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The Browser Is The OS: 19 Years Later

 

So it was declared in the early days: Web apps will win over native apps. Why let the facts cloud an appealing theory?

Marc Andreessen, the Netscape co-founder, is credited with many bold, visionary claims such as “Everyone Will Have the Web” (ca. 1992), “Web Businesses Will Live in the Cloud” (1999), “Everything Will Be Social” (2004, four years before joining Facebook’s Board), and “Software Will Eat the World” (2009).

But not all of Andreessen’s predictions are as ringing and relevant. His 1995 proclamation that “The Browser Will Be the Operating System” still reverberates around the Web, despite the elusiveness of the concept.

The idea is that we can rid our computing devices of their bulky, buggy operating systems by running apps in the Cloud and presenting the results in a Web browser. The heavy lifting is performed by muscular servers while our lightweight devices do nothing more than host simple input/output operations. As a result, our devices will become more agile and reliable, they’ll be less expensive to buy and maintain, we’ll never again have to update their software.

The fly in the ointment is the word connected. As Marc Andreessen himself noted in a 2012 Wired interview [emphasis mine]:

[I]f you grant me the very big assumption that at some point we will have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity, then in time everything will end up back in the web model.

So what do we do until we have ubiquitous, high-speed wireless connectivity?

We must build off-line capabilities into our devices, local programs that provide the ability to format and edit text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations in the absence of a connection to the big App Engines in the Cloud. Easy enough, all you have to do is provide a storage mechanism (a.k.a. a file system), local copies of your Cloud apps, a runtime environment that can host the apps, a local Web server that your Browser can talk to… The inventory of software modules that are needed to run the “Browser OS” in the absence of a connection looks a lot like a conventional operating system… but without a real OS’s expressive power and efficiency.

For expressive power, think of media intensive applications. Photoshop is a good example: It could never work with a browser as the front end, it requires too much bandwidth, the fidelity of the image is too closely tied to the specifics of the display.

With regard to efficiency, consider the constant low-level optimizations required to conserve battery power and provide agile user interaction, none of which can be achieved in a browser plug-in.

Certainly, there are laudable arguments in support of The Browser Is The OS theory. For example: Unified cross-platform development. True, developing an app that will run on a standardized platform decreases development costs, but, let’s think again, do we really want to go for the lowest common denominator? A single standard sounds comfy and economical but it throttles creativity, it discourages the development of apps that take advantage of a device’s specialized hardware.

Similarly, a world without having to update your device because the Cloud always has the latest software is a comforting thought.. but, again, what about when you’re off-line? Also, a growing number of today’s computing devices automatically update themselves.

In any case, the discussion may be moot: The people who pay our salaries — customers — blithely ignore our debates. A recent Flurry Analytics report shows that “Six years into the Mobile Revolution” apps continue to dominate the mobile Web. We spend 86% of our time using apps on our mobile devices and only 14% in our browsers:

Apps 86 Browser 14

…and app use is on the rise, according to the Flurry Analytics forecast for 2014:

Apps Web Flurry 2013 2014

So how did Andreessen get it so wrong, why was his prediction so wide of the mark? It ends up he wasn’t wrong… because he never said “The Browser Will Be the Operating System”. Although it has been chiseled into the tech history tablets, the quote is apocryphal. 

While doing a little bit of research for this Monday Note, I found a 1995 HotWired article, by Chip Bayers, strangely titled “Why Bill Gates Wants to Be the Next Marc Andreessen”. (Given Microsoft’s subsequent misses and Marc Andreessen’s ascendency, perhaps we ought to look for other Chip Bayer prophecies…) The HotWired piece gives us a clear “asked and answered” Andreessen quote [emphasis mine]:

“Does the Web browser become something like an operating system?

No, it becomes a new type of platform. It doesn’t try to do the things an operating system does. Instead of trying to deal with keyboards, mouses, memory, CPUs, and disk drives, it deals with databases and files that people want to secure – transactions and things like that. We’re going to make it possible for people to plug in anything they want.”

Nearly two decades later, we still see stories that sonorously expound “The Browser Is The OS” theory. Just google the phrase and you’ll be rewarded with 275M results such as “10 reasons the browser is becoming the universal OS” or “The Browser Is The New Operating System”. We also see stories that present Google’s Chrome and Chromebooks as the ultimate verification that the prediction has come true.

The Browser Is The OS is a tech meme, an idea that scratches an itch. The nonquote was repeated, gained momentum, and, ultimately, became “Truth”. We’ll be polite and say that the theory is “asymptotically correct”… while we spend more energy figuring out new ways to curate today’s app stores.

