Video Content in a Mobile World: Diet-Sized and Distributed

100 Calorie Snacks

While the tech industry was buzzing over Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, the social network’s original blockbuster deal, Instagram, was quietly making some interesting news of its own. Action-sport channel Network A, a property of next-generation media start-up Bedrocket, announced the launch of a first-of-its-kind video series called ‘#goodstuff’. The lifestyle series, which focuses on event and product reviews in its first installment, will be exclusively distributed on Instagram over the course of ten, 15-second episodes.

Instagram Video, which only launched this past June, has had a couple of other ‘firsts’ on the branded, short-form content front in recent months. In December Mass Appeal launched the first animated video series on the app followed by the launch of Instafax, a news-clip series from BBC, in January. While watching videos over the internet has become commonplace thanks to YouTube, Netflix and others, these three video series are the first to be created specifically for a mobile-first social networking audience. The combination of Instagram’s photo/video sharing experience with user engagement and growth figures that exceed those of Facebook, as well as those of rival mobile social networking apps, makes the company and it’s 150 million-plus user platform a logical place to experiment with new forms of atomized content creation and distribution.

The typical process for distributing video content online usually includes developing a branded destination website and accompanying YouTube channel to garner views. That won’t work in mobile, where apps are preferred by users and competing for attention is further challenged by siloed experiences and navigation constraints relative to the web. Instead of introducing yet another app for consumers to hopefully download, content creators have the opportunity to leverage the popularity of the most engaged social apps to efficiently reach their intended audiences.

In a day an age where smartphones have enabled content consumption to proliferated (just look at music video site Vevo’s recently revealed 2013 viewership stats), some mobile applications have imposed functional constraints (Twitter’s 140-characters, Instagram’s 15-second videos, SnapChat’s disappearing content, etc.) to create unique, and successful, user experiences. Without these limitations on the web, content creators have never had to consider developing stories to fit this new mode. While Netflix has shown us that a full season of House of Cards (about 13 hours) might be the upper-limit for online video storytelling, consuming this type of content is still best suited for TVs and laptops. Mobile devices, with their smaller screens, slower data connections and app-centric usage already lend themselves to content ‘snacking’- so why not experiment with optimizing production for these mobile confines.

The onslaught of webisodic content during the aughts, which launched such companies as Blip.tv and EQAL, eventually proved to be overly optimistic. But the issue might have been one of timing more so than anything else. The social-mobile generation is more likely to trade quality for content brevity and platform convenience in a world of streaming digital distractions.  Recasting webisodes to fit the realities of mobile could enable such experiments as lonelygirl15 to succeed longer-term. If the right content experience can be created for audiences, the quality will follow. If ESPN’s SVP of Product Ryan Spoon comments are any indication, users are willing and ready. The question is- can you successfully condense something like Modern Family into 3-minute seasons?

Time will tell if the ‘mobisode’ makes its way into your stream.

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The 3 Most Interesting Start-ups in #DCTech in 2013

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With it being that time of year again when ‘best of’ lists and predictions for the New Year get published I thought I’d take a hybrid approach in looking at the current state of the Washington, DC start-up community of which I’ve been a part of for the past dozen years. It was a web generation ago that the DC area, namely Northern Virginia, was considered an important technology hub thanks to the likes of AOL, which drove consumer adoption of the web, and UUNET, which built the underlying delivery infrastructure. Unfortunately there’s not much left to show from these early internet successes (just look at AOL’s former campus headquarters in Dulles, VA which mostly consists of Raytheon, a defense contractor, signage these days). If the DC region hopes to reestablish itself as an important tech ecosystem it needs a company, or two, to become anchors in the community that will not only draw technical talent to the region but also enable employees to leverage these companies to start new ventures of their own. So I put together a list of a few start-ups that could become one of these pillars.

Two caveats in putting this list together though (1) I excluded any company I’m directly or indirectly involved with (as an employee, investor, mentor, etc.) so as to remove any personal biases and avoid disclosing any non-public information. This meant that portfolio companies of NextGen Angels (where I am a member), for instance, were not considered (and anyway, how could I choose the best amongst all of my companies!) and (2) Advertising-supported businesses, like Vox Media, were also eliminated from consideration. The rationale for focusing this list on start-ups that build and sell technology rather than are just tech-enabled is the diversity of engineering talent needed to run these types of organizations, which are critical in sustaining a tech ecosystem, as well as their ability to build defensible businesses longer-term that are not as susceptible to changing consumer momentum and tastes.

So with these disclaimers out of the way, here are the 3 companies that laid the groundwork in 2013 to potentially become outsized success stories and reestablish the DC region as a major technology hub longer term:

FoundationDB In 2010 then Google CEO (and now Chairman) Eric Schmidt was famously quoted as saying that the amount of information created in 2 days at the time equaled all the information created between the dawn of civilization and 2003- and the pace of creation was only increasing. Even if Schmidt was wrong by a factor of 10 that’s still a lot of information that needs to be captured, stored and made available for retrieval. Add to this the complexity of handling disparate data types with varying rules around what information actually constitutes data and you have the reason for FoundationDB’s existence.

