Quick hits: Target, ad networks and the Super Bowl

I’ve been remiss in posting on some fascinating things that have taken place in the digital media industry over the past month. Fortunately, the two major reasons there has been a delay are because of closing an investment that we announced early this week and because of my total engrossment in the transformation of my New York Giants from playoff afterthoughts to Super Bowl Champions (which I’ll comment on below). I’ll do better going forward (I hope). Without further ado…..

Target and customer dialogue: Last month, Amy Jussel of ShapingYouth.org published a blog post in which she shared an opinion about a recent Target billboard advertisement. She also called Target several times, to which Target responded in an email by saying that “Target does not participate with non-traditional media outlets.” Now whether you agree with Amy’s perspective or not, I think we can agree that corporations are doomed if their response to feedback from customers, in any form, is to dismiss it outright. If Amy had written a letter or sent an email, would Target have responded similarly? My guess is only if the customer service representative wanted to lose his or her job. The impact of customer service on word-of-mouth, brand perception and profits can’t be overestimated, particularly in a digital world where switching costs are negligible and customer acquisition costs can be sky high. Emerging companies like Satisfaction and Bazaarvoice (a Battery portfolio company) are focusing on the dialogue between and amongst brands and their customers to create new commerce and service opportunities. Leveraging consumers’ increasingly visible and explicit perception of brands and products in this way is just beginning. In addition, we’ve already seen that the empowering of consumers via digital media can save television shows and change company policy. Undoubtedly, we will eventually see an online consumer uprising that results in a tumbling stock price and executive job losses. The companies that fail to take advantage of the availability of consumer data and to engage in an open dialogue with customers do so at their own peril.

OnMediaNYC and ad networks: I had the pleasure of speaking at the OnMediaNYC conference at the end of January. One of the major things that struck me coming out of the conference is the incredible challenge that advertisers and agencies face in sifting through all of the various media outlets and ad networks now vying for their ad dollars. And that is exactly why scale matters so much. With multi-million dollar budgets to deploy and limited human and research resources, advertisers and agencies can only purchase media in so many places. And the simple rule of thumb is to pay attention to the outlets that can provide them with the most reach. Until there are better research, buying and analytical tools (if you know of any, send them my way!) for them, advertisers and agencies will only spend time with the largest publishers and networks. The challenge then for the publishers and networks is to achieve the scale necessary to rise above the noise and get the attention of potential buyers. Too many of the ad networks that I saw at OnMediaNYC focused on nifty targeting technologies and whiz bang ad formats. Very few talked about how they intend to achieve the scale necessary to have advertisers and agencies even spend time learning about their approaches. There are well over 300 ad networks in the market today, but I expect that there will be far fewer that achieve the scale needed to survive over the long term.

New York Giants, Super Bowl Champions, and teams: As a life-long Giants fan, I was fortunate to attend not only one of the great games in Super Bowl history, but also a game that ended in an unbelievable victory by my favorite team. There are lessons for business to be drawn from many parts of life, but as I left the stadium that night I was struck by a particular message. It sounds flowery and obvious, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that a team of individuals committed to each other and to a common goal always have a fighting chance, even in the face of naysayers and accepted theory. As venture capitalists, we tend to place a great deal of emphasis on the teams with which we partner. The Giants’ Super Bowl victory reminded me that there is a reason that we seek traits like focus, persistence and commitment in our entrepreneurs and that we strive to give them the same in return. In our business, often times market opportunities are not obvious to outsiders or simple to address. But a determined team that believes in its abilities can sometimes achieve outstanding results, even while those on the outside criticize its ideas and approaches. Just ask the Giants.

 

Super Bowl XLII

The calm before the widget storm

After a summer where seemingly every article about the web and social media included discussions about widgets as the next big thing, there has been a relative lull in the widget hype during the fall. Given that widgets themselves are nothing new to the Internet, the period of calm should have been expected. Code and applications that can be embedded and executed in web pages have been around since the first page view counters and banner ad tags. More recent examples of “widgets” include Google AdSense, the YouTube video player and Facebook applications. But that is not to say that the whirlwind of widget press should be ignored altogether. The proliferation of social networks, blogs, media sharing sites, start pages, etc., are all indicative of an overall fragmentation of the web. Anyone interested in reaching consumers needs to be where they are, not where they want them to be.  The portability and interactivity of widgets enables the desired connection to consumers to be made simply and effectively. For that reason, and many others, what we are currently experiencing is likely only the calm before the widget storm.

