Why Do Programmers Hate Internet Advertising So Much?

Facebook ad question (Photo credit: renaissancechambara)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Another week, another pontificating programmer slamming online advertising. What is it with these guys?

The latest example is a steaming heap of linkbait from software developer and entrepreneur Patrick Dobson entitled Facebook Should Fire Sheryl Sandberg. That would be the chief operating officer of Facebook, whose purported crime is that she steered Facebook toward being an ad-supported company.

In Dobson’s telling, while Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was off at an ashram in India, onetime Google ad exec Sandberg mandated that Facebook would henceforth be an advertising company. Proof of her folly? Facebook’s now worth half of what it was at its IPO three months ago as it “continues to flounder in advertising hell.”

This, despite the fact that Facebook will gross about $5 billion in ad revenues this year, despite the fact that its current market cap is still more than $40 billion less than eight years after the company’s founding in a Harvard dorm.

Thousands of Web developers would love to flounder this badly.

Dobson’s preferred alternative is that Facebook should gradually phase out advertising in favor of–and I have to get technical here, because the bigger picture he provides is fuzzy–selling access to its application programming interface. That way, developers can build businesses like Zynga did on top of the social network in the way personal computer software developers built applications atop Microsoft’s Windows. From his post:

… There is massive value in the social graph and the ability to build applications on top of it. I believe the value is greater than all of the advertising revenue generated on the web to date. … What is the best way to monetize the social graph? To sell access to the social graph! … Developers can then figure out if advertising, or micro transactions, or payed access is the best way to monetize the social graph.

I’m not really sure what “selling access to the social graph” would be, though it sounds like the result could make Facebook’s many privacy gaffes to date look tame.

But the bigger problem is the persistent implication by tech folks like Dobson that advertising is beneath them, and beneath any intelligent human being. Now, I’m no huge fan of most advertising, and all too often it is indeed lame. But there’s no doubt it can be useful at the right place and time, and even when it misses the mark, advertising is a small, remarkably frictionless price to pay for a whole lot of free Web services.

The notion that advertising is evil, to use a favorite term of Google critics, or at least useless is a longstanding meme in Silicon Valley. It goes at least as far back as Google’s founding, before it became–right–the biggest online ad company on the planet. Cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin famously wrote in their Stanford doctoral thesis describing Google that advertising could pollute search results.

Why this antipathy to advertising? A lot of tech folks seem to believe they’re immune to the influence of advertising. More than that, they assume that no one else is much influenced by it either (despite ample evidence over many decades that ads do influence people’s attitudes and behavior). Therefore, the reasoning goes, ads are nothing more than an annoyance, an inefficient allocation of capital. Dobson accuses Sandberg of a “rampant lack of business creativity” that has “no place in centers of innovation,” later saying she should start an ad agency in Miami. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

How YouTube Turned Into a Real Business By Making Ads Optional

From my story in MIT Technology Review:

In 2008, when Shishir Mehrotra joined YouTube to take charge of advertising, the booming video-sharing service was getting hundreds of millions of views a day. ­YouTube, which had been acquired by Google in 2006, was also spending as much as $700 million on Internet bandwidth, content licensing, and other costs. With revenue of only $200 million, YouTube was widely viewed as Google’s folly.

Mehrotra, an MIT math and computer science alum who had never worked in advertising, thought he had a solution: skippable ads that advertisers would pay for only when people watched them. That would be a radical change from the conventional media model of paying for ad “impressions” regardless of whether the ads are actually viewed, and even from Google’s own pay-per-click model. He reckoned his plan would provide an incentive to create better advertising and increase the value for advertisers of those ads people chose to watch. But the risk was huge: people might not watch the ads at all.

Mehrotra’s gamble paid off. YouTube will gross $3.6 billion this year, estimates Citi analyst Mark Mahaney. The $2.4 billion that YouTube will keep after sharing ad revenue with video content partners is nearly six times the revenue the streaming video service Hulu raked in last year from ads and subscriptions. And that suggests Mehrotra has helped Google solve a problem many fast-growing Web companies continue to struggle with: how to make money off the huge audience that uses its service free.

