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

About these ads

Not All Users Are Created Equal (For Ad-Supported Consumer Businesses)

Facebook’s first earnings announcement as a publicly-traded company last week was not well-received by investors, as the company’s stock hit new all-time lows after only being able to meet analysts’ already lowered financial expectations.

Most of the discrepancies between Facebook’s growth trajectory and stock performance can be summed up in these two slides from the company’s earnings release:

While directionally these charts look good, going up and to the right, a closer look reveals a growing problem in the relationship between Monthly Active Users (MAUs) and Average Revenue Per User (ARPU). The MAUs chart shows quarter-over-quarter user growth in each of Facebook’s four geographic regions over the past two years. The largest of these regions, Rest of the World, is growing the fastest though (at 9% over last quarter) while US & Canada, which is the smallest region in terms of MAUs, is growing the slowest (at 2%) which is an issue since Facebook is able to monetize US & Canada users over seven times better than Rest of World users on average according to the ARPU chart. Optimizing per user monetization is further exacerbated when you consider that growth is increasingly coming from mobile-only users where advertising is still in its infancy.

Facebook’s ability to attract and monetize a large U.S. audience is what has enabled the company to go public. Whether Facebook becomes a successful publicly-traded company will rest largely on how quickly it’s able to reduce the ad monetization gap between U.S. users and every other region of the world. Until then, the financial markets will continue to recalibrate Facebook’s valuation (downward) to reflect the realities of the company’s current revenue capabilities.

This situation isn’t unique to just Facebook though. For example Twitter, the second largest social network out there, recently passed the 500 million account mark according to analyst group Semiocast, which also saw the proportion of U.S. user accounts decline relative to the rest of the world since the beginning of the year and identified Jakarta, Indonesia as the most active tweeting city- statistics that have a similar looking trend to what Facebook has experienced, growing but mostly in less mature advertising markets. As any free consumer tech services starts to grow quickly, they too will eventually face this same situation.

If you’re fortunate enough to be involved with such a consumer product that is gaining millions of users, focus on growth in countries where advertising is a mature industry so mobile will also be monetized more quickly (places like the U.S., Japan, Germany, and U.K.) and also accessible (so not China). If growth takes off in less-mature ad markets, but sizeably populated countries such as India or Indonesia, find a local advertising partner with strong ties to large conglomerates and marketers in the region before committing resources.

So when Josh Elman, venture capitalist at Greylock Partners, blogs about getting meaning from growth numbers provided by startups, we should probably add users by region to the discussion for ad-supported consumer start-ups in order to better understand the real opportunity and value being created for investors.

Twitter’s Evolving Broadcast Network

Last week signaled a big step in the evolution of Twitter as a broadcast medium. Starting with the announcement of a weekly email digest that summarizes the most relevant tweets from within each individual’s network, Twitter moved from being just a carrier of tweets to a curator of them as well. Combine this with the partnership announcements made at the end of the week, Twitter is starting to look less like a consumer technology platform and more like a traditional media platform. But what else does Twitter need to do to complete this evolution?

Slowing Down the Stream to Grow Faster

One of the primary challenges that Twitter needs to overcome to make this transition will be to develop a broader-based audience. Six years into its existence Twitter has reached 140 million users. But compare with Facebook which hit 500 million active users in the same time frame and Instagram, which will most likely pass 140 million downloads by the end of this year if they continue on their current growth trajectory- a mere 2 years into its own existence. So why hasn’t Twitter, which has similar brand recognition as Facebook and exceeds that of Instagram experienced similar growth? It boils down to simplicity and relevance. Facebook started out by focusing on photo-sharing and communication on the web while Instagram took photo-sharing to a new level in mobile. Both services were built in a manner that makes it easy for users to find and consume individual posts by highlighting the most relevant content in their feed based on their social graph’s interactions with it. Twitter on the other hand has always been about real-time distribution with little framework around how to use it, making it intimidating and not intuitive for newer, mainstream users. If Twitter hopes to reach 2 billion users it will need to focus less on what has made it popular to date (the real-time nature of the platform) and more on how the rest of the world consumes content (at their leisure). The new weekly digest feature, combined with the launch of the Discovery tab on Twitter’s apps at the beginning of the month should go far in simplifying the on-boarding process for new users by making the entire content experience more digestible.

The Reality of Real-Time Monetization

At the same time, Twitter needs to solve how best to monetize the real-time web experience beyond Promoted Tweets. For all the interest and excitement around real-time feeds, except for a few situations, no one has yet to prove there is a business model that can be built around it. Finance is the only traditional industry that operates in real-time to begin with, so companies like Stocktwits are in the enviable position of having already built their business around capturing the stream of stock market commentary on Twitter and providing additional analytics and services around that information that professional investors are actually willing to pay for.

The one area where Twitter seems to have identified opportunity around monetizing real-time communication is live events such as sports and award shows. The most popular events on Twitter, in terms of concurrent volume of tweets, have been sports-related, the Champions League soccer semi-final followed by the Super Bowl from this year, which had the highest tweets per second volume of any topic ever discussed on Twitter. The partnership announcement between Twitter and ESPN last week to create interactive programming around major sporting events is the first attempt to monetize this highly engaged audience on Twitter through advertising. Combined with the announcement the following day with NASCAR to curate tweets from a variety of sources around specific race events, you can see how Twitter could build a real-time business around curating the second-screen media experience.

