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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With the Acquisition of Instagram Facebook is Only Halfway Done in Mobile

So Facebook decided to one-up its own IPO proceedings last week with the news that it had acquired the photo-sharing mobile application Instagram. By any conventional metrics, the $1 billion price tag for a company with no revenues, 13 employees and 30 million users at the time makes little sense. On a relative value basis though, the move is a brilliant one by Facebook. The company essentially paid 1% of its market value for Instagram which is well on its way to surpassing 100 million mobile-only users by the end of the year. To put this growth into perspective, it would make Instagram 1/10th the overall size of Facebook and potentially 1/5th the size of Facebook’s mobile audience by the end of the year- not bad for a company that’s been around for less than 2 years. More importantly though, by acquiring the most popular free app in Apple’s App Store, Facebook adds a critical capability that extends its platform experience in mobile.

Facebook was a child of the now officially-ended Web 2.0 era, so its website was built to be experienced on personal computers. Now thanks to smartphones an app economy has emerged that has enabled companies like Instagram to optimize the user experience of their applications solely for mobile phones. Alongside the acqui-hire of the team from mobile messaging app Beluga last year (which subsequently built Facebook’s Messenger app) Facebook now has apps that bring the company’s core features from facebook.com, photo-sharing and communications, to a complementary set of stand-alone mobile user experiences.

These acquisitions don’t solve all of Facebook’s mobile needs though. Since Facebook Messenger and Instagram, as well as Facebook’s own apps, are built specifically for smartphone operating systems half of the mobile subscribers in the U.S., and an even a greater percentage in the largest European Union countries, can’t access these apps because they don’t own smartphones. Even with sales expected to cross 1 billion devices worldwide in 2014, smartphone penetration will still only reach 15% of mobile users, meaning Facebook can’t rely on smartphones reaching a tipping point in the near-term to address the risk factors associated with its growing mobile audience.

As Facebook reaches market saturation in many developed countries, the company will need to rely on emerging markets for the majority of its future growth from a user acquisition, and eventually, a monetization standpoint, as the primary means of accessing the internet in countries such as Brazil, India and Russia will continue to be through mobile devices. That means creating mobile experiences that are ubiquitous across devices and not tied to any specific operating systems is paramount for Facebook to scale its mobile offering. The Instagram deal notwithstanding, Facebook has spent the past year putting the pieces into place to address the other half of the mobile landscape.

Starting in March 2011 Facebook acquired Snaptu, a provider of smartphone-like usability on feature phones for an estimated $60 to $70 million to expand the capabilities of Facebook for Every Phone. Then in October the company announced the release of its mobile app platform that enables social discovery of HTML5 and native apps. Facebook followed this up with the acqui-hire of the team from HTML5 app platform Strobe and the hiring of a head of Mobile Developer Relations from Strobe competitor Sencha in November. Since then Facebook has continued to support the launch of their mobile platform with a series of mobile hack days and the open-sourcing of their browser test suite, Ringmark, for building apps on the mobile web. With 1 billion HML5-capable phones expected to be sold in 2013 the open, mobile web will be just as important as native smartphone apps to Facebook’s success.

With Facebook’s IPO now expected to take place a month from now on the heels of a booming advertising business, the company is well positioned to support a $100 billion valuation. But for Facebook’s stock to continue to perform well one of the key non-financial metrics investors will focus on is active user growth. As the company’s mobile user penetration trends past 50% of its overall user base towards 100% due to increasing smartphone adoption and emerging market user growth, extending the Facebook platform capabilities in mobile will allow the company to create natural revenue extensions in mobile for both its advertising (like the recently announced Reach Generator) and payments businesses that leverage both apps and the mobile web. But with international representing a growing portion of Facebook’s revenue mix, developing an ecosystem around the mobile web will be especially important for the company to continue to drive engagement and revenues.

If Facebook can execute on the assets they have put in place now, the company can turn the most overanalyzed aspect of its S-1 registration statement into its biggest growth story. In the process Facebook just might be able to answer the question- who’s going to be the Facebook of mobile- with itself.