JLG@mondaynote.com

The Quartz Way (2)

 

Last week, we looked at Atlantic Media’s business site Quartz (qz.com) from an editorial and product standpoint. Today, we focus on its business model based on an emerging form of advertising. 

The Quartz business model is simple: it’s free and therefore entirely ad supported. Why? Doesn’t qz.com target a business readership that shouldn’t mind spending nine dollars a month? “It was part of the original equation: Mobile first, and free, embracing the open web”, explains publisher Jay Lauf, whom I met in Paris a couple of weeks ago. Jay is also an Atlantic Media senior vice-president and the group publisher (he once was Wired’s publisher).

jay-lauf-head-shot

Jay Lauf, Publisher (Photo: Quartz)

According to him, launching Quartz was the latest iteration of a much grander plan. Four years ago, Atlantic Media held a meeting aimed at defining their strategy: “What we will do, but also what we will not do”, says Jay Lauf. The group came up with three key priorities: #1 being a growth company (as opposed to passively manage the shift from print to digital). That idea was greatly helped by Atlantic’s ownership structure controlled by David Bradley. #2 “Digitally lead for everything”, which was not obvious for a ancient publication — Atlantic Monthly was created in 1857. #3 Atlantic must focus on “decision makers and influential people”.

Today, the goals set four years ago translate into a cluster of media brands reaching every month a highly solvent readership of 30 million people:

  • The Atlantic, the digital version of the eponymous magazine.
  • The Atlantic Wire aimed at a younger generation mostly relying on social media.
  • The Atlantic Cities, that focuses of urban centers and urban planning.
  • The National Journal that itself includes several publications, mostly about politics and society.
  • Government Executive Media, which operates a number niche publications covering the federal government (including its use of technology)
  • Atlantic Media Strategies, an independent division offering a full catalogue of advertising and marketing solutions. These range from analytics, social media campaigns and content creation, such as this one with General Electric in which a dedicated site features America’s economic futures – according to GE.

quartz_graph

All this brings us to Quartz’s business model. It relies entirely on native advertising also known as branded or sponsored content (see a previous Monday Note What’s Fuss About Native Ads?). Quartz’s implementation is straightforward: a small number of advertisers, served with high yield campaigns.

Below is yesterday’s screenshot of Quartz’s endless scroll, featuring regular displays of branded content (in this case Boeing):

qz_scroll_ads

Most of the time, the content is made or adapted especially for Quartz with a variable involvement of its advertising division (the branded content operations are kept segregated from the editorial department.) Quartz staff involvement goes from collaborating on the ad content to setting up HTML5 integration. On purpose, Quartz maintains a staff of copywriters and graphic designers assigned to assist brands in their communication. While ad spaces are clearly identified, their content is never completely dissociated from surrounding articles. Quite often, it reflects the newsroom’s “Obsessions“. Such precautions, plus the Quartz layout, warrant good click-rates and high prices. Quartz people are discreet about the KPIs, but sources in the ad community said that CPMs for its native ads content could be roughly ten times higher than traditional display ads.

Atlantic Media’s weight and bargaining power helped jumpstart the ad pump. A year ago, the site started with four brands: Chevron, Boeing, Credit Suisse and Cadillac. Today, Quartz has more twenty advertisers from the same league. Unlike other multi-page websites, its one-scroll structure not only proposes a single format, but also re-creates scarcity. (Plus the fact that Quartz does not have any mobile apps greatly simplifies the commercial process.) Still, it can be a double-edged sword: scarcity could indeed translate into high prices, but it also limits the number of available slots, therefore capping the revenue stream. Quartz’s publisher and head of sales made a tough choice — high rates vs. high volume — and so far it seems to work fine as the site is close to break-even ahead of schedule.

How far it can go remains to be seen. Quartz is a relatively small operation (50 people altogether, including 25 journalists producing 35-40 stories a day and a nice location in NYC’s Soho district.) My guess is it shouldn’t burn more than $10m a year. By extrapolating from the site’s audience, profitability sounds in reach of Quartz’s current “value model”. But the asymptote — factoring ads rates, number of slots, advertisers’ “dimension”, and traffic — could also be near and therefore constrain Quartz’s ability to scale up. That’s why the publication is now entering the crowded sector of conferences with its “Quartz Live”, featuring its customary exclusive attendance and editorial-rich ways. Will Quartz escape the temptation to launch paid-for products? Its journalistic content leaves open many opportunities in that field. For example, a mixture of semantic-assembled, high-end briefings, tailored to carefully profiled segments of its audience could generate a nice revenue stream, or ebooks and long-form features.
To be continued next year…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

Memo #3 to Jeff — Data & User Profiling for The Washington Post

 

For customer-related technologies, the financial and intellectual backing of Jeff Bezos, and his Amazon experience can give The Post a huge competitive advantage. Here is what should be at the top of the to-do list. 