Beyond these examples, all the other information being tweeted (except for natural or social emergencies like earthquakes and riots which cannot be monetized anytime) doesn’t require real-time distribution to be effective. The killing of Osama Bin Laden? The passing of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch? Great information to have, but isn’t any more critical or particularly more valuable when provided in real-time nor can it really be monetized appropriately. So by slowing down the stream experience, Twitter might actually be able to increase their monetization options beyond their current offering.

Continuing to Evolve Through Acquisition

Twitter’s broadening platform capabilities have benefited greatly from  acquisitions. The weekly digest looks like it is leveraging Twitter’s acquisitions of both Summify (a provider of daily summaries of the most relevant news from social networks) at the beginning of the year and RestEngine (a personalized email marketing service) earlier this month. For Twitter to continue down this path as a media broadcast network, additional acquisitions will be likely. While the biggest headlines Twitter has made on the acquisition front recently have been for the latest photo-sharing app it didn’t buy, the company should look at Pocket (formerly Read it Later) on the consumer side that allows users to save content for consumption at a later time- a sort of DVR for the real-time tweet stream- as an example of potential add-on services for its platform. On the business side, enhancing its analytics offering to compliment the tools and services it already provides to media publishers and advertisers should be Twitter’s primary focus.

From Content Carrier, to Curator, to Creator?

Ultimately, the type of broadcast network Twitter decides to evolve into will depend on whether or not the company gets into content creation. A recent job posting by Twitter aimed at journalists seems to indicate just that and may expand on the previously announced ESPN and NASCAR relationships. Luckily the evolution from carrier to curator to eventually a creator of content isn’t without precedent. Comcast was a carried content over its broadband networks until it decided to buy NBC a couple years back (after an unsuccessful attempt to acquire The Walt Disney Company years ago) to get into the curation and creation businesses. And as Matthew Ingram from GigaOM pointed out, YouTube has undergone the same progression with the announcement last fall of a $100 million fund via Google to invest in online content creators.

With each new step Twitter takes in its evolution as a broadcast network, the company exposes itself to greater business risks, but also greater financial rewards, by owning and further streamlining the process of getting content in front of consumers. Finding the intersection that optimizes the content consumption experience for users with Twitter’s own platform strengths and capabilities should be the main focus for the company going forward. If Twitter can find that optimal mix, it can become the internet’s answer to traditional media broadcasting.

Is Path (2.0) Mobile’s Path?

One feature of the recently announced Nike+ FuelBand, Nike’s new activity measuring wristband, is its social integrations that enable users to share their activity data on Facebook, Foursquare and Path. With over 800 million and 15 million people using Facebook and Foursquare respectively these tie-ins make sense for Nike. For Path though, which re-launched its app a mere 2 months ago, this represents a big coup considering it just passed the 2 million user mark. It also highlights the early stages of a user experience in mobile that mimics the content creation and consumption cycle on the wired web.

Path 2.0 incorporates a set of activities- Photos, People, Places, Music, Thoughts and Sleep/Awake status- that users can post to their timeline and share with their network. By initially focusing on these social services, Path’s mobile functionality either super-sets (in the case of Places and Thoughts) or competes with (for Photos and Music) some of the most popular mobile apps available:

  • Photos: The basis for the original Path app, Photos, which incorporates image-filters as well, competes with many other photo-sharing apps including the wildly successful Instagram.
  • Places: Popularized by location-based social networks, Path also offers check-in services inside its app and allows the location data to be posted to a user’s Foursquare account.
  • Music: Giving users the ability to insert song clips into their Path timeline competes directly with the relatively new but popular SoundTracking app.
  • Thoughts: Like any social network, commenting is a core functionality which Path supports and allows to be shared to both a user’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

By leveraging design, for which the company has received rave reviews, Path has created a differentiated mobile user experience that consolidates these services into a single app. While competition between content creators and aggregators for audience attention is a relatively new phenomenon in mobile, it has played out over several cycles on the wired web already. Yahoo became a very popular web 1.0 destination by providing an online directory through which the initial content creators on the web could be found. Over time Yahoo evolved from being just an aggregator to a creator of content as well- launching successful finance and sports content verticals in the process. As the web matured, traditional media (magazines, newspapers and television networks) began bringing its offline content online, shifting consumer attention back towards these properties. Then came Google who re-aggregated the content experience for audiences by providing a better way to discover exactly what people were looking for through its search engine. Google has also tried leveraging its audience by acquiring (i.e. YouTube) or launching (i.e. Gmail) content and services that keep these consumers engaged with Google’s properties. When web 2.0 came along the balance of attention started to shift to socially oriented sites like MySpace and Photobucket where the users became the content creators. As last week’s S-1 filing reminds us, Facebook won the battle for social networking supremacy as they created a platform that not only aggregates individual content creation but enables professional content to be curated in the same experience as well. In the process Facebook took the aggregation idea one step further than in previous cycles by allowing other companies (such as Zynga) to build applications directly on the platform, thus ensuring users continued to engage with Facebook.