Photo image source: Johan Larsson on Flickr

Is Path (2.0) Mobile’s Path?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Time for Foursquare

When Facebook Places launched in August, the media wasted little time in calling game, set and match on Foursquare and its location-based social network (LBSN) brethren. With over 500 million users, the theory went, Facebook would become the most popular check-in service due to its sheer size alone. While Facebook hasn’t released any initial stats regarding the number of users or check-ins being generated through Places thus far, personal and anecdotal experiences from early tech adopters suggests the uptake hasn’t been significant. Having survived the unveiling of Places by growing its own user base from 3 to 4 million users in less than 2 months, and with plenty of money in the bank, Foursquare has a shot at growing beyond its early-adopter community and becoming a mainstream network. So how does Foursquare become the next Twitter and not end up like Friendster?

Make A Few Enemies (If You Want 500 Million Friends)

The launch of Places was a direct shot at Foursquare by Facebook. To return the favor Foursquare should go after Facebook’s core audience of college students (something I suggested to Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley in a conversation last year). Beyond revenge, this actually makes a lot of sense if you remember that Facebook’s success was built on its ability to capture the college crowd before opening up to other audiences.

Considering that (1) with 165 million Facebook users in the U.S. alone there is bound to be some backlash by young adults against parental “friending” as well as overall loss of interest in the platform and (2) Foursquare’s raison d’etre is to help people find new things to do in cities, Foursquare can offer college users a unique experience. Students who already use Facebook now have the chance to create a new, curated social graph based on people they want to interact with socially- and one that doesn’t include their parents. By leveraging Foursquare’s discovery element, which the company has started rolling out across several campuses with the launch of Foursquare for Universities, students can develop relationships based on sharing new experiences.

The result is the creation of a real social network- one that occurs in the real world and not just online or through social games. Facebook is accurate in not calling itself a social network as it operates more like an ambient network- one that allows people to communicate and interact with their accumulated social graph from afar. Because Foursquare’s purpose is to enable face-to-face social interaction it has the opportunity to become the place where your real friends are– i.e. people who you’d actually want to grab a drink or hang out with if you knew they were nearby. This statement can’t honestly be made by anyone trying to socialize beyond Dunbar’s number on Facebook. Time will tell if Facebook’s just announced Groups rectifies this situation or is too cumbersome for average users to implement. If not, they can resort to playing dirty by enforcing their newly granted LBSN patents.

Show Me The Money (Or At Least a Discount)

Not to be lost in the social aspect of Foursquare’s service is the underlying business opportunity. While Mayor-ships and virtual badges have been the drivers of Foursquare’s early successes, to a maniacal level in some instances, I agree with early stage investor Dave McClure, though not in such eloquent terms, that game mechanics will only take LBSN’s so far and that tangible financial rewards are how these networks can turn into more mainstream services.

That’s not to say that Foursquare should abandon its game mechanics. In fact the social activity driven through these features of Foursquare’s service should be leveraged by local businesses because these mechanics can create the right type of incentive structure. Local merchants are eager to tap into in-discretionary spending habits (especially those of college kids), but in a cost efficient manner that creates loyalty beyond just the initial lead generation. In the same breadth, consumers are interested in deals at local establishments- especially promotions they can opt-in to. That’s where leveraging Foursquare’s Swarm Badge to drive group participation makes sense.

The concept around Swarm Parties, in which businesses offer discounts to customers once a minimum number of users have checked-in on Foursquare in a given time period, has proven to be effective in increasing sales for local businesses in both the U.S. and overseas. This hasn’t been lost on the likes of recently launched GroupTabs which is looking to provide group discounts for local merchants by combining the check-in features of Foursquare with the deal incentives of Groupon. While Groupn itself has shown how effective it can be in driving one-time sales for local businesses it does also have its drawbacks. Foursquare can help businesses foster the long-term loyalty with consumers that is missing from Groupon-type offerings by helping merchants create incentives that can exist beyond virtual badges. This could include leveraging relationships merchants already have with consumers through loyalty cards, which CardStar is already doing by integrating Foursquare into its service, or creating new reward structures based on check-in frequency.