The company is developing a new type of core database that supports the modern day needs of web applications by storing and scaling data regardless of the data model being used (geospatial, graph, JSON, traditional, etc.). By combining the scale and distributed architecture of NoSQL databases (which the likes of MongoDB, which has raised over $220 million to date, have popularized) with the power of ACID transactions, FoundationDB is creating an industrial strength database technology similar to the one used by Google to run AdWords. Having started out building its core features to support NoSQL, the company acquired Akiban, another database start-up that used the same abstraction FoundationDB’s substrate uses but for SQL, earlier this year giving the combined entity a unique hybrid solution. The company’s 4-year effort in building a fault-tolerant system was rewarded last month with a $17 million Series A investment, bringing FoundationDB’s total funding to $23 million.

MapBox Apple’s launch of the App Store in 2008 ushered in the era of computing and with it the importance of location in adding context to mobile application experiences. One of the simplest ways to provide location-based information is via maps- and that’s where MapBox’s technology comes into play.

The company provides cloud-based tools for developers to add interactive maps to their web and mobile applications by leveraging OpenStreetMap data (an open-source project which MapBox also contributes to). Even though the company competes with the likes of Google Maps and ESRI it counts Evernote, Foursquare GitHub, Hipmunk and Uber among its 2,500 paying customers. Due to this early success, MapBox was able to raise a $10 million Series A in October to expand its offering.  That’s because location data is just the starting point of potential for the company as it looks to partner with other data providers to incorporate other types of content to its map offering which would allow it to apply other, relevant, contextual signals that developers could use to enhance the capabilities and user experience of their apps.

SmartThings The “internet of things” promises to move the internet beyond just computing devices to include everyday devices such as door locks and thermostats. By 2018 it’s estimated that there will be 9 billion such devices connected to the internet- roughly equal to the number of smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, wearable computers and PCs combined. So it’s no surprise that DC-based SmartThings is tackling this huge market opportunity. The company, which raised a $12.5 million Series A last month bringing its total funding to $15.5 million since its founding, started out as a Kickstarter project in 2012. Since then SmartThings has launched its own online store to promote its ‘Smart Hub’ which allows consumers to connect various packages of sensors and devices to the internet to solve specific problems.

While the company faces competition from the likes of Nest (founded by ex-Apple employees that are building a vertically integrated solution) and Revolv (which launched its own hub that connects to existing connected devices but lets people create their own notifications) its biggest threat might come from their market timing of consumer understanding and adoption of these types of solutions.

So is this list perfect? No. Could I be dead wrong? Absolutely. But the fact that these companies touch on early-stage and fast-growing technology market opportunities gives me hope for their success. All they have to do now is execute.

Hitting Reset on the Internet and Mobile

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Every day there seems to be a new figure released that enforces the notion that mobile is also eating the world. The problem with most of the coverage of this type of data is that (1) the pace of mobile adoption shouldn’t come as a surprise and (2) the definition of what constitutes ‘mobile’ needs to be revised.

With smartphone penetration about to cross 60% and tablet ownership almost doubling from last year to a third of the U.S. population in 2013, it’s no coincidence that the amount of incremental traffic that mobile brings to the 50 most-visited internet properties now averages 28% (reaching a high of 223% in one instance) according to comScore. In response to this, media companies are reinventing their content consumption experiences to meet the growing demands of mobile users. Atlantic Media launched Quartz, a digital-first, mobile-oriented publication late last year while The New York Times is in the process of redesigning its online presence (slated for release this fall) to resemble the single-page stream layout popularized by social networks. Even native web media outlet ReadWrite is leveraging responsive design to adapt to their multidimensional mobile audience. This design trend will only accelerate the transition of internet activity from the desktop to mobile devices.

Remember, the personal computer, which reached the mass market more than 15 years before the web browser, was never intended to be a web-centric device. The evolution of wireless technologies and networks combined with the invention of smartphones and tablets are allowing digital companies to finally hit the reset button and create internet experiences that are designed to be more useful, from both a content and advertising perspective, than the current incarnation of the commercial web which borrowed heavily (to everyone’s eventual detriment) from print.

What this means for evaluating the mobile phenomenon is that instead of accepting all these stats at face value, we need to look at mobile’s ability to drive incremental adoption and create new monetization opportunities above and beyond the natural growth that comes from cannibalizing PC-based audiences and revenue streams.

This brings us to the issue of what exactly constitutes ‘mobile’. Typically we think of smartphones and tablets as providing mobility. But if you take into account that over 90% of tablets being purchased only use WiFi and, as a result, are primarily used inside the home, what differentiates these devices from laptops, which we consider PCs, aside from the form-factor? If you also include the divergent behavior of smartphone and tablet users the whole concept of what mobile is and represents needs to be redefined.

Instead of thinking of mobile as a device, we need to think of it as an activity. The two data points that matter most in defining mobile activity then are a user’s location and their data network. So if someone is at home or at work they shouldn’t be considered mobile. In this context the use of smartphones and tablets (instead of desktops and laptops) for accessing the web and certain apps (that also exist as websites) is done out of convenience rather than the need for a specific capability- and usually enabled over a WiFi network. The only experiences that should be classified as mobile are in locations where people usually don’t spend an extended amount of time at with their devices and are typically connecting to the internet by way of cellular or MiFi networks- so pretty much everywhere else. Building products and services that maximize utility in these scenarios is where mobile becomes useful. If we can agree on a better definition of mobile, then we can better quantify this opportunity, understand network constraints and figure out solutions that create new value.

