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.

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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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.

 

Here’s Why Facebook Likes Microsoft’s Atlas Ad Server

fbthumbsupFrom my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

After spending years trying to dump its Atlas online ad-serving business, Microsoft reportedly is in talks with Facebook to sell the unit that helps advertisers and ad agencies place ads on websites and track their impact.

The news comes five months after Microsoft wrote down nearly the entire value of its $6.3 billion acquisition of aQuantive, of which Atlas was a part. Following its recent move to de-emphasize its own ad tech, Microsoft has been shopping the unit around, most recently to AppNexus. Business Insider reports that before Facebook talks began, the highest bid Atlas got was $30 million.

There’s no guarantee the deal will happen. But why is Facebook interested? Some speculate that it’s a way for Facebook to close the final technology gap on a plan for an ad network, similar to Google’s AdSense, that would place Facebook ads on other websites. Could be. But I tend to agree with one AppNexus Senior VP that there’s an even bigger goal that goes along with that: proving Facebook ads work.

That has been the No. 1 social network’s overriding task for the past year, especially since its underwhelming IPO. It has released vollies of case studies showing how its ads actually do spur sales down the line. But for whatever reason, most likely the difficulty of applying success by one company or industry with its social ads to others, many advertisers and agencies remain skeptical.

Atlas would enable Facebook to track the impact of its ads, which it’s already quantifying through a deal with Datalogix, which tracks in-store sales, not just on Facebook but on other websites as well. Privacy advocates are not happy about the Datalogix deal, and adding an Atlas-powered ad network won’t make them any happier.

But Facebook may finally be on the verge of closing the elusive loop between its ads and ultimate sales that result from them in a way that to date no one but Google has done really well and on a huge scale.

No Brand Shakedown, Says Facebook–Here’s How Page Posts Reach Fans (Or Don’t)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

A lot of businesses with Facebook pages are up in arms about their posts showing up in their fans’ news feeds way less often lately. They and their ad agencies think Facebook did it deliberately to force them to buy ads to promote those posts, and they’re not shy about telling the world about it.

Facebook says it did change its EdgeRank algorithm, which decides based on various criteria which posts individual Facebook users see in their news feeds, in September, chiefly to help reduce spam messages. But the No. 1 social network, which has been intensifying its efforts to boost ad sales following a disappointing IPO last May and a swoon in its share price, categorically denies that it’s essentially blackmailing brands into buying ads by reducing their reach with fans. In fact, it says posts are showing up overall at about the same 16% they’ve been for awhile now.

Indeed, it has just opened up a new news feed option that runs only posts from pages you’ve “liked.” The move won the approval of Mark Cuban, whose anger in one tweet catapulted the issue into the public eye. But lots of questions remain.

Today, the company is trying to get the word out about how its system works with a “whiteboard lunch” for the press, with the aim of explaining how page posts find their way into news feeds. I’ll cover the highlights here starting about noon Pacific time, so refresh until about 1:15 p.m. for the latest. It’s pretty casual, not a formal presentation, so most of this will be a little scattered, but potentially useful to marketers.

Will Cathcart, product manager for news feed, comes on first to tell how Facebook thinks about the news feed. On an actual whiteboard! He says Facebook tries to figure out how interested you will be (Yoda, in his example) in each page post. If he comments on or shares or likes (or “hides”), say, posts from the Rebel Alliance, those will show up more often. But if he reacts in a significant way to a post by, say, Vader, that will inform future visibility of Vader’s posts. If he often complains that posts from, say, the Empire, those posts may drop out of his news feed entirely. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

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.

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.

Marissa Speaks! CEO Mayer Lays Out Where Yahoo Needs To Go

Marissa Mayer

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer (Photo: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

It’s a quarter that probably doesn’t matter much, but Yahoo eked out a small rise in profits on slightly higher sales in its third quarter.

It’s the first full quarter since CEO Marissa Mayer joined the company, and while investors are more concerned about the future, so far they like what they see in the last quarter. Shares are rising about 3% in after-hours trading following a decline of less than 1% today, to $15.77 a share.

Yahoo’s third-quarter revenues rose 2% to $1.09 billion, earning a 35-cent profit per share. Operating income came in at $150 million. Wall Street analysts were expecting net revenues of $1.08 billion, operating income of $180 million, and GAAP earnings per share of 26 cents. Including a onetime gain from the sale of shares of China’s Alibaba, Yahoo’s EPS was $2.64.

Those figures are minus the costs of acquiring traffic from website partners. Gross revenues fell 1% to $1.202 billion, a touch below analysts’ $1.206 billion estimate.

In particular, display ad revenue, Yahoo’s mainstay business, came in flat from a year ago at $452 million, but search ad revenues via its multi-year deal with Microsoft were better than expected, up 11% to $414 million.

And we’re underway on the analyst call with Mayer:

Mayer says she’s thrilled to be hear, naturally. She says she has been having a lot of fun. Why did I come to Yahoo? This job is tailor-made for me. Search, mobile, ads, home page, etc.–all things I built my career on.

She’ll talk about priorities and vision–great! First she addresses the people problem–that is, all the ones who have been leaving in droves for years. She says she has instituted new goals, metrics, etc. for people. True cultural change can’t be bought. The vast majority of what we’ve done hasn’t cost much, she says. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Twitter Offers Advertisers In-Stream Surveys To Measure Brand Impact

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Companies that make their money from online ads know that brand marketers currently advertising mostly on television are where the really big bucks are. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other major online ad operators are all scrambling to prove to these big spenders that their ads can move the needle on classic metrics such as brand recognition and intent to purchase.

Today, Twitter offered up another carrot to brand advertisers: surveys that they can run inside a Twitter user’s timeline. A tweet will ask if they want to do the survey, then if they click on it, it will appear within the timeline so users aren’t taken away from Twitter.

The surveys will allow marketers to ask a few questions that will help them determine the impact of Twitter ads on respondents’ awareness of a company or product brand and whether they’re likely to buy the product. Twitter is working with Nielsen to offer analysis of the results, allowing for more direct comparison to campaigns on other sites as well as on TV. The feature will be offered free for now to a select group of large Twitter advertisers, with plans to roll it out more widely early next year.

Surveys may sound rather pedestrian as a feature, but it’s critical for brands looking to extend campaigns across multiple media. Twitter says the response rate on early tests is comparable to the 1% to 3% that Twitter’s signature Promoted Tweets ads get. That’s also quite good compared with the fractional response that traditional banner ads get. And so far, at least, Twitter users seem comfortable with brands on the service.

More interesting to consider, there’s no reason this kind of feature need be limited to surveys. With the capability to offer a more interactive experience right inside the current Twitter service, Twitter eventually could offer brands more creative tools beyond surveys, such as rich media, video, commercial message sharing with followers or others on Twitter, or even the ability to buy products without leaving Twitter.

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