How Mobile and Real-Time are Helping Maximize Revenues and Utilization

Yesterday an interesting set of announcements hit the tech world that highlighted some of the early successes start-ups are seeing in helping businesses maximize revenue opportunities and service utilization.

  • Overnight, Uber, a provider of high-quality, on-demand car service officially announced the availability of is service in a second city- New York.
  • Then Gigwalk, which turns iPhone users into an instance mobile workforce announced that it had exited its beta period and raised $1.7 million in seed money in the process from an all-star list of early-stage investors.
  • Finally TaskRabbit, which offers a marketplace for people to outsource their errands announced its own $5 million Series A funding round to help expand its service beyond Boston and San Francisco.

Each of these companies is attempting to apply the same concept behind peer-to-peer computing projects, such as the search for alien life forms, in utilizing available bandwidth. But instead of leveraging unused computing power, these start-ups are leveraging excess capacity in service-oriented businesses. For any type of service business, time not allocated or used to generate revenues are opportunities that are lost forever, just like when an airplane takes off with empty seats on it. In the case of Uber, the company is trying to alleviate this problem by matching professionally licensed drivers who have idle time while at work with new, short-term, fare opportunities. Meanwhile Gigwalk is pairing people with availability in a specific location with large corporations that need specific, once again short-term, tasks completed in that area. In the case of TaskRabbit, it’s allowing consumers who have free time on their hands to run errands on behalf of other consumers who don’t.

The opportunity to provide a service and generate revenues in a given period of time isn’t limited to these types of jobs though as other capacity-based service industries are benefiting from real-time yield maximization as well. Daily deal service LivingSocial has already tested its Instant Deals in D.C. offering lunch at participating restaurants for $1.00, while industry leader Groupon is developing a similar service called Groupon Now that enables restaurants, spas, and other retailers to drive business to their establishments through the use of real-time incentives. This makes perfect sense when these service businesses are not operating at full capacity. Taking the same concept of driving utilization through discounts, Hotel Tonight has launched a mobile app for booking same-day hotel rooms in a number of cities across the U.S.

The underlying enabler of all of these start-up services is the smartphone. Without the ability for consumers and service providers to communicate in real-time based on one or both parties’ location and availability, the opportunity to match the two entities wouldn’t exist. This would leave service providers without a way to generate additional revenues or complete certain projects in real-time and consumers without a way to benefit financially- either through service discounts or by generating additional income for themselves. The economic potential for retail and capacity-based services will only grow as smartphones and tablets become more ubiquitous and enable new business opportunities and economics to be created around simple, short-term, service-oriented tasks.

I’m excited to see what other service industries (airlines, data collection in the real world, movie theaters, tourist attractions, etc.) will benefit from start-ups that can help bridge the gap between existing sales opportunities and maximizing a service providers revenue potential by creating what are essentially real-time exchanges for specific services. For established service industries, there will always be a market for start-ups that can bring new revenue opportunities to the table. For entities willing to pay consumers to perform services on their behalf, the key will be to make the task short and easy to complete to attract the widest applicant pool for these jobs.

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Facebook’s Effect on Consumer Internet IPOs

Regardless of whether or not you believe in the long-term viability of Demand Media’s content creation platform (more widely referred to as a “low-cost content farm”), one thing is certain: there is a healthy demand for consumer internet stocks. Having priced its offering above the expected range of $14 to $16 per share last week, Demand Media (trading under the ticker symbol DMD on the New York Stock Exchange) ended up 33% on its first day of trading, valuing the company at $1.5 billion- the highest market capitalization for an internet company since Google’s IPO in 2004. Neither the company’s questionable account practices around how it amortizes its content costs, nor Google’s announcement that it would take stronger action against low quality content sites and content farms (which could also include the ability for consumers to blacklist these domains) appearing in search results seemed to dampen investors’ appetite for the stock (according to Demand Media’s S-1 filing, Google made up 28% of the company’s revenues in the first 3 months of 2010).

So why does this matter?

Investing beyond Facebook

Interest in stock of consumer internet companies needs to exist beyond just Facebook for the overall health of the capital markets. Facebook, which recently confirmed that it had raised $1.5 billion in an oversubscribed round led by Goldman Sachs that included $1 billion from non-U.S. clients, will most likely not file for an IPO until the end of April 2012 when it has to begin disclosing its financials to the public due to the company exceeding the 500 shareholder threshold this year. Investors are left with the decision to either wait for Facebook’s offering or participate in the overall growth of the consumer internet sector by buying into other companies” IPOs. Even if Demand Media is a beneficiary of pent-up demand for Facebook stock, the fact that investors are buying up shares in the open market is a positive sign, especially for the likes of LinkedIn (which filed its registration statement the day after Demand Media went public) and Skype (which has already filed its paperwork and is expected to go public in the 2nd half of this year) which have healthier overall financial profiles than Demand Media.

Market opportunity validation

The phrase “a feature not a product,” which has been attributed to friend and venture capitalist Chris Fralic of First Round Capital as it relates to investing in start-ups, is a concept than can be extended to evaluating potential IPO candidates as well. Over time, the public markets are the most effective way to determine whether an entity is “a product line not a company”. The consumer internet, like other sectors, needs public companies to validate whether or not capital being deployed by venture investors in a particular sector is warranted or not. The validation comes by way of each company’s financial performance and associated market capitalization as well as that of the entire sector- public data points that do not exist in tandem in private companies (even though secondary markets do exists for shares of private company stock, in companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Zynga, there is no accompanying financial disclosure requirements as with public companies).