This isn’t to say that devices that use WiFi networks or are used at home aren’t valuable- especially when you consider IP-based ad targeting and the second screen opportunity (something I’ll touch on in a future post). It’s just that the mobile activity on devices in these locations don’t generate incremental value unless they are using mobile-only applications (such as HotelTonight or Uber) and could, in fact, be destroying value for certain companies when taking into account that mobile users monetize at a lower rate than their desktop equivalent.

If PCs Are Becoming Trucks Then What Will Wearable Computing Be?

Wearable_ComputingOne of the many prescient observations made by Steve Jobs during his lifetime came while being interviewed at the All Things D conference in 2010:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. … PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people. … I think that we’re embarked on that. Is the next step the iPad? Who knows? Will it happen next year or five years from now or seven years from now? Who knows? But I think we’re headed in that direction.

Headed “in that direction” indeed, as worldwide smartphone shipments passed personal computers in 2011 and tablets are expected to do the same to portable PCs this year and all PCs in 2015. But as Android and iOS-based devices start relegating Windows-based PCs to specific tasks, is the same phenomenon about to happen to these mobile technologies thanks to wearable computing?

Wearable devices, which includes health trackers (i.e. Jawbone Up, Fitbit Flex, Nike+ FuelBand), smart watches (i.e. Pebble and many more expected from major consumer tech companies) and smart glasses (i.e. Google Glass), are projected to be a $50 billion business in 3 to 5 years according to Credit Suisse. But in order to reach that potential, wearable technologies need help from, coincidentally enough, the smartphone. That’s because wearable electronics lack the processing power and internet connectivity necessary to run their own native apps. So instead, these devices must leverage the latest Bluetooth technology in order to access existing mobile phone applications and wireless networks. This allows otherwise passive wearable interfaces to actively control the information being displayed on the device (i.e. YouTube videos on Google Glass or RunKeeper activity stats on a Pebble watch) or synched with the phone (i.e. steps tracked by Fitbit). Over time hardware technology improvements and more robust software will allow wearable computers to become their own app platforms, and in the process, relegate the smartphone to a subset of activities.

Which activities the smartphone focuses on going forward will depend on how consumers’ use of computing technology evolves. In keeping with Jobs’ analogy, if the personal computer is becoming the truck, then its primary purpose will be to enhance user productivity related to process-heavy tasks such as data extraction and manipulation, media editing and creation and software development. In turn tablets, because of their size and portability, are quickly becoming the device of choice when it comes to commerce, content, casual gaming and media consumption. This makes the tablet’s role more like that of an SUV rather than a truck. Even though smartphones will be used a lot like tablets when it comes to consumption activities, it will do so in shorter bursts of time and with specific intent (i.e. comparing product prices, looking up directions and movie times). Where the device will excel is in providing mobile connectivity akin to a MiFi device but programmed to route information in specific ways. Since smartphones will be used in the most variety of ways it should be considered the traditional car in the computing line up.

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So where does that leave wearable computing? With a focus on specific activities per device type and efficiencies gained from not having to constantly interact with our smartphones, wearables might turn out to be the smart cars of the computing world.

TV Everywhere Already Exists…and it Has 1 Billion Users to Prove It

TV_EverywhereThe promise of TV Everywhere is being realized, but not where you would expect it. Towards the end of March Magine announced the launch of an internet-based, cable-like offering which allows subscribers to watch television shows live or on-demand across any device without the need of a set-top box. The caveat: it’s only available in the company’s home country of Sweden.

So what about the rest of us?

With a popular slate of original programming including Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones, HBO has always been considered the catalyst for unlocking TV Everywhere in the U.S. This, despite fact that the only way fans can watch these shows is by first subscribing to pay television from cable or satellite service providers before signing up for HBO at an additional monthly fee. The hope has been that HBO would eventually go direct-to-consumer with its HBO GO service (like Netflix does with its streaming service), but with pay TV partners funding the marketing for HBO’s content across their platforms, the un-bundling of HBO GO into a stand-alone service won’t happen anytime soon.

With traditional media companies not in any hurry to upset these profitable distribution arrangements, a true TV Everywhere experience will need to come from outside of this framework. Fortunately there’s a company that’s been building the digital media alternative that just celebrated its 8th birthday and hit 1 billion monthly users. Yes, YouTube, the skateboarding-dog-showing, Gangnam-Style-popularizing, space-jump-live-streaming video website is consumers’ best bet for delivering TV Everywhere.

Here’s why.

Even though YouTube has become the destination for video content on the web, its evolution has followed that of traditional television in many ways. When commercial television launched in the late 1930s in the U.S., music and variety comedy were the most popular types of content. Over time, additional programming made it to the airwaves and remained free to watch, as long as you had a television with antennas, since all the content was ad-supported. Towards the end of the 1940s the first cable channels, which required consumers to pay a subscription fee to access the content, were introduced.

Now replace the word ‘antenna’ with ‘internet’ and you end up with YouTube instead of broadcast companies. And just like broadcast television, you get to watch all of the most popular content (music and funny videos) for free because they are also ad-supported. Having checked-off additional content categories since then (such as live events and movies), YouTube launched a $100 million fund to invest in 100 channels of original online programming towards the end of 2011 and followed that up with an announcement of additional funding for 30% to 40% of the most promising channels late last year to continue improving the overall content quality of YouTube. With the company now starting to talk about allowing subscription services for video producers on the site, YouTube’s content experience has nearly completed the same evolution as traditional television- and in about the same amount of time.