The ushering in of the mobile app economy by Apple has led to the development of hundreds of thousands of task-specific apps- from games and content apps to personal utilities and social networking services. Relatively few of these though have been built to aggregate individual app experiences. Path is attempting to do this, and take it a step further at the same time, by creating its own set of services (Photos, Music, Sleep/Awake status) alongside super-setting such well-established apps as Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter and now Nike+ through the use of APIs. A consistent, mobile-only experience throughout Path’s app allows users to still participate in these underlying networks but aggregates the engagement within its own app, which if successful, would allow Path to eventually drop their connection to these underlying social networks.

How valuable consumers find the aggregated experience versus using activity-specific apps will determine Path’s success ultimately. And while design may very well continue to win over users from competing web and mobile services, Path will need to grow beyond the Valley’s A-List of users and connect with the average American already using Facebook if it’s going to win the first wave of mobile app aggregation. If not, which companies stand to benefit in this cycle?

Time for Television Ratings to Get Social

The start of the current fall television season has highlighted the importance of social media in driving awareness and tune-in for new and established TV series as audience consumption habits continue to fragment across device and social platforms. With multiple apps being promoted by shows, networks and even TV service providers for checking-in to these broadcasts as well as fan pages and hashtags used to centralize the conversation around each episode, there is a growing need for audience measurement beyond the traditional Nielsen ratings.

The Nielsen Company is the de facto provider of the ratings system used to determine how the 60 billion in television advertising dollars are allocated amongst broadcast and cable network line-ups. The company relies on the behavior of 50,000 Americans across its sample of 25,000 households to extrapolate ratings for the nearly 115 million households with television sets in the U.S.  The resulting ‘share’ of audience Nielsen attributes to each TV episode on a nightly basis ultimately effects which series get renewed or cancelled (for a great primer on how Nielsen’s TV ratings system works, check out this ESPN-style animated video on the topic from local Washington, DC creative agency JESS3).

Though with the number of households with television sets dropping for the first time in 20 years, on-demand video platforms taking viewing time away from traditional television and multi-tasking across multiple screens a growing reality, traditional means of measurement are failing to capture this evolving consumer behavior. While Nielsen is working on ways to aggregate this distributed viewing audience through its ‘extended screen’ initiative, the company isn’t measuring the actual activity on the social web occurring around the episodes being watched. This represents an opportunity for services that provide a platform for social engagement as well as companies that aggregate TV show-related conversations from across the internet to address this information gap. While both Facebook and Twitter have their own media-related initiatives that allow fans to interact with one another as well as with the shows and their stars, neither network focuses on quantifying this engagement on an industry-wide basis.

Services like BuddyTV, GetGlue, Miso and Tunerfish, on the other hand, have been built in a manner that can address this need. Having ridden the check-in wave popularized by location-based service Foursquare, these event-based social networks (EBSNs) capture when consumers are tuning in to watch television and aggregating the activity being generated around each show within their respective apps and websites. GetGlue, the largest of these services, already has more users checking-in to the most popular shows on its platform than the size of Nielsen’s entire sample audience, making it statistically valuable to the ratings conversation.

Even though the demographic make-up of EBSN users is not representative of the overall U.S. population (which Nielsen does try to mirror in selecting its households), check-in services make up for this by highlighting the actual activity of the most desirable audience to advertisers (18 to 49 year-olds) and not just projections. For advertisers this represents a unique opportunity to target these consumers in a highly engaged environment by extending their TV advertising for particular shows to the equivalent social web channels and mobile devices. To bring the desired scale to this type of opportunity though, these social environments need to be aggregated somehow.

That’s where companies like Bluefin Labs, General Sentiment, Social Guide and Trendrr come into play by not only aggregating publicly available social commentary but filtering and normalizing this data from disparate sources (EBSNs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to identify the underlying sentiment of a broader range of web users. This provides a more complete view of the engagement associated with shows across the social web in real-time as well as beyond the initial airing time slot of each episode. The resulting findings might be just the data set necessary to become the de facto social television rating to rival Nielsen.

Even with Nielsen’s recent ratings calculation glitch, it’s unlikely that the company will be replaced as the ratings system for the television advertisers industry in the near future. But as audiences for traditional TV continue to disperse across more mediums and content experiences, the need to compliment the ratings discussion, and ultimately how advertising dollars are allocated, with additional data will only continue to increase. This creates an opportunity for actual engagement-related metrics to gain equal footing with passive stream and tune-in projections over time.

So how do we get there?

While results from a recent NM Incite (a Nielsen/McKinsey company) study confirms the correlation between social activity and TV ratings, the opportunity for social television start-ups is in identifying and explaining the variations in popularity between Nielsen’s most highly rated shows and those series being discussed online and how to benefit from it.

The combination of tune-in and conversation activity make EBSNs the most compelling data set for social television ratings. The challenge is that the company that popularized the check-in, Foursquare, only recently passed 10 million users worldwide itself, a far cry from Facebook’s 150 million users in the U.S. alone. For EBSNs to reach Facebook-like adoption, they need distribution and a more automated process for socializing around TV shows (beyond the manual download of apps and checking-in to services). While BuddyTV and Miso have partnered with AT&T’s television service offering U-verse, GetGlue and Miso have integrations underway with satellite television provider DirecTV that enables subscribers to check-in to shows through DirecTV’s remote control. Other companies, such as Dijit, are by-passing traditional TV service providers entirely and competing for consumers with their own universal remote that layers in check-in functionality.