It’s this market validation that keeps venture capitalist investing in start-ups that compete with Google in search for example, even though the company holds an ever-increasing grip on the U.S. search market. AdWords, Google’s  search advertising product, represented the majority of the nearly $20 billion in revenues the company earned from its own websites in 2010.  The validation of search advertising’s market size by Google enables companies such as Blekko to raise $24 million in funding even though their goal of reaching third place in the search business sounds modest, though worth billions of dollars in revenues.

Acquisitions, which are a much more common type of liquidity event for start-ups, don’t provide the same type of market proof because they are completed for a variety of reasons, some of which are not purely economic or accretive to the acquiring company (i.e. acquiring companies for the talent, for access to a particular customer or as a defensive measure against a competitor).

Business theory versus reality

Whether Demand Media deserves to be worth more than the New York Times makes for entertaining debate (especially after it was revealed that the New York Times almost bought into Demand Media over three years ago), but it misses the point. What Demand Media’s public offering is really about is whether or not the theory behind the internet being a more efficient, scalable way to do business is a reality for the content creation business. If Demand Media can prove skeptics wrong and build a sustainable, profitable business as an online media company, it will open up opportunities for other pure-play online media companies such as The Huffington Post to go public and keep venture capitalists investing in the sector.

With Facebook’s revenues on track to exceed $1.5 billion and net income to reach nearly $500 million in 2010 investors are correct to anoint the company the darling of this consumer internet class as Facebook’s financials and growth story far exceeds anyone else’s in the industry (Groupon doesn’t factor into this conversation because it is an e-commerce company). In the process Facebook has also validated the business opportunity around social networking, which LinkedIn will benefit from in its upcoming IPO. For Skype, which provides a different type of social communication utility, their public offering will put one of the most often  used business models existing on the internet today to the test, the “freemium” model, along with trying to fulfill on the business promise of paying for communication over the internet (which Vonage never really was able to accomplish). The success or failure of Skype’s business model of charging consumers for only premium services and giving away the rest for free to users will have a major effect on start-up funding across the entire consumer internet sector going forward.

With the countdown to Facebook’s inevitable IPO having already started, the company  has indirectly provided other private consumer internet companies with a chance to leverage the demand and go public themselves (granted  they meet some of the traditional financial metrics of approximately $100 million in revenues and profitable). This is a short-term opportunity though as companies that are able to complete their IPOs in the months before Facebook goes public or starts disclosing its financials should do so to benefit from the investor appetite for consumer internet stocks but do it far enough in advance to not be drawn into direct comparison to Facebook’s financial success. In addition to the aforementioned companies, several start-ups that have benefited directly from the success of Facebook’s platform over the past several years, namely Buddy Media and Zynga, could benefit further from the Facebook effect by going public in 2011.  The clock is ticking.

Photo credit: David Kirkpatrick/The Facebook Effect

How Online Advertising Ecosystems Evolve and the Death of the Ad Salesman

 

Last week Clearspring Technologies [disclosure: I used to work there] publicly announced its new direction as an audience buying platform, leveraging the widespread distribution of its AddThis social sharing tool (which I include at the end of each of my blog posts) to aggregate intent-oriented data from keyword searches performed by web users (AddThis accomplishes this by capturing search query information contained in the referring URL string when a visitor lands on a web page where the tool is embedded). Search re-targeting has become a big driver in the growth of data-augmented display ad campaigns this year as advertisers look to find consumers that exhibit particular characteristics across the web versus targeting visitors to a particular website based on traditional geographic and demographic parameters. The incorporation of data into online advertising has been greatly aided by the creation of self-service platforms that allow advertisers and their agencies to define their audiences and buy access to these users, as well as the accompanying ad inventory, in the process.

These platforms are able to bring efficiencies to the demand side of the of the equation by automating components of the online display advertising ecosystem, something that wouldn’t have been possible without the standardization of display advertising units (which the IAB has achieved by defining such things as ad unit pixel dimensions, file weight and animation length). Without this type of inventory standardization neither the evolution of ad networks, ad exchanges and now demand side platforms (DSPs) would have never occurred, nor the ability to leverage data sources like Clearspring when buying online ad impressions.

This type of evolution hasn’t only been limited to the online display market though.  The IAB began the process of standardizing video advertising in online video players two years ago, creating guidelines that enabled online video ad networks to emerge. These specifications have matured enough to enable the likes of Adap.tv and BrightRoll, who coincidentally enough is a major video ad network itself, to launch video ad exchanges in an effort to bring efficiencies to the scale already available through these video ad networks. On the heels of launching BrightRoll Exchange (BRX) last week, BrightRoll announced this week that it will be leveraging search data from Magnetic to allow video advertisers to re-target audiences across the BrightRoll Video Network as well as BRX in the same manner they do with display advertising today.

As you can see the online video advertising market is following a very similar path as online display advertising has in its maturation- leveraging ad unit standardization to bring scale to the industry, which in turn has led to platforms being launched in order to bring efficiencies into the marketplace and incorporate data to enable audience targeting at scale- albeit in a much more condensed time line. Where online video advertising trails display advertising in delivery effectiveness is in the nascent state of its exchange marketplaces and integrations with DSPs and data sources, which should both evolve rapidly over the course of the next 12 months.

Based on this pattern, mobile applications should be the next advertising segment to follow this evolution as mobile ad networks focusing on the Android and iPhone platforms have proliferated. The biggest thing holding back the mobile application advertising industry from further efficiencies is ad unit standardization as the IAB is not yet willing to go down that path, only providing best practices as of yet.

This automation and scale being brought into buying online advertising inventory has started coming at the expense of ad sales people. Case in point, in June the Fox Audience Network disclosed that it would be laying off 5% of its staff, all from direct online ad sales, as a result of the success the company was seeing from the self-service display advertising part of its ad network business. So is there a future for ad sales people in online advertising or will they be a casualty of efficiency like blue-collar line workers of the industrial age?