That’s not to say that producers of traditional media are standing by watching this happen from the sidelines. Ricky Gervais, comedian and The Office creator, announced in March that he has signed up to provide exclusive content to YouTube. This news came on the heels of Alien and Blade Runner producer Ridley Scott partnering with YouTube-hit Machinima to produce 12 short films earlier in the month. Even old media execs see the value of YouTube, investing in services like Fullscreen that help video producers manage their presence on YouTube.

YouTube_Firefox_TabletAs important as YouTube’s ability to aggregate and curate all of this content has been to its success, providing users with any-screen access by way of PC and mobile websites as well as a variety of mobile and television applications has been equally critical. This has resulted in 25% of YouTube’s global audience watching videos via mobile devices, and a remarkable 50% of Gen C visitors. These users are connected to the video platform by more than just devices though as the social engagement around sharing video links and comments truly makes YouTube the second largest social network in the world and the largest social television experience- giving the company a unique advantage in building a TV Everywhere service.

While the bite-sized entertainment offered up by YouTube might be prefect for Gen C consumers, it still doesn’t replicate the current programming available through pay television. Fortunately for YouTube, Google has started to build out the actual infrastructure necessary to bridge this gap. Google Fiber, which promises internet connection speeds up to 100 times faster than today’s broadband as well as high-definition television, recently announced the second and third cities to deploy its service as well as adding premium subscriptions from HBO and Cinemax to its channel line-up. By combining traditional media content with digital video from YouTube, Google can create the ultimate TV Everywhere experience for any audience in a Google Fiber city going forward (which could cost an estimated $11 billion to build out if Google wants to compete with other providers on a nationwide basis- well within the possibility considering Google’s capital structure).

Regardless of whether its YouTube or even Google TV (because of its ability to incorporate media-specific apps into its framework) that drives adoption, most consumers will finally get what content they want (as well as when and where they want it) either directly from Google’s combined efforts or indirectly from market rivals being pressured into providing more competitive offerings. Until then, 1 billion YouTube users will have plenty of content to keep them entertained.

‘No Appointment Necessary’ Television

Same_Bat-Time_Same_Bat-ChannelThe recent release of House of Cards by Netflix was as much-anticipated for its production value (starring Kevin Spacey and produced by David Fincher) as for its release strategy (all 13 episodes were made available to Netflix subscribers on the same day). While traditional media outlets have questioned Netflix’s decision to release the entire first season at once, which eliminates the water-cooler effect and anticipation build-up from episode-to-episode that traditional television show experiences have been built around, fans of the all-you-can-eat approach to serialized content can’t get enough of it. So it’s not surprising to hear that House of Cards has become Netflix’s most-watched program in terms of number of subscribers and total hours according to Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos.

But is binge-viewing the future of television then? Not exactly, though it is part of a broader trend in how content consumption habits are evolving thanks to technology. Just look at some recent stats from two new series on FOX’s network- The Following and The Americans. The Following debuted to an audience of 10.4 million viewers on FOX who watched the premiere either live or the same-day. That audience figure doubled in size though when DVR (which contributed 23% of the audience), encore showing (14%), streaming (7%) and video-on-demand (5%) viewing was also included. Much like The Following, FX’s The Americans also showed audience growth of 44% and 58% across its first and second episodes respectively when DVR viewing data for the 3 days following the original airing (the period that encompasses the original broadcast plus DVR viewing up to 3 days afterwards is relevant because it is used determine the cumulative ratings used by advertisers to determine the size of the audience that saw their ads) was counted.

The story being told by these stats is that the appointment-based model of watching TV popularized in the 1960s by the likes of the original Batman series (remember ‘Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel’?) is becoming a relic of the 20th century. But to what extent? That question will finally start to get answered this fall when Nielsen, the de facto standard in determining how the $60 billion television advertising market is allocated across television networks, will begin counting TV shows consumed via video game consoles and broadband connections in its show ratings (with an eye towards including iPad and tablet viewership in 2014).

By expanding the definition of what constitutes an addressable audience, Nielsen will be legitimizing viewers of shows that are already being quantified (as The Following data shows) but not valued from an advertiser perspective. This will give broadcasters the incentive to both expand the availability of their television content through additional channels (which both ABC and CBS seem to be set to do with the launch of new streaming mobile apps) as well as aggregate these cross-platform audiences to provide more reach and value to advertisers (as Disney’s networks are doing now).

Another potential benefit in this approach to TV content distribution and monetization will be the unification of pricing across digital screens (PC, tablet and smartphone) which have traditionally seen a wide discrepancy between PCs and their mobile counterparts (especially smartphones). While digital might not reach parity with television ad rates, the increase in revenues from parity within digital should convince broadcasters to make more content available online and with less delay from the original television airing day and time (depending on how all-encompassing Nielsen’s new ratings get).

The days when broadcasters knew what was best for audiences (which really meant what was best for their advertising clients) is coming to an end as consumers are exerting more control over the pace at which they consume content and the devices they use to watch it. This will have an interesting effect on event-based content and advertising as sports (especially football and playoffs or championship in any sports) audiences along with those watching voting-oriented reality TV (like American Idol and The Voice) and award shows (Golden Globe, Grammy’s and Oscars) will become even more valuable to time-sensitive advertisers (such as movie studios promoting a new weekend release) looking to reach large audiences in one fell swoop. Conversely, it will create opportunities for ad technology platforms, along the lines of BlackArrow and Freewheel, that can both deliver ads in different formats and dynamically synch the delivery across multiple platforms for advertisers looking to reach this newly identified ‘appointment-less’ audience.