In 2008, Mehrotra was working for Microsoft and hankered to have his own startup, but he agreed to talk to a Google executive he knew about working there instead. He decided against it—but that evening he kept thinking about how the exec was frustrated that most ad dollars go to TV, even though nobody watches TV ads. Yet at his Super Bowl party two weeks earlier, Mehrotra recalled, guests kept asking him to replay the ads. Was there a way, he wondered, to make TV ads as captivating as Super Bowl ads, every day?

The answer came to him in a flash. …

Read the complete story in MIT Technology Review.

Stung By Click Fraud Allegations, Facebook Reveals How It’s Fighting Back

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

It’s a question that has haunted online advertisers since soon after Google perfected pay-per-click search ads a decade ago: Are those clicks from real potential customers, or are they from scammers draining my ad budget?

Now the issue of “click fraud” has hit Facebook full-force. On July 30, Limited Run, which provides software to enable bands and music labels sell physical products like records, said it was closing its Facebook account after finding that some 80% of the clicks it got during a recent ad campaign on Facebook were likely generated not by real people but by bots. Those are coordinated groups of computers hijacked by scammers or spammers, so any clicks they generate cost advertisers money for no benefit. (In a separate issue, in fact the main reason Limited Run said it’s leaving Facebook, the company also said Facebook asked it to spend $2,000 on ads in order to change its Facebook page name, something Facebook has said is not its policy.)

Limited Run said it came to the conclusion that the clicks were fraudulent after running its own analysis. It  determined that most of the clicks for which Facebook was charging it came from computers that weren’t loading Javascript, a programming language that allows Web pages to be interactive. Almost all Web browsers load Javascript by default, so the assumption is that if a click comes from one that isn’t, it’s probably not a real person but a bot.

To be clear, Limited Run isn’t charging that Facebook itself is responsible for those apparently fraudulent clicks. Often the culprits in click fraud are small-time ad networks and other outfits that pay people to click on Google and other ads they run on their sites, though that’s unlikely to be an issue for Facebook, which does not yet run its ads outside its own site as Google and others do. Perhaps, Limited Run has suggested, rivals could be using the bots to cost the company money by forcing it to pay for useless clicks.

The click fraud issue has at times loomed large for Google and other companies because of the potential impact on advertiser trust, and Google continues to fight click fraud–as does Facebook. Indeed, the issue isn’t new for Facebook either, with complaints, including lawsuits, bubbling up since at least 2009.

But while click fraud doesn’t seem to have driven away a large number of Google advertisers, whether because the company has minimized it or because advertisers simply factor it in as a cost of doing business online, the issue is a particular concern for Facebook now. It’s trying to prove to skeptical advertisers and investors that its ads work, and claims that there’s rampant click fraud don’t help. At the same time, Facebook has said recently that some 1.5% of its nearly 1 billion accounts are “undesirable,” meaning “user profiles that we determine are intended to be used for purposes that violate our terms of service, such as spamming.

Facebook has declined to say much about the Limited Run situation, though the company says it believes it catches and filters out the vast majority of “invalid clicks” before they’re even charged to advertisers. Its own page on “click and impression quality” doesn’t reveal much detail about how it deals with click fraud, however, so I asked the company for more insight on what it’s doing about the problem.

Mark Rabkin, an engineering director on Facebook’s ads team, responded to questions by email. While at times he’s repeating what Facebook has said before, he also reveals that the company has a growing staff of 300 people working on security and safety and explains in more detail the various ways the company tries to catch bad clicks. Here are his answers. …

Read the complete interview at The New Persuaders.

Is Zynga the Canary in the Social Games Coal Mine?

Infographic courtesy of Tableau Software (click to see interactive version)

Cross-posted from my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

I stopped playing FarmVille several months ago. Why? I got bored. Apparently a lot of other people are getting bored, too–at least with playing FarmVille and other Zynga games on  their personal computers.

According to a research note from Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz today, social games played on Facebook such as Zynga’s are seeing steadily dropping usage–leading to a fearsome 10% drop in its shares today, to $5 or less.

The reason, he says, is likely that more and more people are playing social games on their smartphones and tablets:

We believe that mobile devices may be siphoning off an accelerating number of gamers from Facebook. Facebook itself is increasingly being accessed by mobile devices, however it is not possible to play Facebook-native apps through Facebook on a smartphone. We believe that over the last two months, trends in the casual digital gaming space have swung decisively towards mobile and away from social, at least in Western markets.