To survive and thrive, ad sales people need to re-orient their thinking from selling impressions to creating experiences for brands and advertisers that focus on two core concepts: integration and social. Integrated campaigns enable advertisers to achieve higher engagement and mind share than through individual ad placements. In traditional display advertising this can be accomplished by implementing branded skins into websites or sponsoring sections of content. In video this might mean product placement in episodes or storylines and for mobile it might involve sponsoring the give-away of previously paid apps or premium features. The key is subtly associating the advertiser with the site and content so as to create a positive connection versus an annoying one elicited by standard display and pre-roll video ads.

In terms of social, I’ve previously written about the lack of innovation in online advertising since its advent 15 years ago and that the focus should be on creating socially-oriented ads (since social networking is what most web users are spending their time doing online these days). Developing ways for users to interact with and provide feedback on ads in real-time as well as leveraging a web property’s user base to collaborate in the creation of campaigns, which I’ve also written about, creates engagement because the users who participate have a vested interest in the outcome- just ask the Old Spice Guy.

Regardless of finding the right experiences to drive success for advertisers, ad sales people need to evolve ahead of these online advertising ecosystems or they will end up like Willy Loman.

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Where Does Online Video Go From Here?

Google’s acquisition of YouTube in October 2006 was supposed to usher in a new era of opportunity for video creation, distribution and monetization that leveraged the power of the internet. Now, three and a half years later, the biggest benefactors of the boom in online video consumption have primarily been YouTube’s founders and investors as profitability still eludes YouTube and revenues are scant in comparison for most others in the online video ecosystem. With webisode creators closing up shop or changing business models, television networks removing or withholding their content from partners and distribution channels, and well-funded online video aggregators Joost and Veoh shuttering their businesses, what role will the internet play in the video content experience going forward?

Here are today’s realities:

  • Television will not go the way of the newspaper industry. Clay Shirky, an internet and media consultant and professor at NYU, recently suggested that the television industry faced the same disruption in its business models as newspapers are experiencing today. What he failed to acknowledge was that the production value of video content creation cannot be commoditized in the same manner written content can (Avatar didn’t become the highest grossing movie of all-time by cutting corners on cost). In fact the cable industry seems to be strengthening its position with consumers- delivering record audiences for sports leagues, including the largest audience for a single cable network event (last year’s Vikings vs. Packers game on ESPN) and the signing of Conan O’Brien to host his new later night show on TBS. This performance is leading advertisers to commit an even greater share of their television ad budgets to cable networks in the coming upfront season.
  • There are no free lunches for online video consumers. Cord-cutting is somewhat of a fallacy. While a lot has been written about the growing minority of consumers who have given up their cable subscriptions in favor of accessing video content over the web from the likes of Hulu and Netflix, the fact of the matter is that consumers are still paying their cable or phone company to access this video content over their networks. Though monthly internet access can cost a quarter of the price of a monthly cable subscription bill, as they say, you get what you pay for. Without the ability to watch live events (American Idol, Super Bowl, etc.), or specific content from cable networks (Mad Men on AMC, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia on FX, etc.), in addition to no quality of service considerations for video playback on the web (when was the last time you experienced buffering while watching television through your cable service provider?), we are starting to see stories about consumers who have given up on the internet-only video experience.
  • The internet will be one of several distribution channels, not a panacea. While many consumers expect to find all content online, and for free, these people tend to forget that television’s economics continue to drive the decision-making process for broadcasters. It’s for this reason I’ve previously suggested companies such as Blip.tv should look to traditional television networks to extend the distribution and reach for their clients’ webisodic content. With the launch of the iPad and associated apps from video providers, and discussions around broadcasters working together to build a mobile television network, the number of ways consumers will be able to access movies and TV shows will continue to proliferate. While this should drive additional content consumption opportunities for consumers, it will be done so on the television industry’s terms.

And tomorrow’s opportunities:

  • Delivering “DVR economics” will bring more premium video online. For television networks to get comfortable with making more of their content available online after its original broadcast, the revenue opportunity needs to be comparable to what broadcasters are generating from their DVR-viewing audience. This makes sense since watching video online and via DVR are both non-linear viewing experiences intended for consumers to catch-up on missed shows. This will be an important metric for online video services to achieve in order to be considered distribution partners for broadcasters and networks going forward. With online consumers showing a willingness to sit through additional advertisements and both Hulu and TV Everywhere expected to charge for certain content, achieving parity with DVR economics seems to be an achievable goal as the dual revenue model  employed by the television industry (users paying for access to programming in addition to being presented with commercials while watching that programming) proliferates into new channels. This could become a recipe for enabling virtual MSOs like Apple TV and others to gain access to television shows that haven’t been previously made available online. Over time a bifurcated business model could emerge between real-time and time-shifted viewing with different price points for each experience.
  • Social TV will be the key to enhancing the video viewing experiences. Because the internet is a proactive, lean-forward experience most of the time, it is best leveraged as a companion to live event broadcasts to create a social television experience. With more and more people spending time online while watching television there’s an opportunity for programmers to engage audiences by allowing viewers to share their experience with friends or other fans in a meaningful way, creating larger and more loyal audiences. Events such as the Grammys and Oscars have benefited greatly by combining the social features of Facebook and Twitter with live broadcasts. Apps such as Hot Potato and Miso have been launched to aggregate these types of experiences on behalf of viewers, though broadcasters are now developing these services on their own as well. Regardless of the social network or app being leveraged, these services should be incorporated into devices such as mobile phones and tablets, and not necessarily directly into the television set via TV widget platforms, to not inhibit either experience individually and allow any service to compete for audience attention.
  • Unified audience measurement will be paramount. While video ad networks have probably been the greatest benefactors of the growing online video ecosystem, with over $90 million invested between BrightRoll, TidalTV and YuMe in Q1 of this year and Tremor Media earlier this week, until there is a way to merge audiences across different platforms (television, laptop, mobile phone, etc.) online video revenues will remain insignificant in comparison to broadcast television. Nielsen announced a solution to address this problem earlier this year that is expected to be rolled out for the fall television season. Looking to make buying video inventory online comparable to traditional television, two different online video ad networks have partnered with third-parties to create  an online equivalent to Gross Rating Points, called iGRP, which is used to sell prime-time ad inventory, to match online audiences with that of traditional television. As agencies and advertisers get more comfortable with quantifying users online in a similar manner as is currently being done through traditional television broadcasting more ad dollars will continue to flow to online video. This will allow online ad networks to compete for even more upfront ad dollars during TV’s traditional outlay season.
  • Opportunities exist for online video technology providers- to an extent. Brightcove, founded before YouTube ever existed, is arguably the most well know enterprise technology provider to the online video industry. In raising a fourth round of funding recently, the company disclosed it expected worldwide revenues of $50 million this year. Considering the company already works with most major media companies, what does this tell us about the market opportunity for the most important component of the online video ecosystem? If you concur with Frost & Sullivan analyst Dan Rayburn’s estimate of $300 million in total revenues for online video platforms this year, then it’s not that significant. It doesn’t mean that Brightcove won’t have a successful IPO, it’s just that for the amount of capital the company has raised ($100 million) the revenue potential ought to be 10 times Frost & Sullivan’s estimates. That being said, companies that can automate content encoding (i.e. Elemental Technologies) and distribution (i.e. TubeMogul) across disparate platforms and formats, provide rights management (i.e. Widevine) across access points and deliver aggregated audiences and reporting for advertisers will have the best chance for success, though primarily through acquisition. Companies such as Akamai will be the biggest benefactors as they can leverage their public currency to add these services to their CDN delivery business, allowing them to move further up the value chain with clients.

Add it all together and where do we end up? Most consumers don’t differentiate between what content they are accessing, broadcast network television (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) or cable networks (Discovery, ESPN, MTV, etc.), since in today’s digital environment you need a set-top box from a cable, satellite or telecom company to access any television programming. The same will hold true for how consumers access programming tomorrow, be it over dedicated coaxial cables, wireless carrier networks or over the public internet. As such, consumers will have tiered pricing (as either a bundle, how monthly subscriptions are currently provided, or a la carte as Apple is attempting to do) that incorporates how content is being accessed (real-time or on-demand) and from where (television, laptop or mobile phone). Whatever the model, viewers will be able to interact with audiences around the content, creating a more fulfilling experience. Advertisers will benefit from better audience targeting capabilities already being used on the web today across all these viewing outlets with the added value of unified reporting.

While the nirvana of free access to all video content over the internet will probably never be realized (except for one-off cases like YouTube’s wildly successful live streaming of a cricket tournament) the internet will play a major role in improving the online video experience from both a consumption and monetization perspective.

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How the Mobile OS Wars Will Be Won

The future of the mobile industry is pretty clear- it’s all about data. Data revenues have allowed U.S. carriers to keep subscriber ARPU’s relatively stable in the face of 30% declines in voice revenues over the past five years. Look no further than Verizon Wireless’ recent announcement to allow unlimited Skype-to-Skype voice calls over its 3G network to see the future revenue prospects of voice, now a commodity service.

Data revenues, in contrast, are expected to continue their explosive growth, more than doubling by 2013 according to a recent Telecommunications Industry Association report. It’s no coincidence that over the same period smartphone sales are projected to account for more than 40% of all wireless devices sold domestically as the underlying mobile operating systems on these devices are providing the necessary functionality and services that are enabling greater data consumption by mobile subscribers.

At the recently concluded Mobile World Congress, Microsoft made the mobile OS market a lot more interesting with its unveiling of Windows Phone 7 Series, a completely rethought and overhauled, mobile operating system. Having met with glowing first impressions, the largest software company in the world has positioned itself to compete across the entire smartphone OS spectrum- from Research in Motion’s productivity devices to mass market offerings leveraging Google’s Android platform to feature-rich iPhones from Apple. However, without the ability for manufacturers to upgrade their handsets from Microsoft’s current operating system, Windows Mobile 6.x, to Windows Phone 7, Microsoft will need to build adoption for its new platform from scratch. Microsoft, like the entire mobile OS market, has to successfully address three key relationships in the mobile ecosystem, and not just build a great technology platform, in order to win market share.

1. Device manufacturer access. To get an operating system into consumer hands, most mobile software providers need to partner with device manufacturers. Google has attempted to remove any potential barrier for these OEMs to adopt its Android platform by making it free to use, open source and fully customizable. Microsoft on the other hand is continuing with its licensing model for the Windows Phone 7 operating system as well as imposing stringent hardware requirements on its device partners going forward.

It is these requirements, in conjunction with recent events, that make it unlikely that HTC will continue as Microsoft’s primary device partner. First, HTC, which built the Nexus One for Google, just launched its own version of the Android device at the Mobile World Congress. Dubbed the Desire, this handset incorporates HTC’s Sense, a design experience the company is implementing across all of its future devices, regardless of the underlying operating system, which could run afoul of Microsoft’s new partner standards. Secondly, HTC’s soon to launch HD2, the most feature-rich smartphone running the Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system, does not meet Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 requirements to qualify for an OS upgrade.  Considering the close relationship HTC fostered with Google in developing the Nexus One, Microsoft would be prudent to look elsewhere for access to consumers.