Tune-in whenever you feel like it to see how it plays out.

Photo image source: Batman

Automobiles: The Ultimate App Machine?

BMW_Harman_App_PlatformThe most interesting theme to emerge from all the announcements at CES last month was that of the automobile becoming an app platform. The Big Three all released information about their respective efforts towards this, ranging from Chrysler enabling internet radio apps to stream on its Uconnect system to Ford and GM both announcing app development programs for their respective in-car software platforms. Not to be outdone some of the leading consumer mobile tech companies also provided updates on their continued integration efforts with the automobile manufacturers including: Pandora naming Chrysler as its 20th auto brand partner and Hyundia and Kia joining 3 other car companies in working with Google to integrate Maps capabilities into their respective car connectivity systems. Add to this the recent announcements regarding the incorporation of Siri Eyes Free into specific Acura, Honda and Chevrolet models following Apple’s announcement of this initiative last year, the availability of Amazon’s Cloud Player in select Ford vehicles and Facebook’s hiring of a Head of Automotive, you can see why the next great battleground for audience attention is taking place right behind the steering wheel.

And why not? The automobile is the last physical space where Americans spend an inordinate amount of time (18 ½ hours on average per week according to a 2009 Arbitron national in-car study) that hasn’t been infiltrated by the internet. With time spent in cars continuing to rise (an average increase of 31% for weekday driving since 2003 according to the same study) the opportunity to replace the current analog automobile experience with apps is only getting bigger.

The in-car digital experience will differ from how we currently interact with apps and the greater web on desktop and mobile computing devices in one dramatic way- the user interface. Since driving requires focus on the road, hands-free controls to both navigate and consume content will be the default setting in automobiles. With Apple’s Siri-based iPhones and Microsoft’s Xbox having become mainstream consumer devices at this point, the learning curve for performing voice-activated commands won’t be an issue. Instead, the limitation will be on the content side where audiobooks, internet radio, music, podcasts and voice navigation systems are the only categories already in a format that can leverage this opportunity, leaving text-based media to be adapted in order to participate. This creates a new market for speech and text conversion technologies like Nuance to be the provider of voice navigation controls at the automotive platform level or apps like iSpeech that convert articles and books from text to speech.

Not surprisingly, local radio station owners and navigation system manufacturers are the most likely to be disrupted in this evolution. Without the technical limitations of terrestrial radio signals, consumers will be able to access local programming from anywhere in the country through apps like iHeartRadio or national programming without any additional in-car hardware from SiriusXM Radio. Subscribers will also have the ability to create their own music stations via Pandora or listen to the exactly what they want using apps such as Spotify. As audio consumption continued to increase online, so to will the allocation of local ad dollars as marketers will have access to audience-related metrics that aren’t available through traditional radio including actual listener numbers, not estimates, and the ability to target ads to the zip code, not just the station.

From the perspective of navigation systems, apps like Google Maps and Waze will continue to take the place of built-in and after-market navigation devices with their ability to provide current mapping data and crowd-sourced traffic updates via their respective networks. This is a much more compelling solution than paying the auto manufacturer to send you a CD every year just to update the in-car mapping data (which is my car’s case).

Pandora Media has the potential to be a big winner in the digitalization of the automobile experience but not for the expected reasons.  Pandora’s viability as an internet radio service has been questioned because of the cost structure challenges presented by the music industry. But with more than 1,000 partner integrations, including 85 vehicle models and 175 aftermarket automotive devices, Pandora could evolve into a platform service, much like Amazon did with Web Services, that would allow other developers to leverage these automobile-related hardware integrations to allow their apps to connect with vehicles and related devices as well.

Google_Maps_MenuNo matter how the battle for the next digital screen plays out, Google is one of the best positioned companies because of its existing portfolio of technologies. With Google Maps slowly getting integrated into various vehicles experiences, Google will have its Trojan Horse for offering up services beyond just mapping and traffic data. By looking at the additional data layers offered in Google Maps you get a picture of this: Navigation provides turn-by-turn directions, Local identifies nearby retail establishments, Latitude find people you know that are physically near you and History stores information on the places you’ve been. This provides Google with contextual data around where you go and with whom which can feed newer services like Google Now, which uses machine learning to predict the information you might be interested in (like when to leave for a meeting, activities you could do nearby or sports schedules for your favorite teams), to enhance the user experience across all screens. Add to this Google’s quickly improving natural language capabilities for voice commands and Android-based in-car app platforms being developed by the likes of Harman, one of the largest suppliers of in-car technology, and you can see why Google is so well-positioned to dominate the in-car content experience going forward. Either by consumers using its apps, or better yet by automotive-related manufacturers using its mobile operating system to enable apps, Google will continue to capture an increasing amount of data on consumers, which in turn makes its services smarter and more useful to people, which brings more users to Google’s platform in a self-fulfilling cycle. If all else fails, Google could simply provide the driverless car technology it has been testing and own the entire digital automotive experience itself.

With over 105 million solo drivers on the road in the U.S. the digital dashboard opportunity goes beyond just enabling subscribers to consume more information and have access to better in-car utilities. It also creates an opportunity to give advertisers access to a very targeted, but maybe more importantly, captive audience. By marrying registration and demographic data of the driver with their current location, via GPS, along with intended destination, via maps and navigation, content providers and advertisers will be able to incorporate much better audio ads, using real-time ad-insertion technology, and digital offers than ever before. And because of the linear nature of consuming audio content, advertisers should expect a better return on their marketing expenses because drivers won’t be distracted by anything else.

