The Valuation Disconnect in Mobile

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

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

The Typical Relationship

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

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

Why Mobile Had Been Different

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

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

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

Mobile is Really Two Different Experiences

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

Smartphones

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

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

Tablets

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

When It’s All Said and Done

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

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

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Mobile Video: The Final Frontier for Ad Networks?

Earlier this month TechCrunch broke the news that mobile video ad platform Transpera had been acquired by online video ad network Tremor Media. The deal came almost exactly three months after Tremor’s last transaction, the purchase of video ad network ScanScout. The Tremor-ScanScout merger was part of a string of announcements in the online video ad space last fall which began with top 10 online display advertising network Specific Media acquiring video ad platform BBE and ending with another leading ad network, Undertone, buying Jambo Media, a video solutions company.

With advertising a major theme at last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona could this latest Tremor news set off the next round of capabilities expansion and provider consolidation amongst ad networks?

With online video projected to grow 55% annually through 2014, making it the fastest growing online ad format worldwide, it’s easy to see why there’s interest from both traditional display and pure play video ad networks in acquiring online video market share. Looking at recent industry trends and projections, mobile video might be poised to follow this same type of growth trajectory, creating a similar opportunity for ad networks looking to provide cross-platform digital ad solutions to agencies and advertisers.

  • Devices: Worldwide smartphone shipments passed PCs in total volume for the first time in the 4th quarter of last year while tablet shipments, led by Apple’s iPad, are expected to reach nearly 56 million this year and 172 million by 2014.
  • Network Traffic: In Cisco’s Visual Networking Index Forecast, updated this month, the company predicted that, by 2015, two-thirds of all global mobile data traffic would be video.
  • Advertising: Mobile ad spending is projected to exceed $18 billion worldwide by 2015, representing over 15% of digital advertising’s spend. While in the U.S. video is expected to continue growing faster than any other mobile segment through 2014.

Together, these data points confirm that the PC-based era of the web has been officially replaced by the mobile web, which consumers are already taking advantage of through the proliferation of mobile device types. According to The Nielsen Company, Americans, led by teens and young adults, watch an average of 3 ½ hours of video a month on their mobile devices. To understand just how quickly video consumption habits are evolving look at YouTube’s announcement last month that it has reached 200 million video views per day on mobile devices- an increase of 300% over the beginning of 2010.

Media companies and marketers are looking at ways to quantify this audience in aggregate in an effort to bring advertising economics to parity across all “three screens” (television, web and mobile). This represents a big opportunity for ad networks willing to put forth the technical and execution effort to target mobile audiences fragmented by app-type (mobile web versus native apps), device (smartphones versus tablets), operating system (Android, BlackBerry, iOS, etc.) and ad unit interactivity (passive versus touch-screen).

Because ad guidelines and standards for the mobile web are still maturing in comparison to display and online video, ad networks interested in entering the mobile video space would benefit from acquiring video delivery expertise and an embedded distribution network. Any M&A activity would involve one of these three types of acquisition strategies:

  1. Buy capabilities and market share: This tact was used by Specific Media to enter the online video market by acquiring a top 10 video ad provider and instantly gaining reach. If leading online video advertising networks BrightRoll and YuMe, which launched their respective mobile advertising solutions last fall, don’t see adoption of their offerings, they might be forced to take this route in order to match Tremor Media’s cross-platform scale in video. From the display advertising perspective, only Microsoft and Yahoo as well as the largest ad networks will be able to afford this type of acquisition due to lofty valuations in mobile and video.
  2. Buy capabilities, leverage market share in current business: Undertone took this route by leveraging its own scale on the display advertising side with its video technology purchase to become a top 10 online video ad provider of its own within a couple of months of the acquisition. This is the most capital efficient way for any ad networks to enter the mobile video business, though acting quickly will be the key to successfully executing this strategy due to the limited number of acquisition options and venture capital being invested in the segment.
  3. Extend capabilities and market share: As for Tremor Media, already a leader in the online video advertising space, its deal allowed the company to add product expertise (video overlay ads) while growing its reach and video ad volume. Millennial Media, the largest independent mobile ad network which raised $27.5 million earlier this year, and has raised $65 million overall, is the best positioned mobile ad network to take advantage of this strategy due to its profitability, exit options and capital on hand.