What social analytic companies lacks in proprietary data, they make-up for in business model by already working with advertisers and media companies to help them understand the volume and sentiment of chatter occurring online about their brands and shows across the social web. Gaining access to data on an exclusive basis from EBSNs and other social communities would be a key differentiator in winning the battle for advertising and media clients- the same companies that subscribe to Nielsen’s television ratings data. With so many companies vying for client dollars and mind share, the social analytics provider that can get the right media outlets partnerships to adopt and distribute their version of social television ratings can become the industry standard through sheer perception and market momentum.

Based on these factors, Trendrr, which launched a TV industry-specific real-time dashboard before the start of the fall television season could be that company. Considering Trendrr’s breadth of data sources (Facebook, GetGlue, Miso and Twitter) and how well they’ve embedded themselves into the online media landscape (partnering with the likes of AdAge, Lost Remote and Mashable to distribute their data and findings), the company is best positioned to become the social television ratings provider of the future.

What are the most likely outcomes?

Absent Trendrr or another one of these start-ups gaining the necessary client or user clout to grow into the de facto social TV ratings provider, the most likely outcome for the companies with the most traction in this market is an acquisition.

If either Facebook or Twitter decided to focus on providing analytics as a value-add to their advertiser and media clients, they would make ideal acquirers of these types of companies. For Facebook, adding a media-oriented check-in service to their massive user base would fit nicely with Facebook’s recent overturns towards the television industry and turn the acquired ESBN into the immediate and undisputed winner in the social television data game. Twitter on the other hand would benefit from acquiring one of the leading social analytics companies, as it would fill a large analytics hole in their offering. Even though the company recently stated its intentions to stay out of the enterprise market, the opportunity might prove to be too lucrative to stay out.

Beyond Twitter, The Nielsen Company is a natural acquirer of a social analytics company since it compliments Nielsen’s existing ratings and research business. With the company having held an initial public offering at the beginning of this year, Nielsen also has the necessary capital to do this.

Beyond these entities, media companies and television platform could benefit from owning one of the EBSNs by leveraging these services to gain insight into user activity and drive additional tune-in for themselves or partners. Yahoo was the first to act on this, acquiring 12-week old IntoNow earlier this year and releasing an iPad app last week that integrates into Yahoo’s Connected TV framework. For GetGlue and Miso, who have raised capital from Time Warner and Google’s venture arm respectively, they already have likely acquirers in the fold. That being said, with the variety of relationships GetGlue (most recently with FX) and Miso (most recently with Showtime) have established with different broadcast and cable networks it’s not out of the question that one of these media partners tries to acquire either company to be their underlying social TV platform. The engagement data would be very valuable to any company negotiating with advertisers during the ‘upfront’ season as a way to justify advertising rates (beyond Nielsen’s rating data) for the next television season or provide brands with a new way to advertise to their intended audiences (for an additional cost or as a make-good).

Stay tuned. This market will only get more interesting.

Rise of the Event-Based Social Networks

With interest in location-based social networks (LBSNs) hitting an all-time high with Foursquare’s recent funding announcement valuing the company at $115 million, a new type of social networking has emerged that borrows some of the mechanics and incentives from location-based services: event-based social networks (EBSNs). While LBSN users notify their personal networks where they are physically located by “checking-in” to the service, earning virtual badges in the process, EBSN users earn their virtual rewards by identifying themselves to other attendees and participants by also using check-in mechanics, but without having to actually be physically present at the event.

We see from studies and personal experiences that recommendations from social networks do influence our television viewing habits. Combined with the abundant, on-demand nature of information available on the internet today, it’s easy to understand how the changing content consumption habits, from the ‘day after’ to the ‘day of”, have affected the media industry. While much of the demise of print news media can be attributed to these changing habits (and nowhere better explained than on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart), it has actually had the opposite effect on live television event broadcasts.  Here is audience data from some of the most widely-known sports and entertainment events from this year that were broadcast live:

  • Golden Globes (January): This year’s television audience was 17 million, 14% higher than in 2009;
  • Grammy Awards January): Almost 27 million viewers tuned in, a 35% increase over last year’s broadcast and the highest TV ratings for the event since 2004;
  • Super Bowl XLIV (February): Became the most watched television program in U.S. history, beating the finale of the TV show ‘M-A-S-H’ with a total audience of over 150 million and an average of over 106 million viewers;
  • Academy Awards (March): Had over 41 million viewers, up 14% over the 2009 Oscars;
  • NBA Finals Game 7 (June): The deciding game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics pulled in a viewership of over 28 million, the largest basketball audience in 12 years (when Michael Jordan won his last of six NBA championships);
  • World Cup Final (July): The finals between Spain and Netherlands became the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history with over 24 million viewers, topping the previous record of 19 million viewers from United States’ match against Ghana in the elimination round only weeks earlier.

While some might argue that the economy (i.e. people staying home more often for entertainment purposes) or content quality (i.e. offensive-minded Super Bowl match-up, the popularity of Lady Gaga and Avatar for the Grammys and Golden Globes/Oscars respectively, deciding game of a classic NBA Finals match-up and final of the most-followed sporting event in the world, the World Cup) are better explanations for this renewed interest in live television programming, the fact is that most of these events are leveraging social media hubs like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube more and more as part of their tune-in marketing campaigns to engage with fans and would-be viewers.