No doubt that’s one reason, and an inevitable one as more people use their smartphones and tablets instead of PCs for many tasks (and fun and games). But I also wonder if enough people are realizing that these games are taking a little too much of their lives. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

Google Makes Renewed Grab for the Rest of Online Advertising

New DoubleClick ad system heats up battle to create an operating system for digital marketing

Cross-posted from my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Hundreds of well-funded online ad technology companies have sprouted up in recent years, each aiming to make it easier and more efficient for marketers to reach just the target audience they want.

Terence Kawaja, CEO of boutique investment bank Luma Partners, created this now-famous Display Lumascape to show how complex the online ad tech industry has become.

Yet the result is a crazy quilt of companies–graphically illustrated in that mess of a chart on the right–that drives marketers and agencies crazy. The very existence of so many competing products, in fact, has made placing ads online and measuring their impact more complicated and cumbersome than ever. “Venture capital has supported and financed a bunch of chaos,” advertising veteran Randall Rothenberg, CEO of the trade group Interactive Advertising Bureaugriped at a recent ad conference.

The result: Most ad dollars, nearly $200 billion a year, still get spent on television because it’s so much easier.

That’s the problem Google aims to solve with a revamped ad buying system it will announce today at a private Future of Advertising event hosted by its DoubleClick display-ad management and technology unit. (Part of the event will be livestreamed here.) The company, which already dominates 60% of the online ad business–those little text ads that appear on the right and top of the page when you do a search–now has its sights set on the remaining 40% of the industry. That would be the $25 billion worldwide market for display ads, the graphical and video banners familiar on virtually every commercial website.

Google’s goal: Provide the leading one-stop shop for advertisers and publishers to buy ads on websites, mobile phones, social networks, apps, and whatever other new media the Internet spawns. Essentially, it’s building an operating system for ads much like Microsoft did with its Windows for PCs–with much the same appeal to marketers and agencies as Windows has for PC users. “When you’re putting together a campaign, you want everything connected vs. trying to piece it all together,” says Kurt Unkel, president of the online ad buying operation at Publicis Groupe’s VivaKi digital ad agency, a Google partner.

Google’s announcement is the latest salvo in a war to control the next era of digital marketing. After a decade in which Google’s search ads overtook display ads with an unmatched ability to turn clicks directly into sales, many advertisers and publishers expect–or at least hope for–a resurgence of new kinds of display ads that could woo brand advertising dollars from TV. Neal Mohan, Google’s vice president of display advertising products, has predicted that display will be a $200 billion industry in a few years.

Read the rest of the story at The New Persuaders.

Beyond the Wow Factor: Why LinkedIn’s IPO Matters

It would be easy to take today’s blockbuster initial public offering by business networking service LinkedIn as a sign that the IPO, the fuel for the tech industry’s wealth-creation engine, is back. But one IPO on the first day won’t tell us that. It’s just as easy to dismiss the rocket-ride to well over double its already-raised offering price as a sign of another bubble. Again, one great IPO’s first day doesn’t mean everybody will party like it’s 1999 (though if it’s “brain-dead” to suspect there’s more than a little froth in Internet investing, take me off life support now).

Still, there are many other lessons we should take away from LinkedIn’s IPO. Here are a few:

* Social networking has arrived as more than a cute phenomenon. LinkedIn may not be Facebook or even Twitter, but it’s serious networking, using people’s social connections to create real value. A lot of people already know this, but for the rest, it’s well past time to stop listening to the Luddites who think Facebook and Twitter are nothing but places to tell people what you ate for lunch.

* At the same time, it’s also apparent that social networking won’t be a winner-take-all business. Yes, a lot of businesses and even professionals use Facebook for business purposes, and will continue to do so. But many more people recognize the value in having separate circles of friends, colleagues, business contacts, and the like. Now, I’d bet that Facebook could be the biggest winner–winner-take-most, if you will. But Mark Zuckerberg clearly won’t own everything social.

* This is the first real sign of whether individual-investor interest in IPOs has returned. It was already apparent that the (literally) marquee names like Facebook, or even Zynga or Groupon, would rock the world when they go public. They’ve got fame, huge and fast-growing revenues, and soaring private valuations already, so using them as a proxy for whether smaller fry would go public was always erroneous. LinkedIn, by contrast, is a much smaller business that’s closer to those of dozens of private Internet companies that to date have been unable to provide their venture investors and entrepreneurial teams exits besides getting acquired. You can be sure that those private Internet companies are using LinkedIn to research potential chief financial officers and arranging meetings with Wall Street investment bankers, if they weren’t already.