It’s reasonable to believe that we will see the fruition of these early in-car efforts over the next 2 to 4 years. Now imagine 2020, when the first driver-less cars are expected to hit showrooms (although if Google had its way, it would happen sooner). The experience of driving a car will become obsolete and everyone will become a passenger so the content consumption and advertising-related opportunities will expand as former-drivers can focus on other activities in earnest turning the car into a portable living room.

Maybe then Bill Gates’ famous quote comparing the computer and auto industries, and subsequent rebuttal from GM, might actually have some truth to it.

Why Viewable Impressions Won’t Matter

Reading the increasing velocity of articles written on the topic over the course of last year, ‘viewable impressions’ has displaced ‘ad verification’ as the hot delivery topic in the adtech industry for 2013. But when you start to consider how the media consumption habits of internet users are changing, does trying to determine which approach is the most accurate in identifying whether ads are being served within a viewing pane really going to matter in the near future?

Consumers are spending a growing amount of time on social networks- more than any other category of sites on the web and as such are becoming accustomed to a content consumption experience that differs from typical website content management systems. The traditional web page is an adaptation of legacy print media which pieces together multiple columns of static content with blocks of ads in a portrait layout. Led by Facebook’s News Feed, social networks are popularizing a different approach that displays standardized units of content, in the form of text, links and images, from a user’s social graph in a single column that updates with new information in real-time.

Quartz_AppThe pace of adoption of mobile devices is furthering the spread of this stream-based approach to presenting content, as digital media companies attempt to package all of the information embedded on a traditional web page into a mobile app or website which is limited by the smaller screen sizes of smartphones and tablets. An early example of this has been Atlantic Media’s launch of Quartz in September, which is a digital only business media property built specifically for the mobile web that just announced that it has already reached 1.4 million unique visitors as of December.

Facebook_SponsoredStoriesThe reason the adoption of a new digital consumption experience matters to the viewable impressions conversation is in how the content and associated ads are being presented to users. Both Facebook and Twitter have shown how this combination can work in the age of social streams and mobile devices with Sponsored Stories and Promoted Tweets respectively. Both ad units are integrated into the content feed from a look and feel perspective and targets users based on their social graph relationships. The ad units themselves can be fixed in the flow of the content stream, moving down the page as the feed refreshes with new updates, or fixed at the top of the feed. In either case, since the content cascades down from the top of the app or web page the ad is always being presented, and thus seen, in the user’s viewing area.

The stream-formatted approach to content presentation is also starting to make its way on to traditional digital media websites like ESPN which launched the beta of its SportsCenter Feed in September. ESPN, which has traditionally been an early adopter of digital technologies and experiences, is taking a similar approach as Quartz in delivering a real-time, ad-supported, news feed with the added capability to consume subsets of the stream via content-specific tabs as well as the ability to add skins to the background that further promote the content sponsor.

ESPN_SportsCenterFeed

In all of these stream examples, the ad creative is muted compared to the typical bright and flashy ad unit and consists of a single advertiser. So what the advertiser loses in ‘wow’ factor (or ‘ow’ from the user perspective) with a traditional ad experience is made up for in relevance (hopefully) and singular attention by not having to compete with other advertisers on a page and by being presented front-and-center to the user- ensuring the ad is seen. As the real-time news feed approach to presenting media proliferates, it will alleviate the need to utilize delivery verification services for viewable impressions for digital media entities adopting this new approach.

Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that the adtech industry was consumed with a different delivery issue- ad verification, with the likes of AdSafe Media and DoubleVerify raising over $50 million combined over the course of 2010-2011 to build a business around solving for this issue. In 2012 both AdSafe and DoubleVerify replaced their CEOs while AdSafe also underwent a rebranding as ad verification became commoditized at the ad server level and smaller problem, especially related to premium content publishers, than the industry led everyone to believe. Let’s not go through this again with viewable impressions.

Photo image source for Quartz: @erichfranchi

The Valuation Disconnect in Mobile

Well before the media anointed mobile the Next Big Thing, venture capitalists saw its potential. Consumers have rewarded VCs for their foresight by how quickly they’ve adopted non-voice mobile services over these past couple of years. The result has been a number of high-profile liquidity events this year starting with mobile ad network Millennial Media’s IPO followed by Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram for an eventual price of $736 million and record levels of gaming sector acquisitions led by mobile. With all this positive momentum it’s not surprising that VCs continue to allocate an increasing share of deals and dollars to mobile startups as the overall number of investments has reached its highest levels since the dot-com days.

In contrast to this optimism in the venture community, Wall Street is down right negative towards mobile. Google’s third quarter earnings announcement was met with a 8% drop in share price in part due to the increasing number of search queries being performed on mobile devices which is causing a deceleration in the company’s revenue growth. And while Facebook’s most recent quarterly earnings report resulted in the stock rising 20%, the company’s market capitalization is still only at 60% of its peak value from its first day of trading. This is in largely due to concerns over Facebook’s ability to monetize their growing mobile audience, which now consists of 600 million users, including 126 million of which use Facebook mobile exclusively.