And it’s working. The network effect caused by the interest of the most engaged fans is bringing indifferent audiences on the sideline that are connected to these fans into the viewing experience. The real-time nature of information flow on the web and the ability to extended social connections through Facebook and Twitter has made it increasingly difficult for people to avoid watching or hearing about live television event broadcasts or even attempting to try to watch them in a non-linear, time-shifted manner without having the outcome spoiled by social media channels. Combined with the social pressures around participation, additional audiences are being influenced to engage with these events via social networks.

Some recent engagement figures from Facebook and Twitter seem to confirm this. Facebook has shared that about 30% of all status updates on the site during the U.S. versus England match included a World Cup-related term. More impressively Twitter saw the number of Tweets-per-second (TPS) it handles cross 3,000 as a result of the Lakers beating the Celtics in the NBA Finals. This record was broken a week later on the heels of two World Cup matches that generated almost 3,300 TPS.  To put this into context Twitter’s normal activity is 750 TPS, which is big reason why the service has experienced over 6 hours of downtime since the beginning of the World Cup.

With live television event broadcasting benefiting greatly from social networking, can EBSNs become the next big opportunity in social media?

Even though the most well-known companies in this segment of social networking have positioned themselves in a slightly different manner from one another, at the most basic level Fanvibe, formerly known as FanPulse (sporting events), GetGlue by AdaptiveBlue (home entertainment such as movies, books and music), Hot Potato (general events), Miso by Bazaar Labs (TV shows and movies) and Tunerfish from Comcast (online video and TV shows), among others, all address some type of live event participation through their services. As ReadWriteWeb points out in its recent coverage of some of these apps, their current lack of users adversely affects the social value of their respective networks. With Facebook and Twitter already driving the lion’s share of social media status updates, and check-in functionality becoming a commodity, these EBSNs will need more than virtual badges and threaded conversation capabilities around events to drive adoption.

The “more than” is partnering with the leagues and organizations behind these events as well as the television networks with the broadcast rights. Being promoted by the events or built into the digital experiences of the broadcasts is the ideal way to drive mind share and user growth.  For this reason Tunerfish is best positioned of the group to succeed since it comes out of Comcast, which has the largest television subscriber base, and is in the process of acquiring one of the biggest TV network broadcasters, in the U.S. Being part of Comcast helped Tunerfish land its first promotional partnership with HBO when the service went live last month. Owning NBC could bring a lot more of these types of opportunities to Tunerfish. With an iPad app also in the works from Comcast, adding Tunerfish’s functionality to the application could automate the check-in process for millions of TV viewers across every television show and network available in the U.S.,creating an enviable interest graph.

There is hope for some of the other services as well. AdaptiveBlue, which has been around the longest, probably has the most robust underlying platform. The company leverages semantic technologies to generate social recommendations for its users based on their check-ins and ratings. By covering a broader range of interests than just TV shows and movies and strong platform usage resulting from its recently launched GetGlue iPhone app, AdaptiveBlue can create a much deeper interest graph than some of its competitors. Hot Potato could find early success amongst sports leagues as its founding team comes from MLBAM, the digital media arm of Major League Baseball. That being said, MLB, which is the most tech-savvy of all the major sports leagues, did announce it has integrated its own check-in functionality into its iPhone app just last week. Miso’s best opportunity for success is tied to the investment it took from Google Ventures last month. With the announcement of GoogleTV earlier this year, Miso should have the inside track in doing for GoogleTV what Tunerfish could do for Comcast- to be integrated directly into the television guide and discovery experience for set-top boxes.

What’s at stake in becoming the real-time conversation service and recommendation engine for television?

Over $400 billion in television advertising and on-demand video revenues worldwide according to a recent report published by media researcher Futurescape. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts and tweets, live TV event programming such as sports championships and entertainment award shows will only increase in value to broadcasters as produced, series-based programming becomes even more accessible on-demand in a non-linear viewing experience. Live television represents the best opportunity for advertisers to find and connect with an engaged audience in the present. Combined with real-time status updates, event producers and advertisers can receive immediate feedback from users on their TV viewing experience. This social feedback loop will be critical in delivering better television programming and advertising in the future.

With nearly half of Facebook users simultaneously watching television while on the site and Twitter showing its impact during the recently concluded NBA Finals and World Cup, it’s their game to lose at the moment as each brings a respective interest and sentiment data set that can add tangible value to traditional TV audience metrics. For EBSNs to succeed they will need to leverage Facebook and Twitter’s platforms as distribution channels, much like Foursquare did initially, in order to drive utility for its users and interest for their own services. By becoming the interface between users and their Facebook and Twitter accounts, ESBNs have an opportunity to get users to build sub-networks within their respective platforms that are unique and more valuable to those on Facebook and Twitter- once again, something Foursquare is starting to do with its own LBSN. The ultimate benefit in evolving a platform in this manner is that an event-based social network can become the audience and data provider to event creators and distributors as well as advertisers while delivering better programming recommendations and socially targeting advertising to its users in the process.

Whatever the eventual outcome, it will unfold live.

Bookmark and Share

It’s the End of Viral Sharing Tools for Widgets. And I Feel Fine.