Fortunately for Microsoft, LG, the third largest mobile handset manufacturer in the world, and second in the U.S., has announced its intention to be the first OEM to launch a Windows Phone 7 handset this fall. This could result in faster adoption for Microsoft’s new mobile OS especially if other OEMs decide to diversify their operating system portfolio due to Google’s directly competitive Nexus One mobile offering.

Unlike Google and Microsoft, Apple and Research In Motion view their primary businesses as being mobile. Due to this  both have vertically integrated the development of handsets and the underlying operating system. This has enabled both companies to enjoy a more direct relationship with consumers and helps ensure a more consistent user experience across their respective handsets. It’s no surprise that combined, Apple and RIM control two-thirds of the U.S. smartphone market.

2. Retail outlet distribution. As Google learned in launching the Nexus One device, working with the network carrier on distribution and marketing is essential for driving sales and adoption. Google’s internet-only, direct-to-consumer approach to selling the Nexus One on T-Mobile’s network resulted in less than 100,000 of these devices being sold in the first month. Contrast that with the launch of Motorola’s Android-based Droid which resulted in over 500,000 units being sold in its initial month. The Droid’s relative success to the Nexus One can be attributed to the coordinated support from Verizon Wireless which (a) has the largest subscriber base and arguably the best wireless network in the U.S. (b) provided distribution for the device through its retail outlets and (c) was backed by a $100 million marketing campaign.

More than any other mobile OS provider, Research In Motion has benefitted from its wireless carrier relationships. With BlackBerry devices available on every major carrier’s network in the U.S., and thus distribution provided through every wireless retail outlet imaginable, RIM has reached over 40% share of the domestic smartphone market.

Apple on the other hand has succeeded in spite of its exclusive relationship with AT&T Mobility in the U.S., primarily because it revolutionized the smartphone experience with the iPhone, but also because it has been able to drive distribution for its device through its own Apple stores.

3. Developer retention. While device manufacturers and wireless carriers are the critical factors in driving smartphone OS adoption, the iPhone exemplifies why developers are the key to retention. In spite of all the grief and anger directed at AT&T by iPhone users, most customers are unwilling to switch wireless carriers due to the personalization functionality provided by the iPhone through its app store. Even with Apple’s frustrating application approval process, developers continue to focus on building for the iPhone platform because it offers the most lucrative revenue opportunity, according to interviews conducted by Gizmodo at the Mobile World Congress, with interest in Android a distant second but growing due to its potential reach now that 60,000 Android-enabled devices are shipping daily.

Microsoft will need to create the same enthusiasm with developers for its new operating system in order to get these individuals to allocate some of their development time and efforts to learn yet another platform. Unfortunately Microsoft lost a chance to jumpstart its efforts by not having a path for them to port their current Windows Mobile apps to Windows Phone 7.

…and the winner is? I agree with Accel Partner’s Richard Wong that fragmentation in the mobile space is here to stay due to technology but also because of varying business models.

Domestically, Apple will determine how the mobile OS market plays out. If it were to end its exclusive arrangement with AT&T and go with a multi-carrier approach, which has proven to be successful from a market share and financial perspective overseas, Apple would control the most lucrative smartphone market in the world due to its strong relationships within the mobile ecosystem versus its competitors.

Worldwide, Gartner Inc.’s prediction that Google’s Android platform will surpass BlackBerry, the iPhone and Windows Mobile in market share in 2012 is fairly safe due to Google’s approach and the economics of its operating system. Google’s interests in the mobile space are squarely focused on search and location-based advertising. As such, giving away its platform makes complete sense. The biggest risk Google faces is getting into its own way by pushing corporate agendas that come at the expense of partner relationships. Developing its own mobile handset, acting like a telecom company by acquiring wireless spectrum or building its own broadband network, and allowing the fragmentation of the Android operating system are all examples of how Google could quickly lose favor with each of the three key relationships in the mobile ecosystem.

Through sheer size alone Microsoft should be able to rebuild most of the market share it has captured with previous iterations of its mobile operating system with Windows Phone 7, but not to the point that will make it a market leader. Microsoft’s continued reliance on a licensing model for its mobile OS and restrictive design parameters will hurt adoption as it competes against a free and open Android platform. While integrating the Xbox experience directly into the Windows Phone 7’s capabilities might be enough to convert some iPhone gaming enthusiasts, Microsoft’s Zune is a distant second to iTunes’ content portfolio, making it difficult to compete with Apple’s overall smartphone offering.

With Microsoft committing $1 billion to develop its new mobile operating system, Research In Motion faces the greatest market share risk. Not only is an acquisition of RIM by Microsoft highly unlikely now, but Windows Phone 7 Series OS is best positioned to compete with BlackBerry’s biggest strength- mobile enterprise email. By bringing Outlook to its mobile operating system, Microsoft can woo traditional BlackBerry users with native email capabilities and additional functionality through its Office productivity suite. Research In Motion has not only taken a preemptive strike against Microsoft but Google as well, which has integrated Google Apps into Android devices, by releasing a free version of its enterprise server for small businesses. With a relatively small application store, RIM will have an even greater difficulty in retaining its mobile OS market share lead in the U.S. over the next few years.

Whatever the outcome the consumer wins, as the competition will continue to breed innovation and enable smartphones to further evolve from productivity devices into personalized mobile experiences- courtesy of the mobile operating system.

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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.

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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.

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Want to Monetize User Generated Content? Make it Consumer Generated Media!