The Typical Relationship

So why the disconnect in how these investors value mobile? It can be partially explained by how each type of investor evaluates investment opportunities to begin with. Venture capitalists, especially early stage ones, typically look to buy private, and thus illiquid, stock in pre-revenue companies with nascent, but potentially market-disruptive, ideas. As such, these investments may take up to 10 years to realize a return for their VCs, if at all. Contrast this with public market investors, such as hedge and mutual funds, which focus on the predictability of earnings and revenue growth relative to a company’s market value and reevaluate their investments in real-time based on news and quarterly earnings reports since liquidity is readily available in these stocks.

So when VCs invest in start-ups, especially consumer-oriented ones that are ad-supported, they are betting not only on a company’s potential to execute on their business plan but also on the formation of a rapidly growing market. Due to this, the focus is usually on customer acquisition and market share growth- not revenues. As a market begins to mature in size and opportunity, monetization solutions are developed, usually by other start-ups, allowing the entire market to benefit from the creation of new revenue streams. Companies that don’t get acquired and can show they have a path to profitability have the opportunity to go public and in the process become industry bellwethers, using their new capital infusion and stock shares as currency to further enhance their market position.

Why Mobile Had Been Different

In the case of mobile, a couple of things happened that has affected the usual relationship between the private and public markets. First, the consumer adoption of mobile has outpaced any other technology in the history of the U.S.- including radio, TV and the internet. As such the native monetization solutions that were developed alongside these other technologies have been slow to scale in mobile because (1) the ad formats currently being used are largely re-purposed ad technologies from the desktop internet, such as banner and rich media ads, which were easy to launch with in an effort to capture mobile revenue early on and (2) advertisers have been slower to allocate advertising budgets to mobile than previous technologies due to this speed of growth- funds that would be used to help spur innovation in ad experiences on mobile devices.

The economic realities of increasing supply of mobile ad inventory coupled with relatively low demand for quality ad experiences thus far has resulted in effective CPMs that are 1/5th the price of desktop internet advertising. This disparity in monetization capabilities between mobile and desktop is forcing public investors to reevaluate consumer tech investments where mobile is becoming impactful enough from a usage perspective to potentially affecting earnings. With Millennial Media, a pure-play mobile ad network, and Pandora Media, whose ad-supported internet radio audience is now 75% mobile, still not profitable as publicly-traded companies, investors will continue to discount the mobile businesses of public consumer technology companies for the foreseeable future.

Without having proven their business models to Wall Street yet, Millennial and Pandora can’t be considered mobile bellwethers, which is needed to preserve the private-to-public valuation relationship. Companies such as AdMob and Instagram might have achieved bellwether status if they hadn’t been acquired before realizing their potential as stand-alone public companies. As such it might be left to existing ad-supported consumer internet tech leaders who are able to make the audience and business transition into mobile to perpetuate the ecosystem. Facebook, which has faced scrutiny over its performance as a public company in part due to mobile, has the momentum in user growth and sheer audience size to accomplish this transformation if they can prove their various mobile ad products can profitably scale. Because of this you could argue that Facebook actually went public too early, instead of too late, if you look at it as a mobile-first company. Probably the best positioned public company though is Google which acquired what is now the most popular mobile operating system in Android, largest mobile ad network in AdMob and is seeing mobile growth in its core search business as well as across YouTube.

Mobile is Really Two Different Experiences

The second part of the answer to the valuation disconnect is in the definition of mobile. When research companies forecast trends and investors talk about opportunities they always speak about mobile as if it were one cohesive distribution channel when in fact it is composed of two distinct experiences- smartphones and tablets. Being able to differentiate between the two is critical because of the activities each device is best suited for based on the physical limitations of each display as well as their monetization opportunities.

Smartphones

While Apple might be credited with ushering in the consumer mobile era with the launch of the iPhone in 2007, it was the launch of the App Store the following year that enabled smartphones to properly leverage their mobility as the physical limitations of mobile phone screens (3 to 5 inches in length) required task-specific applications be built instead of all-encompassing web experiences. Because of this, the most successful app experiences, as Benchmark Capital’s Matt Cohler eloquently describes it, mimic a remote control in that they are easy to use and provide a specific utility to consumers. In turn, advertising on mobile phones need to abide by these same principles in order to be valuable.

Rare Crowd’s Eric Picard described the current mobile ad format problem in a recent article while also presenting a possible solution for smartphones that is interruptive without being intrusive- and can be delivered at scale. For app developers that have large enough user-bases though, creating native experiences, especially ones that can leverage location, will always result in better value for both the advertiser and consumer. Expanding on sponsored ad units that Facebook (via Sponsored Stories) and Twitter (via Promoted Tweets) have popularized in the social activity stream and more recently on mobile, location-based social exploration platform Foursquare launched Promoted Updates for local merchants this past summer and crowd-sourced traffic app Waze launched its own self-service advertising platform earlier this month that focuses on solving users’ location-based needs.

Tablets

Like smartphones, Apple can also be credited with jump-starting the tablet market a mere 3 years ago. The company was prescient in introducing the iPad as a tool for consuming media as users have made watching TV shows, playing games and reading the primary uses for the device. This makes sense when you consider the screen size of tablets (ranging from 7 to 10 inches) allows consumers to replicate the offline experience of reading a magazine or watching television in a more convenient and personal format than traditional computers allow for. Because of this, advertising on mobile tablets can be interruptive like traditional media and less concerned with other vectors such as location since most people are using their tablets at home and as a second screen complement to watching television. That means online video and rich media interstitials, which are higher-valued ad units than traditional banner ads, will work with minimal refactoring compared to smartphone ad experiences. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity for companies to innovate around the ad experience as start-ups like Kiip are proving by rewarding user engagement and retention within mobile apps with real world rewards.