Last month Joe Marchese, President of SocialVibe, authored a guest article on MediaPost entitled The Widget is Dead. Then earlier this month Clearspring announced that it was deprecating Launchpad, its original widget sharing platform [disclosure: the company pays my bills], adding fuel to the question- have widgets become relics of the Web 2.0 era?

The answer to that question is: not exactly.

To completely answer this question it’s worth defining what widgets are and are not first.

  • Widgets are typically described as portable chunks of code that can be installed and executed across third-party websites. The most well-known widget out there is YouTube’s video player that has enabled videos to be embedded and played across social networks, blogs and a multitude of other websites.
  • Widgets are not applications, like those found on Facebook, as they do not leverage the native functionalities of social app platforms, such as a user’s social graph, which ties these application’s capabilities and usefulness to one particular website.
  • Widgets do come in two distinct types based on their execution: content and utility widgets.

Content widgets (flash games, video players, etc.) provide the same functionality and end-user value, regardless of where they are embedded. Utility widgets on the other hand, are configured to each user’s identity or website’s needs. Some examples of these include Facebook Badges, MyBlogLog and SocialVibe widgets.

This difference in functionality between these widget types impacts their virality though not necessarily their adoption. Utility widgets are not viral by nature because each instance is unique, so there is little value for someone besides the owner to embed that specific version of the widget. These widgets gain adoption through a hub-and-spoke model where anyone who wants their own version must go to the widget providers’ website to create a new, tailored one to embed on a third-party page or site.

Content widgets on the other hand are predisposed to be viral because they do not require any configuration. If someone finds a widget embedded on a site they can directly share that instance of the widget to the destination of their choice. Services like Clearspring’s Launchpad and Gigya’s Wildfire were created to enable this sharing process to be more automated for users across social media destinations such as blogs, social networks and start-pages in an effort to enhance their viral adoption.

Since Newsweek declared 2007 The Year of the Widget a lot has changed in the social media landscape. MySpace, the most popular destination for widgets back then, has seen its user growth stall while Facebook and Twitter have experienced explosive growth around their platforms which have redefined content discovery and distribution. Widget sharing services have also been redefined in the process around the hub-and-spoke model, even for content widgets, as Facebook and Twitter have enabled virality to occur natively with their platforms with the introduction of activity streams.

As actions are taken by a user, such as sharing a video into these platforms, their social graph is notified of the activity. If any member of that user’s social graph plays (in the case of Facebook) or forwards (in Twitter’s use case) the video, this action is broadcast to that member’s own unique social graph which in turn enables the widget’s content to be perpetuated virally across other users’ social graphs based on their actions. If a widget becomes popular enough, the virality can reintroduce the widget several times  into a  person’s activity stream over a period of time.

Even the notion of a widget is being redefined as advertisers and publishers do not necessarily have to create a new, standalone Flash asset to enable their content to be distributed. With the sharing of links becoming a standard activity within Facebook and Twitter the need for widgets has taken a back seat to links that drive users back to a web page that contains the appropriate content or provides the ability for users to pull pictures and videos directly into these platforms or associated applications.

This evolution is actually good news for the widget ecosystem, especially content widgets, as costly projects that repackage content into widget form will give way to driving value for existing assets and web pages through link sharing. The sharing experience also becomes more standardized for users across different sharing services as the onus for generating virality shifts to the platforms themselves. As for utility widgets will be the least affected by these changes but will continue to be an important component of websites, blogs, start-page and even television experiences as these platforms try to extend their capabilities across the web. Finally, services like Clearspring’s AddThis that aggregate the various social media destinations for sharing as well as analytics into one service will become even more of a standard feature across websites as everyone looks to participate in the activity stream.

Bookmark and Share

Now That Banner Ads Have Turned 15, It’s Time for Them to Get Social

Head in the SandA couple weeks ago the advertising industry celebrated 15 years since the first display banner ad was presented online. In the years since then as the ads themselves have become more creative and dynamic through the use of Flash and JavaScript technologies, and the units through which these experiences are being delivered has been standardized across the web, how consumers engage with these ads hasn’t actually changed.

For the most part agencies and their clients have treated advertising on the internet much the same way they have older content mediums like print, radio and television: as a one-way channel to broadcast a marketing message to consumers. Since the internet has been a read-only environment for most users over much of its existence, it’s easy to see why advertising online evolved in the same manner as these other content channels. With the rise of blogs and social networks though, web users now have both read and write capabilities that allows anyone with an internet connection and keyboard to give their two cents online. Advertisers have been slow to acknowledge the two-way relationship that now exists on the web with consumers, whether they want to take part in the conversation or not.

Some social media-focused companies have taken it upon themselves to develop more engaging ad experiences on behalf of advertisers, such as enabling video ads to be shared across social websites [disclosure: my company Clearspring powers this feature for VideoEgg]. While this does create value for advertisers through individual endorsement, since the ad is being perpetuated by a person versus an ad server, the messaging doesn’t provide for any feedback. The same could be said for ads which aggregate Twitter commentary or Dugg articles around a particular brand, event or topic. Even though these ads dynamically insert content from specific sources into traditional banner ad units, the information is  moderated before being broadcast and isn’t necessarily oriented to the actual campaign.