 

When widgets first got the attention of the media, it was largely because of the novelty of allowing consumers to embed widgets in the same way that they were previously embedded by website owners. Companies such as Slide and RockYou established themselves as early leaders in the creation of widgets for consumers. Other companies, like MuseStorm, Clearspring and Goowy Media emerged to provide applications and services to enterprises for widget authoring, distribution and tracking. Over the past few months, each of these enterprise-facing companies seems to have reached the same conclusion….that an end-to-end solution, including monetization, is the best way to attack the market.

 

The market for banner ads provides an interesting model for the potential development of the widget market. Ad serving technologies became a commodity over time because they only enabled publishers to distribute and track banner ads. The authoring was left to agencies and the monetization was left to publishers and third party ad networks. The most value accrued to companies like Google, which provided all of the needed capabilities. Given that ad serving platforms are now embedded at most agencies and publishers, the preferred infrastructure for distribution and tracking is largely in place. The successful widget companies will integrate with and complement these existing systems by providing tracking, analytics and monetization capabilities that are unique to widgets. Consumer-facing widget companies will need these same capabilities internally to establish sustainable business models.

 

The recent monetization partnership announcements by Clearspring and KickApps may be early indicators of the maturation of the widget market and a flurry of economic activity around widgets. Like banners and search before them, and like video and mobile now, widgets are a new form of media that require their own infrastructure and monetization models. The companies that deliver those solutions will be the ones that survive the coming storm of widget activity and avoid being washed away with the widget companies that have not established a firm foundation for their businesses.

Close encounters of the Facebook Beacon kind

I had my first experience with Facebook Beacon this past weekend when I purchased movie tickets for “American Gangster” from Fandango.com. Moments after my purchase a notification popped up in the lower right hand corner of my screen (similar to the email notification in Outlook) asking me if I wanted to publish my purchase to my Facebook. I chose the “No thanks” option given that I didn’t want to effectively recommend the movie without having seen it at that time. Later, when I visited Facebook, I had an alert asking me whether I wanted to publish my Fandango “story” for other users to see. I was given the option of publishing my purchase, opting out of publishing that specific purchase or opting out of publishing actions on Fandango altogether.

 

I had three reactions to this rather alien experience, which if shared by other consumers, do not bode well for Facebook’s Social Ads. First, I was irritated that despite having opted out while on Fandango, I was still prompted to publish my purchase upon my next visit to Facebook. Second, although I was given the ability to opt out of having Fandango send purchases to my profile, it was frustrating to see that I will still get notifications whenever I take actions on Fandango itself. Lastly, it was worrisome that my actions on Fandango seemingly will continue to be recorded by Facebook, even though I opted out of publishing them to my profile.

 

Aside from the obvious privacy issues associated with collecting information on my actions without my consent, there are fundamental consumer issues with Beacon which should concern Facebook. The experience of having a Facebook notification appear while on another site will likely be unsettling for most consumers. I will be surprised if the opt in rate for publishing actions at that point in the process is significant enough to generate much volume for Social Ads. If Beacon becomes widely implemented, the sheer number of notifications on Facebook and other sites could become a serious annoyance for consumers, leading to further opt out or even abandonment of Facebook altogether. With only a small number of actions likely to be published to profiles, the potential inventory for Social Ads becomes limited. Any advertiser that elects to target more granularly than a specific action will be addressing audiences that incredibly are small. Advertisers are not interested in actively managing a marketing channel that only reaches a small audience and generates an even smaller number of qualified clicks. Unless Facebook addressed the consumer experience with Beacon, there may be no viable option for advertisers interested in the Facebook audience.

 

Clearly, Facebook intends to iterate on the Beacon model, but I think that when it comes to the consumer experience, the first impression matters a great deal. Unfortunately for Facebook, this close encounter of the third kind with Beacon may leave consumers feeling like their actions have been abducted by aliens rather than used to communicate effectively and privately with their fellow human beings.

I can’t be the only one without a Facebook post!

There is no shortage of commentary on the $15 billion valuation of Microsoft’s deal with Facebook. As Facebook’s investors have said themselves, Facebook needs to perform incredibly well over the coming years to grow into the valuation. So how exactly is that going to be done?