Users_AdvertisersOne of the biggest things Web 2.0 will be remembered for is its proliferation of user generated content (UGC). With falling bandwidth and storage costs, the thinking was that entrepreneurs could amass a large audience fast, and lock-in users in the process, by offering visitors a place to create, upload, manage and/or share their personal content (articles, photos, videos) with friends- and provide it all for free. The network affect would drive adoption as users invited friends to the site to check out their content, who in turn would sign up for the service themselves (thus the user acquisition costs could be defined as the per user cost for hosting and delivering the content). Once a site’s audience reached a certain threshold, the idea was to monetize these visitors through advertising and, to a lesser extent, premium services (i.e. get people to pay for more storage, additional features, etc.). Sites like Blogger, Photobucket and YouTube were launched to meet specific user needs around content verticals (articles, photos and videos respectively), while social networks like MySpace enabled the content to be aggregated by allowing their users to embed widgets from these UGC sites for everyone to see on the social network. While this tactic was a boon from a user adoption perspective, the revenue opportunity hasn’t proved itself for the acquirer of these web properties (both Blogger and YouTube were acquired by Google, while MySpace and Photobucket were acquired by News Corp/Fox) as of yet. While adjacency issues (displaying a brand advertisement banner next to objectionable content on a website) have been a primary excuse for poor CPM rates on UGC sites, the real issue has been the lack of higher value, integrated branding opportunities available to advertisers to leverage the unique behaviors of these communities. Since visitors to UGC websites are there to develop their content and interact with other users, standard ad units that push contextually irrelevant content are completely ignored. Considering that the Internet population is increasing the amount of time it spends on these types of properties, advertisers need a way to reach these users in a manner that is consistent with how people use these sites. So what’s the solution that provides UGC sites with more revenue, advertisers with better value for their ad spend and users with a enjoyable ad experience? It’s consumer generated media (CGM). While some might consider the difference solely semantic, there are differences between CGM and UGC in how the content is produced. Consumer generated media is created based on explicit and/or implicit sets of guidelines while user generated content has no such restrictions. These parameters enable producers of user generated content to create three types of consumer generated media.

  1. Participation. Self-promotion is a big reason why people upload their content creations to sites like YouTube. So what better way to help some of them realize their 15 minutes of fame than by having them participate in an ad campaign! YouTube_ContestThe typical model for participatory campaigns is to create a contest where users upload their videos or photos with explicit guidelines around what content qualifies, how winners are chosen and whether the prize is fame and/or fortune. Doritos was an early adopter of this model, leveraging fans to create Super Bowl ads on behalf of its brand, with the top 5 entries getting a monetary prize ($25,000) and a grand prize winner having their creation aired during the Super Bowl (in fact this year’s contest winner was also named the best ad by consumers, resulting in an additional $1 million prize!). According to Forrester Research, consumer generated video campaigns are are a popular way for a wide range of industries to drive brand loyalty. With the growing popularity of Twitter, even commenting-based campaigns are gaining traction as advertisers include a filtered set of publicly available tweets in widget-based ads. In both cases, you can see how leveraging the participatory nature of UGC sites can provide a quick and cost effective method for reaching and engaging with an audience, and in the process create ads that are more relevant to the intended audience.
  2. Endorsement. Out of those seeking fame and fortune online a few have actually achieve celebrity status. Due to the open, promotional nature of UGC sites, individuals such as Justine Ezarik (iJustin), Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal (Rhett & Link) and Gary Vanyerchuck (Gary Vee), have been able to grow their popularity from within specific communities. As such there is a stronger perceived relationship and level of trust afforded to these individuals by their followers than you would find with more mainstream celebrities. This has also enabled these internet celebrities to leverage their success on one content platform to create devoted followers across other UGC sites (Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc.). Thus, an endorsed campaign centered around one community’s platform offers an opportunity for the endorsement overflow into the individual’s other audiences as well. But because of the relationship these personalities have with their followers, advertisers interested in leveraging the endorsement model need to trust these internet celebrities to communicate the value of the advertiser’s brand in their own voice. Scripted endorsement could be construed as disingenuous and risk damaging both the celebrity’s and the advertiser’s brand. In putting together this type of program explicit guidelines should only be placed on the topic and context the online celebrity will be communicating to their audience, while implicit guidelines should be used around the content itself (the individuals’ thoughts, experience, etc. with the brand). Companies such as Carl’s Jr. and JetBlue have both recently experimented with this type of consumer generated media to promote their respective brands. For UGC properties, highlighting these celebrities or power users (if the former doesn’t exist) as potential brand advocates can yield high engagement- as long as the brand is willing to give up a certain level of control in the messaging. In addition to the monetization opportunity for both the web property and its endorsing personalities, this type of campaign can further strengthening the relationship of the site with its community as users see how the time and effort they put into the site can be rewarded.
  3. Mashup. Combining user generated content with elements of professionally produced media (user generated video that incorporates a popular song into the experience is an example of this) can create an unexpected branding and, more importantly, revenue opportunity if embraced by the copyrighted content owner. These UGC productions are traditionally taken down by the UGC site host at the request of the professional content owner before the mashup has a chance to gain any traction in most cases. But the viral success of the JK Wedding Entrance Dance (choreographed to Chris Brown’s ‘Forever’) shows what can happen if allowed to flourish with the appropriate technology capabilities and business relationship in place to identify and capitalize on the opportunity. The popularity of this video mashup resulted in increased music sales for Chris Brown and his record label in addition to providing YouTube with a new revenue opportunity. In fact, YouTube is encouraging future mashups by allowing producers of viral video hits to participate in the revenue generated from their creations. Imagine the creative mashups that would be produced if content from media companies and the like were readily made available to a site’s users to mashup on a consistent basis? A scenario could evolve where the professional content owner wouldn’t need to spend marketing dollars to promote their content as a site’s user would essentially be doing it on the company’s behalf. This could evolve into more of a participatory model, though with a focus on revenues versus branding. Because the mashup model is user-initiated, the only parameters a brand can place on the experience is implicitly around the content as the professional production can only be spliced or layered into UGC content but the quality cannot be altered. The key for UGC sites is to have identifying and tracking technologies in place to enable monetization (instead of inhibiting it as most copyrighted content owner seem to do) and the right business partnerships to execute and share in the revenues.