Getting agencies and advertisers to embrace the idea that making their ads social will actually benefit their business requires participation from the largest social media sites with the necessary social capital (i.e. a big or growing coolness factor) to experiment with non-standardized advertising. Facebook and Twitter are obvious candidates to lead this effort not only because of their large audiences but because they incorporate the most prevalent user experiences on the social web: community-oriented, information streams of shared content.

Facebook has already put a lot of effort into creating new display ad units and ways for advertisers to engage with their audience, allowing Facebook users to not only interact with ads (by watching videos, RSVP-ing to events, voting in a polls, becoming fans of companies, etc.) but also provide feedback on uninteresting ads.

Facebook Ads

Since Facebook has created a self-service platform to manage the entire advertising process, ads can automatically be delivered at scale across  the entire site. And with Facebook focusing on providing the social identity layer to the web via Facebook Connect it’s easy to see how they could standardize and distribute their own ad units and engagement across participating Connect sites- much like Google has done with search and AdSense.

While Twitter has thus far avoided placing ads DiggAdson its platform, many Twitter apps are primarily monetizing their service through traditional display advertising units. To create a unique and more valuable advertising experience though, ads should be integrated into the actual functionality of these apps. Since tweets consist of text and links, the most logical type of ad unit would mimic sponsored search ads. Digg, whose community is similar to Twitter’s in that they share the most popular content on the web, offers the best example of what socially oriented, stream-based ads might look like.  As with Facebook ads, Digg allows its users to provide feedback on the sponsored articles on the site in real-time.

Whether it’s Digg, Facebook, Twitter or someone else, whoever can define the new display and in-stream social ad standard has a tremendous financial opportunity as Digg understands in contemplating syndicating their ad format to third-party websites via its own ad network. Developing ad standards are important for agencies as it allows them to execute campaigns on behalf of their clients at scale, with minimum creative friction, across a wide variety of websites.  For  most social media web properties that can’t command their own ad standards this gives them a framework for incorporating more relevant monetization experiences into their sites and services. Let’s not forget that Facebook leveraged standard display ads as a way to generate revenues when the site first launched.

These examples are just a starting point for social ads and will evolve over time. The key is that experimentation is occurring now with willing advertisers (whether they are participating because they truly care about the feedback or just want access to consumers on these sites is another story).  While some advertisers will be brought kicking and screaming into the socialization of advertising, early adopters will yield the greatest benefit from capturing the data and engagement directly from their audience versus pretending the conversation doesn’t exist.

Bookmark and Share

Developers Repeat After Me: App Platforms are Not Your Friend

Remake of Apple's 1984 Super Bowl commercialThe numbers speak for themselves- apps are popular. Facebook now has over 350,000 active apps on its platform with 70% of Facebook’s users engaging with these apps on a monthly basis. Apple recently announced that the number of downloads from its App Store had surpassed 2 billion for the 85,000 applications on its platform. Add in 30,000 apps from Google-backed initiatives Android and OpenSocial, and over 11,000 apps being built off of Twitter’s API, you have nearly half-a-million apps out there across the most popular social platforms!

Consumers have benefited greatly from the entertainment and utility value provided by developers on these platforms, propelling applications to the forefront of the user experience for many of these services. The value to these mobile and web platform providers has been evident in the accelerated user growth these services have seen since opening up access to developers.

Developers for the most part haven’t shared a comparable level of success as these platforms though. With VentureBeat pegging the value of Facebook’s app ecosystem at approximately $500 million this year, similar in size to Facebook’s expected 2009 revenues, little opportunity is left for the remaining 350,000 applications once you get past the success of Zynga, Playfish and Playdom, the leading developers on Facebook and OpenSocial platforms. A similarly distorted distribution of applications and success exists on Apple’s platform where the size of the app economy has been projected as high as $2.4 billion per year by GigaOM. Based on this optimistic projection and assuming only 50% of downloaded apps are free, there still isn’t enough money for the average developer to prosper over the long-term. The opportunity for most developers in the long-tail of the App Store is further skewed when you consider some of the outsized success stories from the most popular apps on the platform. Because Android’s ecosystem is relatively young and Twitter lacks its own business model, it’s too early to see if developers can make a living off of these platforms.

Even the virtual goods sub-economy that has been allowed to emerge on centralized platform ecosystems like Facebook and MySpace, which Inside Network has valued at $1 billion in the U.S. this year- even before Apple’s announcement of in-app purchasing capabilities for all App Store applications, the opportunity is disproportionately concentrated with the most popular applications and largest multi-app, multi-platform developers.

Making matters even more difficult for developers is the not-so-friendly actions being taken by platform companies in wielding power over their ecosystems:

So why do developers keep building apps for these platforms? Because of the effort (low development threshold and time commitment  to launch) and opportunity (built-in, captive audiences) compared to building a stand-alone business. Fortunately for developers who want to build their own audiences, and not be reliant on a particular platform, there are two primary ways to leverage these mobile and web services for their own benefit:

  1. Port your success. If a developer has been fortunate enough to find success on any of these platforms, they should convert those users into visitors of their own domain or service like LivingSocial has done. LivingSocial was a big benefactor of Facebook’s redesign of their home page back in March, vaulting LivingSocial into the top 10 most popular developers on the platform in the month following the change. The company was able to turn some of those users into customers of LivingSocial.com, which saw its unique visitors to the site almost triple between March and April of this year.
  2. Port the platform. Foursquare have leveraged social graph data from Facebook and Twitter via Facebook Connect and Twitter OAuth respectively to enable users to build their own unique social graph on Foursquare.com. Additionally the mobile service encourages its users to send notifications of their whereabouts into their Facebook and Twitter streams, which results in free exposure and viral marketing for Foursquare’s service.