When It’s All Said and Done

With tablets expected to outsell PCs by next year, focusing efforts on this part of the mobile market might be the most prudent move for consumer tech companies with mobile audiences since the advertising experience most closely resembles the desktop internet from both a format and value perspective. The smartphone advertising market will take longer to scale simply because of the utility-oriented nature of the user experience.

As these advertising solutions sort themselves out though, so should the discrepancy between public and private market investor valuations around ad-supported business models. As start-ups fill these gaps in the consumer mobile space with monetization solutions that prove to be effective, so to will public investors get comfortable with the long-term value mobile users have to offer, which, at the end of the day, will benefit everyone involved in growing the value of the mobile industry.

The 6 Letters Holding Back TV Everywhere

TV Everywhere- the ability to watch any televised program at any time on any device- isn’t a matter of ‘if’ anymore but rather a question of ‘when’ once you consider the evolving viewing habits of US consumers and the changing dynamics of the pay television business. The ‘when’ for TV Everywhere becoming a mainstream consumer experience though will largely be determined by the letters F, G, L, N, P and R. Let me explain.

GRP: The metric used to allocate more than $60 billion in television advertising spend each year is known as Gross Ratings Points (GRPs). This figure estimates the size of the audience reached for a particular commercial during each television program over the life of the ad campaign. Unfortunately traditional online metrics like unique visitors, clicks and video starts don’t capture online audiences in a manner that can be translated into a GRP equivalent so broadcasters haven’t been able to take the credit they deserve, in the form of greater ad dollars, for delivering audiences to advertisers through their own websites and mobile apps or those provided by aggregators like Hulu. The thinking goes that if broadcasters could get compensated appropriately for aggregating consumers for advertisers, regardless of the screen through which the content is being watched, more television programming would be made available outside of the traditional TV model in hopes of capturing the broadest audience possible for ratings and advertising purposes.

The first major attempt at addressing the disparity between television and online audience measurement was introduced last week by Nielsen. Dubbed Nielsen Cross-Platform Campaign Ratings, the multi-screen ad measurement service leverages Nielsen’s Online Campaign Ratings (OCR) with their established proprietary National People Meter TV panel to provide unduplicated and incremental GRP measurement. Nielsen’s OCR has gained momentum in recent weeks having been adopted by 15 online ad platforms as well as by the CW Network to guarantee online audiences to advertisers for the recently started television season.

Regardless of whether it’s Nielsen, comScore’s vGRP, or something else, bridging the audience measurement gap across viewing screens is an important step in bringing the discrepancy between digital ‘dimes’ and analog ‘dollars’ in advertising. This effort shouldn’t siphon money away from traditional television but instead reallocate ad spending in media to reflect the actual time being spent with media across different mediums, which will benefit the internet and mobile. The result will be an increase in advertising dollars for video across all platforms and the availability of more content to support this additional spend, which can most easily be made available to consumers via TV Everywhere.

NFL: Major League Baseball (MLB) has it. The NBA has it. Even the NHL, when they decide to get back to playing, will have it. The NFL? Not so much. What I’m talking about it the ability to watch any game live, in HD quality video across any number of connected devices. The NFL only offers its subscribers the ability to buy access to replays of games only after they have been televised.

With only 1/5th the number of regular season games versus both the NBA and NHL and 1/10th that of MLB, it is much easier for the NFL to package the sale of television rights at a national level for all of their games than it is for these other professional leagues (which rely on regional sports networks and local television stations to broadcast the majority of the regular season). Football’s reining popularity combined with the scarcity of game content versus alternative sports options has enabled the NFL to command $7 billion per year in total broadcast licensing fees from CBS, DirecTV, ESPN, Fox, NBC and Verizon Wireless to broadcast each and every NFL game (in comparison MLB generates about $1.5 billion in national broadcast revenues from a combination of ESPN, Fox and Turner). In the following chart you can see exactly why the NFL commands such a premium:

As you can see, the NFL is the only television program that can concurrently deliver an audience of tens of millions to broadcasters who in turn sell this reach to advertisers for more than $4 million for a 30 second sport during the Super Bowl.

Timing

The current agreements the NFL has in place with these 6 broadcast, cable, satellite and mobile providers run through the 2021 season so it could take another decade before the most popular content on television make a full foray across viewing screens (through the licensing of full content rights, including digital). NBC’s simultaneous live broadcast of last year’s Super Bowl on TV and the internet was a starting point, but without an economic model that can simultaneously grow revenues for the League while providing fans with additional access to content, the NFL has no reason to upset the current revenue apple-cart. When the time comes, expect GRP to play an important role in enabling this.

The issues surrounding TV Everywhere aren’t limited to just these two issues of audience measurement and content accessibility, but most other items, like user and device authentication, can be solved with improvements in technology. It’s the negotiations that will take place between content owners, distributors and advertisers that will eventually determine what user experience audiences are left with, which might not necessarily in the best interest of the consumer. If these three parties can find common ground with evolving consumer consumption needs though, not only will TV Everywhere become a reality, but the groundwork will be in place for the next evolution in television: unbundled, on-demand and IP-based program delivery.