Find Other Ways to Help Users Grab Life… (And Experience New Places)

Beyond group incentives, Foursquare needs to find other ways to be useful to users and businesses in discovering one another. The recently launched “Add to My Foursquare” button is a great way to transfer an individual’s web-based interest in a venue, by adding it to their Foursquare To-Do list, into an actual visit to the physical store when they check-in nearby that business. Beyond web surfing, Foursquare’s recommendation engine, which is still being tested, could offer search engine-like opportunities for users to find, and merchants to pay to promote, businesses based on matching users’ check-in activity with potential interests. Combined these capabilities can not only enable better discovery and thus socialization opportunities for current users but also act as a starting point for new users who don’t have a check-in history but want to benefit from the wisdom of the local crowd.

Foursquare’s ultimate success, in addition to keeping the service up-and-running, will depend on its ability to create tangible benefits for its current users, before they start losing interest, while simplifying the value proposition for mainstream Facebook users to understand and start using Foursquare. If not, companies like Google Ventures-backed SCVNGR, which now has 500,000 users of its own, has the pieces in place to compete with Foursquare through its own brand relationships, university outreach program and group-buying functionality, are waiting in the wings to take on Facebook Places.

Ball’s in your court Foursquare. I’m rooting for you.

Photo credits: Dunny/WeeklyShot, The Social Network/Columbia Pictures, Jerry Maguire/TriStar Pictures and DodgeBall/20th Century Fox Film

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Rise of the Event-Based Social Networks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever the eventual outcome, it will unfold live.

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Where the New Commerce Opportunities are in the Current Wave of Innovation

At TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference a few weeks ago legendary venture capitalist John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers spoke about what he considers to be the next, and third, great wave of innovation- the intersection of social, mobile and new commerce. Like swells in an ocean, technology innovation is not comprised of a single wave or event, but instead a series of them. Smaller, initial waves enable those in the middle of a set to generate the largest swell and associated impact, while the smaller waves at the end benefit from all the efforts of the preceding waves in the group.

While I would agree with GigaOM’s Om Malik that we are already in the throes of John Doerr’s third wave, the areas of social, mobile and commerce each represent a unique wave in time within this current innovation set. Social is an important, but early wave that will help mobile, the middle wave, generate the largest impact in this third technology wave. One of the benefactors of both the social and mobile innovation waves will be commerce, which well-known early stage investors Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital and Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures have both identified in recent months as being areas of emerging opportunity.

In 2007, two events helped propel this commerce wave forward more than any others- the launch of Facebook’s platform and Apple’s release of the iPhone. Though Friendster and MySpace preceded Facebook in the area of social networking, the ability to create and extend the social graph of what is now 500 million users to third-party websites and services has enabled Facebook to become the social identity layer for the worldwide web today. Meanwhile Apple changed the mobile landscape forever by enabling applications to be developed for the iPhone that leveraged the smartphone’s capabilities as well as those of the wireless carriers’ networks. The traditional insular, walled-garden approach to third-party content and services on carrier data networks and mobile handsets has been replaced by innovation around the mobile internet and applications. This has resulted in enhanced functionality and value to consumers from not only the iPhone but other smartphones and mobile operating systems looking to benefit from this new ecosystem- all while driving additional data revenues for wireless carriers in the process.

The Social Wave

Internet commerce websites like Amazon were actually early adopters of social technologies- empowering their customers to post reviews and ratings on product pages to help other Amazon shoppers determine whether or not to buy a particular item. This crowd-sourcing feedback model hasn’t evolved much since first being launched though, keeping the relationship between reviewers and shoppers fairly anonymous and thus limiting consumers’ trust factor. Allowing users to layer their social graph on top of the commerce experience would enable potential buyers to see feedback from family and friends or their extended social network first, further enhancing the shopping experience for consumers and inevitably driving better revenues for commerce sites.