Every digital manager must plan to tap into Amazon’s fantastic engineering firepower. (Even though Bezos bought the newspaper out of his own pocket, the first thing he’ll do — if he hasn’t already — will be drafting some of his techies as “advisors” to The Post.) The key point being: the influx of engineering brainpower must not be limited to the digital side of the house, or to the newspaper’s IT infrastructure. It should impact all activities: editorial, marketing, subscriptions and paid-for products. Let’s dive into details.

Turbo-boosting the editorial. Let’s start with the basics: What characterizes media outlets playing in The Washington Post’s league? It is their ability to line up top journalistic resources to cover stories that matter, in-depth, with multiple angles and treatment modes (text, features stories, photographs, graphics, multimedia storytelling, live blogging, opinions, etc.), while deploying the best expertise on topics covered. These are the five items that make the difference between the bulk of pure players and true legacy media.

In many ways, the above is anti-economic, it is loaded with inherent inefficiencies — dry holes, dead ends, waste of time on promising leads –  that drive nuts “quant zealots” obsessed with KPI’s and productivity measurements. At this point, the difference between great newsroom managers (i.e. editors) and average ones lies in their ability to make some room for “managed inefficiencies”. An editor’s key, delicate duty is weighing the purpose of resource-intensive tasks such as flummoxing the competition, pursuing a worthy story, or launching a months-long journalistic project aimed at a Pulitzer prize. Unfortunately, weak leadership, balking at tough choices and yielding instead to a sorry attempt to spread an even level of (dis)satisfaction among constituencies causes inefficiencies to grow like weed.

The foremost goal of technology-enhanced news content is smartly weaving together all components of a topic. The idea is to keep the reader aboard by encouraging multiple levels of reading, with different angles for a subject, calls to essential archives or to other forms of journalism such as blogs or infographics. In this field, Amazon is light-years ahead of the news industry. By raising the number of editorial treatments seen by the reader, almost twenty years of Amazon’s e-commerce recommendation engine refinements will undoubtedly benefit The Post.

Another key item will be the level of news personalization. What should a Post reader see mostly? News that matters to him or her, or everything the paper’s staff collects? How to define mostly? Fully tailored contents based on past navigation? Stated preferences combined with the preserved serendipity that together make the core of news construction? This is a deeply involved problem — and the subject of a future Monday Note.

Reader profiling. All digital publishers dream of knowing exactly what reader sees what content, where, at what time of the day and on which vector: web, smartphone, tablet. The finer the granularity, the better. Slicing and dicing readership in segments of age, professions, residence, income, interests yields three types of uses:

  • increasing news content stickiness by serving customized content as mentioned earlier
  • smarter customized advertising, as opposed to dumbly drowning users into a flood of ads for months by using data collected during the shopping season. This practice, known as “retargeting”, is one of the internet “seven plagues” and the most potent repellent to advertising
  • channelling the reader to the catalogue of ancillary products any news outlet should operate. For example: once a reader is identified (even anonymously) as working in the legal field, for a media group struggling to fill the last seats of its conference on privacy laws, why not show this loyal reader a one-time only, 50% discounted ticket, valid for 24 hours only? Simplistic as this example might seem, its large scale application is far from trivial: it requires super-accurate analytics, the deployment of “event engines” that will trigger the display of the right offer, at the right time, to the right segment of the population. Fortunately, this is the kind of work Amazon geeks are particularly good at.

For The Washington Post, the benefits are numerous. Research shows that serving the right ad to the right profile can raise its value by a factor of 1.5x to 2x. And the performance of ancillary products (conferences, business events, news-related ebooks or professional products, education packages, etc.) will become easier to measure.

Impact on paywall and subscription models. Paywall theory can be summarized as follows:

  • deploying a wide range of tactics all aimed at significantly raising the number of news contents items (not necessarily articles) a reader watches every month. Let’s make no mistakes: the main dial is under the newsroom’s control, marketing wizardry won’t do the trick
  • finding readers most likely to convert to a paid-for subscription and, week after week, serving them (I write serving, not bombarding) offers they can’t refuse: an extended test-period, or a news-related bonus that reflects the breadth of the company’s line of products.