* Those shady private-market valuations, which have given Facebook, for one, $65 billion-and-up valuations, suddenly don’t look so crazy after all following the first IPO of an actively traded private company on private exchanges such as Second Market and SharesPost. LinkedIn’s $2.4 billion valuation on those marketplaces, in fact, indicates to some that the supposedly savvy investors trading shares privately vastly underestimated the value of these companies. No doubt LinkedIn’s market cap will be volatile, so it’s unwise to think that Facebook suddenly will be worth multiples of its already breathtaking valuation. But it’s clear that the limited number of shares being traded on these exchanges, as well as the limited amount of information these investors had, didn’t necessarily cause them to overpay. At the same time, it’s unlikely the SEC will back off from scrutinizing whether to regulate them–in fact, it may move even more quickly if this IPO sparks renewed interest in the exchanges.

* LinkedIn’s success proves that Web companies aren’t entirely dependent on advertising for revenues, providing hope that other business models such as subscriptions and paid services are credible alternatives. LinkedIn makes most of its revenues not from advertising but from paid services for recruiters and premium subscriptions.

* Nice guys don’t always finish last. Talk to almost any entrepreneur about LinkedIn cofounder and executive chairman Reid Hoffman, and you’ll get nothing but admiration, and not just because he’s an angel investor in many dozens of their startups as well as a partner in the venture capital firm Greylock Partners. Hoffman seems generous with his time–not least, full disclosure, with me as a reporter since LinkedIn’s earliest days. I remember asking him once, years ago, about the libertarian, government-bashing leanings of some of his more famous colleagues from PayPal, and he sighed and recalled how, as the liberal in the bunch, he kept pushing them to give back to people less fortunate than they. Regardless of your politics, though, isn’t it nice to see that you can become a billionaire without being a jerk?

* For individual investors, the rule for Internet company stocks still should be caveat emptor. That $8 billion $9 billion valuation likely won’t stay that high in coming weeks or months, not consistently anyway, as the pent-up enthusiasm for Internet IPOs gets spent (at least until Groupon or Zynga or Facebook cranks it up again). For all the success of LinkedIn as a company and as a bellwether for Internet stock issues, it’s still a speculative play, and its share movement may well drive home yet another lesson: Individual investors should never put money they can’t afford to lose into anything their dentist is investing in, their cabbie mentions, or the press is hyperventilating about.

Facebook Ad Chief David Fischer: Making Ads ‘the Best Thing on the Page’

In March of last year, just as market watchers Hitwise and comScore reported that Facebook overtook Google as the most visited website for the first time, Facebook also stole one of Google’s top ad executives: David Fischer. The former deputy of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg at Google and a onetime editor at U.S. News & World Report, the 37-year-old Fischer left a job spearheading the search giant’s local ad effort to become Facebook’s vice president of advertising and global operations.

Despite his sales background, insiders say Fischer was a good fit with Facebook’s geek culture. At Google, “he made (sales) people in an engineering culture feel that they were valued,” says David Scacco, Google’s first ad salesman and now chief revenue officer at MyLikes, which pays celebrities and other online influencers to promote ads on social sites. And despite a modest demeanor in public, he was known for sometimes cutting loose, dressing up as Ozzy Osbourne and singing ‘80s songs at sales conferences. That said, he’s clearly a sales guy: In a 50-minute interview, he used the word “opportunity” or its plural 58 times.

In this edited interview for my story on Facebook’s advertising strategy in the latest issue of MIT’s Technology Review magazine, Fischer talks about how Facebook hopes to transform marketing into “the most useful thing on the page.”

Q: What’s your vision of advertising, and how can Facebook make that happen?

A: The Web is being rewritten around people. There’s this transformation that’s happening from an information Web to a social Web. Once the Internet was great for answering questions like “What is the weather going to be like in Cambridge tomorrow?” and “What flights can I get from Boston to San Francisco?” It wasn’t so good at aggregating information about the way we actually live our lives, which is people.

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