption given Facebook’s wariness about ad overload–that the company doesn’t go over the top and overload people’s mobile news feeds with the ads. Avoiding overload is especially important for these ads because unlike many of Facebook’s marquee ads, they don’t have a social component, meaning they appear strictly in response to developers paying for them, not because a friend liked an app.

Too many of these ads that don’t have the appeal of a friend’s connection, and the dreaded banner blindness is likely to set in.

There also more coming to improve these ads, according to Facebook engineer Vijaye Raji:

In coming months, we’ll continue to make updates that improve the user experience and the performance of mobile app install ads. For example, you may be able to customize your ad unit based on your audience, ensure that your ads are only shown to people who have not installed your app on iOS or Android devices, and allow people to start installing your app without leaving Facebook.