While the ability for advertisers to control the brand message and user experience decreases as they progress from the Participation to the Mashup model, the potential brand engagement value actually goes up as the ad unit becomes pull-oriented versus the typical push model (where a user proactively grabs the content ad to consume versus landing on a page where an ad is ad served) making the experience more engaging. The key for advertisers is to find their comfort zone with these guidelines and the right UGC web property to help plan, deliver and report on the appropriate model.

Here’s to the evolution of consumer generated media!

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What’s the Next Act for Webisodes?

PoltergeistAs the online video market has evolved so has the content being made available on the web. Faster internet connection speeds and increased broadband penetration has opened up the ability for us to watch high-quality, full length movies over the internet. Combined with better, cheaper video recording and editing equipment, the type of content being created has also evolved from repurposing of Funniest Home Videos to the creation of original scripted video programming online- more popularly known as webisodes.

In 2007 there were three catalysts that brought attention to web series as a viable business opportunity (1) the popularity of Lonelygirl15 on YouTube (2) the launch of Vuguru by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and (3) the airing of Quarterlife by NBC on network television. These events showed that industry newbies could gain notoriety and success from creating original video programming online (Lonelygirl15), Hollywood believed in the potential of the medium (Vuguru) and web series could make the lucrative transition to television (Quarterlife).

The result was a number of high-profile production companies receiving funding in 2007/08 to capitalize on the opportunity. The likes of Funny or Die, Katalyst Media and 60Frames were launched in conjunction with Hollywood elites Will Ferrell, Ashton Kutcher and United Talent Agency (respectively) while others such as Agility Studios, DECA and EQAL (creators of Lonelygirl15) were founded by Hollywood outsiders.

Fast forward to the present where some have already started questioning the long-term viability of webisodes, as the likes of ManiaTV (an early entrant in the space) and the aforementioned 60Frames have already shut down this year while other production companies have been sold or changed focus. While the economy is the easy excuse for what is troubling the webisode market, it has only served to expose the deficiencies in the business model faster.

The basic problem has been one of customer acquisition and retention. Actual show content and quality aside, without a sizeable enough audience to target, advertisers won’t spend the time or money sponsoring a web series. Thus, online video producers have two options for acquiring the necessary reach for advertisers:

Direct– spend money to promote a web series’ website to a potential audience. This can quickly get expensive, especially when you factor in that almost 2/3rds of a show’s audience does not return for subsequent episodes. That means additional dollars need to be spent on marketing to acquire a new audience and/or remind current viewers to return for future episodes. Without advertiser dollars to fund this acquisition or a portfolio of shows through which to cross-promote a new web series, additional funding is needed to build a sustainable audience.

Indirect- rely on YouTube and other video aggregators to drive their audiences to the web series content being uploaded onto their websites as well as provide the associated monetization. While this instantly provides a solution for both needs, audience traffic is greatly affected by site design changes and content owners only receive a portion (YouTube’s standard payout is 55%) of the associated ad revenues. Looking at data from the top 100 mid-tail video publishers on YouTube (many of which produce webisodes), on average they earn less than $50,000 per month from the site (assuming YouTube’s standard 55% revenue share and daily video views of 140,000, plus a generous 100% sell-through and $20 CPM on the ad inventory)- not a big enough business for most investors.

While there are plenty of webisodes that use a hybrid approach in combining these options, longer term this approach is inefficient. This is because the indirect channel undermines the goal, and dollars spent marketing, of the direct channel by turning a scarcely available product (with theoretically high economic value) into one that is widely available, thus reducing the economic value of each distribution point where the content is being consumed. Simple supply and demand is why ABC, Fox and NBC only make their videos available on their respective websites and Hulu.

So where does the webisode market go from here? The good news is that the opportunity will only continue to grow as video consumption habits evolve. The potential bad news is that traditional television studios might soak up most of this opportunity as the likes of CBS and NBC have started building out their own original online video presences.

For original web series producers that means they have two options: beat ‘em or join ‘em.

How to beat ‘em. Create a television network- for the online world. One of the main advantages that television studios have over a producer of a single show is the ability to aggregate TV show audiences on their network and spread the cost of customer acquisition and episode marketing Break_Originalsacross the entire content portfolio. Break Media is an example of an online property that has been able to successfully build such a network online. The company produces over a half-dozen webisodes that leverage Break Media’s network of male-focused web properties to deliver an audience to their original online video content. Because the company has built its network around a very targeted audience it has been able to differentiate itself, and thus thrive, in a YouTube-dominated market while providing some of the same video content (user-generated, 3rd-party webisodes and movies) experiences.

Another option is to compete on the networks’ terms by delivering webisodes to TV. Services like Boxee and even Hulu are providing web-based interfaces that are meant to be experienced through traditional television sets.  Blip.tv (the preferred video platform for web series producers, providing hosting, advertising, and distribution solutions) is taking this one step further by actually integrating its video platform into set-top boxes to allow Verizon FiOS users to view web video content through their television sets.

Blip.tvA truly audacious opportunity for Blip.tv, with its producer relationships, is to take the television delivery concept one step further and actually become a traditional cable television network. This would provide Blip.tv’s customers with direct access to the largest potential video audience out there and open up a new revenue stream in the process. This could be a lucrative opportunity while we wait for broader video consumption habits to evolve from today’s television network-centric experience to that of video on-demand over cable and internet.