Recently launched Blippy and Swipely both aim to capitalize on this theme by enabling their users to share purchase transactions with their social graph. While these companies are focused on creating a discussion around purchases post-transaction, there is an opportunity in being able to curate this commentary and incorporate it into product feedback loops across commerce sites, making the shopping experience even more personal and dynamic.

Probably the hottest area in online commerce though has been the group buying segment with the likes of Groupon and LivingSocial raising $135 million and $39 million respectively this year alone. While the business model isn’t new (Mercata and MobShop, founded in the late 1990’s were the original group buying platforms that became casualties of the internet bubble), the ability to tap into consumers’ social graph to enable the group buying mechanics to work is.

The Mobile Wave

After years of promises, mobile finally seems ready to deliver on the cliché “get-a-Starbucks-coupon-on-your-phone-when-you-walk-nearby.” With the ramp in mobile internet subscribers already exceeding the speed of traditional desktop internet adoption and global smartphone sales expected to surpass personal computing in 2012 according to Morgan Stanley Internet analyst Mary Meeker, how mobile is being thought of and used in commerce is changing dramatically. With most commerce companies already having a mobile version of their website and native applications available across various mobile app platforms, the biggest opportunities in mobile going forward are in bringing real-world and digital experiences together via augmented reality and enabling a variety of payment capabilities through mobile phones.

Augmented reality brings information from the web into the real world in real-time. This can be accomplished by (1) adding visual data elements to the visible world (i.e. through Layar’s Reality Browser) while looking at something through a mobile phone camera, (2) leveraging QR (quick response) codes located on storefront decals (which Google makes available through Google Places) or outdoor ads to access additional information about a place or item via the mobile internet and (3) adding data to physical objects via bar codes (the idea behind recently launched StickyBits) or associating data with locations people have visited (a la Foursquare ‘tips’). In each of these instances the opportunity is to quickly and conveniently provide additional information to help consumers make more informed decisions.

Mobile payments represent the largest, albeit most fragmented, opportunity as Generator Research predicts the market will grow almost ten-fold from last year to $633 billion in worldwide revenues by 2014, driven by nearly 500 million users. The types of payments users are able to initiate vary from physical dongles like Square that allow phones to function as cash registers for merchants, to buying virtual goods for apps through Boku or Zong using a consumers’ mobile phone bill instead of a credit card, to paying friends through platforms such as PayPal or Venmo.

How can commerce make the best use of these innovations?

The underlying theme with many of these commerce examples, from aggregating audiences for sales to sending users mobile coupons, is their focus on addressing the supply-side of the commerce equation. Instead of trying to find new ways to incentivize demand for products and services through price elasticity or information overload, the more interesting and challenging opportunity in commerce is creating solutions to identify demand pre-transaction. If consumers had efficient ways to signal their intent on an individual or aggregate basis prior to making a purchase, a whole new commerce paradigm could be created around real-time demand fulfillment. Some possibilities include:

  • A group of co-workers decide to go out and have lunch together and broadcast their intent to restaurants at the local mall who in turn have the ability to offer coupons or discounts to these consumers before they make their decision;
  • A family on vacation in New York City is interested in sight-seeing as well as catching a show on Broadway. The father sends out a prioritized list of attractions and a budget to local travel agents, which respond with multiple itineraries based on the given parameters.
  • Several people in the same city are looking to buy the same toy. They query their phone to find the cheapest price. Participating stores are notified of inquiry and are given the ability to offer a discount if a minimum number of these consumers buy today, which can be completed on the phone and the toy held for pick-up.

The key distinction with these futuristic examples is that instead of making consumers proactively pull information from disparate sources to get answers, the information is pushed to consumers based on their stated intent. Pleet, which launched earlier this month out of the UK, looks to address this opportunity by “socializing vouchers” around consumers’ intended action in a specific location. Well-known tech blogger Robert Scoble also explores the possibilities of real-time, in-the-moment commerce that leverages context aware apps and services  in a guest post on TechCrunch this month. In either user case (pre-sale or during an event) the default requirement is that the consumer has control over which apps and services can share what type of data with one another and what information (updates, offers, etc.) is allowed to get pushed to users and their social graphs.

