Ad Tech Startup Rocket Fuel’s Revenues Take Off

Display-LUMAscape

Illustration: Luma Partners

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

There’s a gazillion little ad tech companies out there, as you can see in the well-traveled chart called the Display Lumascape on the right. Conventional (and probably correct) wisdom is that eventually many of them will get snapped up by bigger fish, whether that’s giants like Google, Oracle, and Facebook or rivals that just did a better job.

Since that process has happened a little more slowly than many people expected, though, a few of those fish are getting pretty big. One of them is Rocket Fuel, a Redwood City (Calif.)-based startup that despite its name has flown under the radar of the general public. While it started out as an ad network, it might be better seen today as a so-called demand-side platform, or DSP. It buys ad space for marketers and uses its rocket-science technology to target ads precisely in real time to the most receptive prospects, a process that goes by the industry shorthand “programmatic buying.”

Today, Rocket Fuel is announcing with unusual candor for a startup that its gross revenues rose 238% last year to $107 million. Notice I said gross revenues; a good chunk of that goes back to publishers from which it bought ad inventory. The company won’t reveal net revenues.

But the growth is real. And that includes growth in customers, nearly a doubling of new advertisers. On their behalf, Rocket Fuel’s system deals with more than 26 billion ad impressions a day. Not least, the company has more than doubled its staff, to 289 employees, including a new chief marketing officer and a couple of VPs.

CEO George John says the company isn’t profitable yet, though he says it’s close. “The playbook is to invest,” he says, so plans are not for near-term profits.

You might wonder, as I did, whether revealing revenues is an indication that the company aims to go public soon. Actually, it has been just as forthcoming previously, and John won’t say what his plans are.

But given that it had made noises back in 2011 about an IPO in 2012, instead raising a huge $50 million round last June, it’s not out of the realm of possibility this year, market gods willing. Or, to mix a metaphor, it might continue to swim around the Lumascape and try to figure out whether to eat or be eaten.

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5 Reasons Why Facebook Shares Have Soared Past $30

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO, shows off th...

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (Photo: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

After languishing ever since Facebook’s mostly botched initial public offering last May, the social network’s shares are up more than 5% today, moving past $30 a share for the first time since July. Why the sudden investor interest in what was one of last year’s biggest disappointments in the business world?

* Something new is coming: I and a crowd of other journalists have been invited to a press event on Jan. 15 to “come see what we are building.” That could be anything, from new kinds of ads (though that’s not the usual thing Facebook engineers mean when they talk about what they’re building) or a mobile phone (very unlikely, since CEO Mark Zuckerberg put the kibosh on the idea awhile ago) to a search engine, a music service, or an expanded e-commerce initiative.

Or, the most likely of all, something entirely different–possibly several things, to read probably too much into the invitation’s wording. In any case, it’s enough of an event that investors are likely intrigued and want to get in ahead of an announcement that at the least will get a lot of coverage.

* Ad revenue growth is accelerating again. In its third quarter, Facebook surprised investors with a 36% jump in ad revenues, sending its shares up 20% the next day. Although mobile ad revenues are a big part, a new ad exchange and an ad targeting program called Custom Audiences also appear to be getting traction.

* In particular, Facebook appears to have a good start on solving a key issue during the IPO: mobile advertising. The big kicker in that third quarter was mobile ad revenues, which hit $150 million, or 14% of revenues, from almost zero just six months earlier. As Zuckerberg said during the third-quarter earnings call, “I want to dispel this myth that Facebook can’t make money on mobile.” In particular, ads in mobile news feeds are working for advertisers because they look more like a natural part of what people are already looking at. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

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.

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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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.

Here’s A New Way You’ll Soon Get Targeted For Ads: Your Hashtags

Screen shot 2012-12-11 at 8.17.52 PMFrom my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Facebook has Sponsored Stories. Twitter has Promoted Tweets. Buzzfeed has Promoted Posts. They’re all based on social gestures and activities, each targeted to people, whether friends or birds of a feather, who might share similar interests. Now, a company has come up with a new way of targeting people using one of the most common social gestures of our time: the hashtag.

If you’re bothering to read this, you probably already know hashtags are those short subject labels, starting with a # or hash sign, that describe the topic a tweet or other shared item is about. They didn’t start with Twitter, but they became popular thanks to their common use in tweets. That use has spread to other social networks, from Pinterest to Instagram (though not very often on Facebook, for some reason).

Today, social ad firm RadiumOne announced it’s making hashtag targeting available to advertisers so they can reach like-minded consumers in real-time across the Web based on the hashtags they’re using. So, for example, says RadiumOne founder and CEO Gurbaksh Chahal, Nike can reach consumers who use the hashtag #nike, or #olympics, or #fitness with ads for running shoes. Or McDonald’s could target people who tag their tweet or Instagram photo #burgers or even #hungry. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

 

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