How to join ‘em. EQAL has taken this approach by leveraging their online experience and success in developing original web series to help traditional television programs extend their TV show presences online. This makes sense, especially as it relates to primetime shows that do not produce year-round programming. Keeping fans engaged during the offseason, like NBC is doing with The Office, is more easily, and less expensively, done via webisodes. In the process of refocusing its business in this manner, EQAL retains its ability to work with multiple television networks while still retaining its ability to create its own webisodes.

Alternately, some networks like SpikeTV have decided to acquire webisodic content instead of creating it themselves and redistributing the videos on their cable channel. Having a show acquired is an all or nothing proposition for webisode producers, as the content needs to match with a network’s programming requirements. With only so many slots to fill in a daily TV schedule there will be many more losers than winners here.

Webisode producers- time to choose your story.

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Ad-Supported Facebook Applications Are In For A Rude Awakening

Rude Awakening

Dear Facebook developer, if you’ve banked your livelihood on banner ad-supported applications get ready for a rude awakening. The deceptive advertising practices that have increasingly permeated Facebook applications, and driven effective CPMs on banner ad units to double-digit levels in some cases, are starting to get noticed outside of Facebook (Nick O’Neill of All Facebook has done a great job of covering this topic), which is leading to involved parties being shut down in the process. The longer-term ramifications of this put into question the business viability of many developers on Facebook’s platform.

How Did We Get Here. As recently as the 2nd half of last year Lookery, a Facebook ad network at the time, was guaranteeing developers a mere $0.15 CPM for their application inventory. The combination of inexpensive banner ad inventory and access to Facebook users’ friends (via the social graph) was all savvy direct marketers and ad networks needed to test converting Facebook users into unknowing subscribers of mobile services (among other things) costing upwards of $20 per week. These very well integrated ad experiences that imply your friends’ usage of certain applications and services (as in these examples) QuizCrushare converting well enough on a an impression basis to generate upwards of $10.00 effective CPM for many large Facebook developers. Several ad networks have beem more than happy to deliver these ads since they are in turn getting paid roughly $15 to $25 CPMs by the underlying advertisers. It’s rather amazing actually that in the midst of an overall global recession that has seen the broader U.S. market indices fall around 30%, the effective CPMs Facebook application developers have received has grown upwards of 6500% over the same timeframe!

What’s Going to Happen Next. Before getting to the ‘what’ we need to understand ‘why’, which is actually quite simple- Facebook wants to go public. For this to happen, Facebook needs to show potential Wall Street investors that it has a growing, sustainable business model (so the stock price will go up) and that it runs aclean operation (so as not to make the stock price go down).

From a business perspective, among other well publicized initiatives, Facebook needs to get traditional brand advertisers to spend some of their $550 billion in global ad dollars on its platform in an effort to fuel revenue growth and justify what is sure to be a high earnings multiple it will trade at. As long as there is a perceived risk of tarnishing a brand’s image by placing ads on the same website where deceptive offerings are being run, agencies won’t allocate brand ad dollars to Facebook. In terms of its operations, investors need to feel comfortable that Facebook can effectively monitor its platform and ecosystem to avoid any potential public relation embarrassments or legal issues (privacy concerns aside) that could adversely affect the company’s profitability and trading mutiple.

In terms of the ‘what’, Facebook will become increasingly active in policing ads, networks and advertisers in their ecosystem in an effort to eradicate any potential issues that could affect the ‘why’. A prime example of this was the recent banning of ad networks Social Hour and Social Reach from advertising on Facebook applications. Facebook might even consider launching its own ad network for developers, to ensure the quality of advertisers remains high, at the expense of other ad networks.

The result of these types of actions will be a significant decrease (over 50% in many cases) in revenues seen by developers as the remaining ad networks on Facebook will have to deal with an increase in application inventory in conjunction with a decrease in advertiser demand (as deceptive advertisers are removed from the site). While I am definitely not suggesting effective CPMs will crater back to Lookery guarantee levels, like the stock market, there will be a reversion to the mean for ad prices. Regardless of where CPM rates eventually settle, there will be a flight to quality from an advertiser, as well as user, perspective. Bad experiences with certain applications will drive ad dollars and users away from applications that continue these practices, creating a death-spiral scenario in some cases (the situation where fewer users lead developers to place more ads on their applications to make-up for the lost revenue, which in turn leads to a further decrease in users due to a worse user experience, and so on).

What to Do. If you’re a developer, here are your options:

  1. Stay the Course. Continue to accept these deceptive ads in an effort to make as much money as possible until these ad practices and/or networks are shut down by Facebook. If the user and/or platform backlash doesn’t kill your application business, then try one of the remaining options or follow these ads and networks to the next social platform for exploitation.
  2. Go Virtual. If it makes sense, incorporate virtual goods into your applications. Game developers like Zynga have built successful businesses around the selling of virtual items to their user base, which alleviates the need for, or at least reliance on, banner ads for revenues.
  3. Try Fremium. This option is more geared towards utility-based applications, but up-selling features and functions for your applications (especially if you can tether it to a service or experience outside of Facebook) makes a lot of sense since it establishes a recurring revenue stream.
  4. Get Professional. Build a great application experience that makes users want to use your applications over the long-term. Work with established, reputable ad networks that have broader web reach than just Facebook applications (like Rubicon Project), inventory rep firms (like Appssavvy) or gain access to individual engagement opportunities (through the like s of my company Clearspring) to build credibility with advertisers and increase the perceived value of your applications’ ad inventory. Once you have the user base and operational scale, consider building out your own sales team (like Watercooler) to get a larger percentage of campaign CPMs.

Let’s hope Facebook application developers take the high road on this one.

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