Though the threshold for success will vary for developers, based on whether or not they have taken institutional funding, the risks associated with developing on another entities’ platform or costs associated with developing for multiple platforms remain the same- the long-term value of a product or service cannot be maximized when its business success relies on a platform it can’t control or pay for service level assurances. Look no further than MySpace’s acquisition of iLike this past summer, for a small premium to its invested capital, for market validation of this. While these social platforms should absolutely be leveraged as part of any web or mobile strategy, remember that each platform’s goal is to maximize its own value and not that of the application developer. Luckily, as Andy Weissman, founder of Betaworks, points out, some of the most successful applications can and do become platforms themselves, so a bigger opportunity awaits those developers that understand the ecosystem relationship.

Bookmark and Share

Why Twitter Needs an Official #HashtagPolicy

Hasgtag logoOne of the main utilities I get out of Twitter is being able to follow conferences that I can’t attend, but am interested in, via TweetDeck. Last week I got my fill by following 140|The Twitter Conference, D: All Things Digital conference and Google I/O Developer Conference at the same time. While the real-time commentary from attendees and participants was exactly what I was looking for, the process I witnessed for getting to each information stream left something to be desired. In each instance, official feature support for hashtags, in some capacity, by Twitter could have led to a better, more seamless, user experience and, in the process, enhanced Twitter’s business opportunity around real-time search through metadata.

Hashtags, like @replies (originally) and retweets, are a community-driven feature on Twitter. It is used to track and organize keywords in tweets around abstract concepts, breaking news and planned events. Since hashtags can be created on an ad hoc basis there is no central repository for registering or finding out about what particular hashtags represent (Mashable does a good job of highlighting options for identifying and tracking hashtags in a recent article). This has led to process laziness by organizers in setting up hashtags for their events in advance or, in many cases, leaving it up to attendees to decide on how best to track events. The result is confusion leading up to, and inconsistencies during, a conference. The most glaring example of this last week was during the All Things Digital conference, which coincidentally enough had Twitter’s co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone as its opening guests.

Follow D: All Things Digital conferenceThis tweet was from the morning of the event. As you can see one of the conference hosts offered up 3 different hashtag options for interested followers, one of which had a completely different spelling. If you happened to be following #allthingsd you would have missed out on all the #d7 and #d7conference hashtag streams. By not proposing one “official” hashtag, a lot of trending topic momentum was lost by the conference and, as a result, potential followers of the event.

What is #140tc tweetOn the other end of the spectrum, The Twitter Conference did a great job of highlighting the hashtag for its event right on their website (in addition to incorporating a Twitter feed of #140tc-related tweets by which to follow the conference). While this did help #140tc become a top trending topic on Twitter, there was still an information gap for Twitter users who didn’t know about the event but had seen the hashtag trending (one of many examples shown above), as there wasn’t an easy way to determine what the hashtag stood for.

Clicking on the #140tc hashtag only generates a Twitter search page with other tweets using the same hashtag. It doesn’t provide any background or meaning to the keyword to help someone decide whether or not to follow the topic- unless it is described in a tweet. Another lost opportunity, through no fault of the conference organizers, for users to find something of interest on Twitter.

Finally, in the case of Google’s Developer Conference, Google did call out their own Twitter account for people to follow at the event (@googleio), but the actual attendee discussion stream appeared under the #io2009 hashtag (among others). Because there were a lot of topics covered at Google I/O, Twazzup was used to aggregate information on related hashtags for the event, which was very helpful- if you knew to look for it, as there was no link or mention of the Twazzup page on the conference website.

Now imagine a world where Twitter supported hashtagging as a native feature. Gone would be confusion over what hashtag to use or follow or what specific hashtags meant for planned events, as Twitter could allow event organizers to own or rent a hashtag (product idea number 301) and provide the associated metadata for their event as part of the registration process (TwitterDaddy.com here we come!). By going through a sign-up process, and paying to secure a hashtag, conferences will be more likely to promote their hashtag as part of their event marketing, which inevitably would help Twitter grow its audience and usage of its platform. Twitter might also consider leaving the hash sign for abstract concepts and breaking news and provide planned events with a new symbol (maybe the ampersand or asterisk) that would still be captured in trending topics- much like StockTwits uses the $ sign for discussions around the stock market.

For abstract concepts (my car broke down) and breaking news (the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court) Twitter could auto-suggest hashtags to users (based on similarly spelled trending hashtags for instance) to help group tweets on specific topics more effectively. This would not only help the trending velocity of topics, but provide a metadata layer to tweets. If Twitter could influence users to increase the use of hashtags in their tweets, maybe by taking hashtags out of the character limit, and enable better grouping of topic-related tweets, the search and discovery value from a user experience and monetization perspective would increase exponentially. Maybe then we might get over our intense fascination over Twitter’s business model.

Bookmark and Share