While Google bought its way into a dominate position in the U.S. mobile advertising market (including interactive video ad capabilities) with its purchase of AdMob last year, the growth of YouTube’s mobile website has allowed Google to become a cross-platform provider of mobile video monetization solutions. Apple on the other hand used its acquisition of AdMob competitor Quattro Wireless to build the iAd Network solely for its own mobile operating system (iOS). With two of the largest ad networks having been acquired by the two leading mobile operating platforms what merger opportunities still exist in mobile video advertising?

  • JumpTap: The company added video to its suite of mobile ad formats last year in an effort to broaden its appeal to clients. JumpTap, which delivers ads across all major smartphone platforms (Android, BlackBerry and iOS) as well as the iPad, is considered the largest independent mobile ad network in the U.S. after Millennial Media. As such, the company will most likely have to wait and see what happens with Millennial (which will either go public or get acquired) before drawing interest from the likes of Microsoft, Yahoo and potentially Research in Motion (maker of BlackBerry) who have all been rumored acquirers of a mobile ad network and the only companies large enough to digest JumpTap’s $69 million in capital raised.
  • Mogreet: The company provides mobile video advertising solutions through SMS and MMS mobile messaging services, allowing Mogreet to address the feature phone audience as well. Considering the limitation of their offering, especially when you consider the growth of the smartphone and tablet markets, and the $7 million invested in the company thus far, an acquisition of this company would be a stretch for a U.S.-based ad network but maybe not for a network in a large developing market such as Brazil, India, Indonesia or Russia where feature phones dominate the market.
  • Rhythm NewMedia: From a pure play mobile video ad network perspective, Rhythm NewMedia has built the most envious, cross-platform network out there of the remaining independent players. The company, which recently raised $10 million, only works with premium brand advertisers and publishers across Android and iOS mobile platforms covering both smartphones and iPads. Having raised $37 million in total funding makes Rhythm a pricey acquisition for anyone not named Microsoft or Yahoo at this point though.
  • Vdopia: While the company is an online video ad network with extensive operations and market share in India, it also operates iVdopia, a mobile video ad network. Its mobile offering covers both Android and iOS platforms (including iPads) as well as mobile websites. Claiming it has reached profitability, and with only $4 million raised, Vdopia would be a prudent acquisition for an online global ad network.

Beyond these mobile video ad companies there are several other start-ups that focus on providing rich media advertising solutions for smartphones, tablets and the mobile web that could provide the framework for a video offering for ad networks interested in getting into mobile video. Greystripe which focuses on rich media banner ads primarily for the iPhone, while supporting Android  and Java feature phones as well, has raised the most venture capital of the group ($18 million), followed by Medialets ($10 million) and Crisp Media (at least $5 million). Greystripe’s strength is in its ability to transcode Flash ads into HTML5 in order to support Apple’s Flash-restriction on iOS devices. Both Crisp Media and Medialets, neither of which are an ad network but instead earn revenue from serving rich media ads to mobile devices, do provide video ad solutions for both smartphones and tablets. The biggest challenge facing these companies will be potentially pricing themselves out of the M&A market if they continue to raise capital. Based on this, Crisp Media might be an ideal technology pick-up for an ad network with a strong client-base and distribution network.

With the display inventory component of mobile advertising already being automated through demand side platforms like DataXu and real-time bidding exchanges like Mobclix, mobile video might be the last digital ad segment where ad networks can extract additional margin out of the industry through ad effectiveness and audience scale. Perfecting the online and app video experience will be important beyond just mobile as internet television, the next great digital ad opportunity, will leverage these advertising frameworks for its own platform monetization. As agencies begin to provide digital services at global scale to their advertising clients, ad networks that can deliver audiences across devices and digital formats, at scale, will garner the lion’s share of ad campaign dollars coming from these agencies going forward. To accomplish this ad network’s need to boldly go where most networks haven’t gone before.

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