Mobile’s role in all this is to tie these web services to a user’s physical location to enable various types of commerce opportunities to occur as well as provide a way for consumers to add information in real-time to enhance the value of the data. For this reason augmented reality (AR) does have a viable future, despite some of the early hype around it. AR can pick up where intent-based, push-oriented commerce opportunities leave off by providing consumers with the ability to pull dynamic information from the internet into their real-world situations. That is why services like Foursquare and StickyBits that allow users to access data related to places and objects via barcodes respectively have a great chance to succeed- because they can generate a large network effect not only from social connections on the platform but also due to the information users are augmenting these respective services with. So for those instances where someone doesn’t have the ability to request offers and information from restaurants on lunch discounts they can instead leverage an augmented reality app that contains information on proximity to restaurants in the area as well as any reviews from friends, general feedback or coupons and make reservations in the process.

Some of the winners will be companies everyone knows…

Amazon– Even though Amazon has been accused of missing the boat on social commerce, they still have the very enviable position of being the largest pure-play ecommerce company, and fastest growing retailer, in the U.S. With all the product information and review data they have collected over the years and experience in managing online storefronts, Amazon could not only empower other sites and apps with this data but also manage the supply chain for consumers looking to transact via mobile yet pick up products at a physical location. The value of the company’s data set could be further enhanced for its own financial benefit by enabling Facebook users to access their social graph through the Amazon.com website.

Apple– The company’s inclusion is due to its recent acquisition of Siri, a voice-activated personal assistant application, rather than being the leading smartphone and app platform. Siri’s value to Apple is in its ability to integrate various APIs from a variety of restaurant, movie, weather, taxi and event services to enable voice-activated search which can lead to a variety of commerce opportunities. In the process of integrating Siri into the iPhone, Apple is also laying the groundwork for an entirely new user experience in mobile search.

Facebook– The company has already proven the power of combining the social graph with commerce by enabling a billion dollar economy in virtual goods to arise. With the launch of Credits, which could become one-third of the company’s revenues over the course of the next 12 months, Facebook has an opportunity to become a big player in mobile payments by enabling alternative payment options for its virtual currency. Combined with the fact that Facebook not only has the most popular mobile app out there but also provides authentication for a number of other mobile apps, there is tremendous upside in what the company can achieve in the commerce space.

Google– The launch of Android, Google Latitude, Google Maps and Google Places over the years are all efforts to bring location into the search equation. Being able to marry search intent with location data opens up a new revenue opportunity around local search advertising and commerce for Google, which despite their forays into display advertising, needs to continue to rely on search advertising to grow its business.

…While other are just getting started

Some of the aforementioned companies in the social transaction, group buying, augmented reality and mobile payments spaces all have opportunities to succeed in this new wave of commerce innovation. The broad category of augmented reality is the most interesting because it operates at the intersection of both worlds (real and digital) so is best suited to incorporate social and mobile features from these other businesses. While most success stories will be through acquisition, companies like Foursquare have the potential to succeed on their own by focusing on the demand and intent side of the commerce equation. Since the company has created a user experience around “checking-in” to locations and venues as well as leaving “tips”, it would require only a slight modification in behavior to have users instead display their intent by “pre-checkin” and aggregating the demand they already capture to drive additional utility around commerce. Even though the company has focused on the game mechanics of its service, the fact that it has nailed social and mobile interaction gives it a leg-up on other competitors.

While I can see why Josh Kopelman believes the past 10 months have shown greater innovation in online shopping than the past 10 years, I believe the wave has yet to come and that the next 18 months is where the greatest innovation will occur around real-time, intent-oriented commerce.

Photo credits: Madeleine1912/Photobucket, centralasian/Flickr and chizzachong/Flickr.

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