 

To date, Facebook’s monetization strategy has centered mainly on attempts to sell sponsorships for groups or user profile-based text ads called Flyers. A recent conversation with one of the big agencies revealed the cost associated with sponsoring groups, as measured by people and activity in the group, far surpasses traditional CPMs. Yet, the same agency pointed out that no agency employee is getting promoted without having purchased a sponsored group on Facebook. The promise of building relationships with users that are passionate about brands is a major lure for advertisers. How long can Facebook count on agencies to ignore the poor fundamental economics and effectiveness of sponsored groups? It would seem that the revenue realized from groups this year is a temporary anomaly, unless something fundamentally changes in user behavior.

 

As for Flyers, Facebook doesn’t even provide advertisers with click-through rates for the Basic version, suggesting instead that “the value proposition of Flyers is primarily the high volume and localized exposure of your ad, not click through rates”. Flyers Pro is a cost-per-click product that doesn’t address the needs of brand advertisers or those interested in “engagement”. Further, I’m told that click-through rates are only slightly better than for standard banner ads, yielding only a nominal effective CPM for Facebook. This matches the experience that we had at Google working with social networking sites like Orkut, MySpace and Hi5 on various targeting techniques. The fact is that targeting ads based on user profile information performs only marginally better than contextual targeting or no targeting at all. It’s also incredibly difficult for advertisers to purchase campaigns at scale when segmentation and targeting get too granular. So don’t count on Flyers to be the magic monetization bullet either.

 

Recent reports suggest that we will have a much better idea about the future of advertising on and potentially off of Facebook after its big advertising announcement in New York on November 6th. Let’s hope that the new targeting models and ad formats introduced are dramatically different than what we have seen to date.  Importantly, they need to engage users within the context of the primarily communication-oriented activities that take place on Facebook. The success of advertising on Facebook is important not just for the company, but for all of social media, which now accounts for over 25% of all web page views. Someone is going to crack the social media monetization problem. To live up to its expectations and valuation, Facebook better hope that it has devised the scalable, effective social media monetization solution that has so far eluded its competitors and its recent investor.

Miners vs. picks and shovels: a contrarian venture capital investing approach?

Earlier this week, The New York Times published an article about the “fuzzy math” driving the funding of companies in Silicon Valley. In talking to my peers in the investment community, there seems to be consensus that valuations are regularly disconnected from the reality of many companies. That said, the exuberance seems to be continuing and is at its peak amongst consumer-facing media companies.

 

At Battery, our digital media investing is focused on two categories of companies, of which the first is consumer-facing media properties that build, aggregate and monetize audiences in differentiated ways. The second category is companies that provide the tools and technologies to support the first category, including everything from ad networks to targeting and optimization software to video delivery infrastructure. Increasingly, we find ourselves spending more time on the second category while largely avoiding the first. Broadly speaking, this seems to be a fairly contrarian investing approach.

 

There is no shortage of speculative, high-priced investments being made in hopes of finding the next YouTube or MySpace or Photobucket. My perspective is that the risk/reward tradeoff associated with investing in many of these companies does not compute. I’d much rather invest in the companies that are arming all of the competitors in the consumer media market (the picks and shovels approach) than bet on identifying the one that is going to be the next big hit (trying to find the goldmine). There is no doubt that incredible amounts of equity value can be created by leading consumer media companies, as evidenced by the aforementioned companies. However, neither I nor any investors I have spoken to have found a crystal ball that tells us which consumer web properties are going to be the next ones to resonate with consumers and spread virally. In addition, there is intense competition for consumer attention on the web, making it an expensive battle to fight. Lastly, it seems that the equity value that has been created by consumer web properties in recent memory has been independent of demonstrated economic success.

 

As we learned in earlier this decade, valuing companies primarily on audience-based metrics is not a sustainable approach. At the same time, we have also seen that companies that build fundamentally sound businesses by providing value to and extracting value from paying customers can also create tremendous amounts of equity value. As an investor and an entrepreneur, do you have a better shot at creating the single winner in the online video destination market (i.e., Youtube) or building one of several successful companies in the online ad serving market (i.e., DoubleClick, Aquantive, 24/7 Real Media, Right Media)? Which businesses are easier to predict and monetize?

 

I think that chasing the next Youtube also puts investors at odds with their entrepreneurs. Searching for a single big win forces investors to take an aggressive approach to managing their portfolio of “bets”. Approaches to financing and exits can diverge dramatically when an investor is swinging for the fences at the potential expense of the entrepreneur. While the economic rewards of investing in picks and shovels may not be as great (although this can be argued), the satisfaction of building a sustainable business in partnership with entrepreneurs is well worth the cost associated with watching this current “gold rush” from the sidelines.