As with most theories, practice is much harder. A paid-for system is a long-term, investment-intensive, staffing-critical effort. Two legacy media did it particularly well: The Financial Times and The New York Times. The former built a subscription base that now surpasses the paper’s; the latter added $100m a year in revenue that did not exist three years ago. Most paywall strategies underperform for two reasons: first, an error in predicting the editorial contents’ ability to retain readers beyond a free threshold of 10, 15, or 20 stories a month; second, a failure to build the data-driven infrastructure that is mandatory for any paid-for product. The Washington Post does relatively well with the first test. For the second, the backing of Amazon tech brains will give it the best chances to succeed.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Your smartphone, your moods, their market

 

Coupled to facial imaging, the smartphone could become the ultimate media analytics tool, for evaluating editorial content or measuring the effectiveness of ads. Obviously, there are darker sides. 

When it comes to testing new products, most of us have been through the focus group experience. You sit behind a one-way mirror and watch a handpicked group of people dissect your new concept: a magazine redesign, a new website or a communication campaign. It usually lasts a couple of hours during which the session moderator does his best to extract intelligent remarks from the human sample. Inevitably, the client — you, me, behind the glass — ends up questioning the group’s relevance, the way the discussion was conducted, and so on. In the end, everyone makes up their own interpretation of the analyst’s conclusions. As usual, I’m caricaturing a bit; plus I’m rather in favor of products pre-tests as they always yield something useful. But we all agree the methods could be improved — or supplemented.

Now consider Focus Group 2.0: To a much larger sample (say few hundreds), you send a mockup of your next redesign, a new mobile app, or an upcoming ad campaign you better not flunk. The big 2.0 difference resides in a software module installed on the tester’s smartphone or computer that will use the device’s camera to decipher the user’s facial expressions.

Welcome to the brave new world of facial imaging. It could change the way visual designs are conceived and tested, making them more likely to succeed as a result . These techniques are based on the work of American psychologist Paul Ekman, who studied emotions and their relation to facial expression. Ekman was the first to work on “micro-expressions” yielding impossible to suppress, authentic reactions.

The human face has about 43 facials muscles that produce about 8,000 different combinations. None of theses epxressions are voluntary, nor are they dependent on social origin or ethnicity. The muscles react automatically and swiftly — in no more than 10 or 20 milliseconds — to cerebral cortex instructions sent to the facial nerve.

Last month, in Palo Alto, I met Rick Lazansky, a board director at the venture capital firm Sand Hill Angels. In the course of a discussion about advertising inefficiencies (I had just delivered a talk at Stanford underlining the shortcomings of digital ads), Rick told me he had invested in a Swiss-based company called Nviso. Last week, we set up a Skype conference with Tim Lellewellyn, founder and CEO of the company (Nviso is incubated on the campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne where Dr. Matteo Sorci, Nviso’s chief scientist and co-founder used to work.)

Facial Imaging’s primary market is advertising, explains the Nviso team. Its technology consists in mapping 143 points on the face, activated by the 43 facial muscles. Altogether, their tiny movements are algorithmically translated into the seven most basic expressions : happiness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust, sadness and neutral, each of them lasting a fraction of a second. In practice, such techniques require careful adjustment as many factors tweak the raw data. But the ability to apply such measurements to hundreds of subjects, in a very short time, insures the procedure’s statistical accuracy and guarantees consistent results.

Webcams and, more importantly, smartphone cameras will undoubtedly boost uses of this technology. Tests that once involved a dozen of people in a focus group can now be performed using a sample size measured in hundreds, in a matter of minutes. (When scaling up, one issue becomes the volume of data: one minute of video for 200 respondents will generate over 100,000 images to process.)

Scores of applications are coming. The most solvent field is obviously the vast palette of market research activities. Designers can quickly test logos, layouts, mockups, story boards. Nviso works with Nielsen in Australia and New Zealand and with various advertisers in Korea. But company execs know many others fields could emerge. The most obvious one is security. Imagine sets of high-speed cameras performing real-time assessment at immigration or at customs in an airport; or a police officer using the same technology to evaluate someone’s truthfulness under interrogation. (The Miranda Warning would need its own serious facelift…) Nviso states that it stays out of this field, essentially because of the high barrier to entry.

Other uses of facial imaging technique will be less contentious. For instance, it could be of a great help to the booming sector of online education. Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs) operators are struggling with two issues: authentication and student evaluation. The former is more or less solved thanks to techniques such as encoding typing patterns, a feature reliably unique to each individual. Addressing evaluation is more complicated. As one Stanford professor told me when we were discussing the fate of Moocs, “Inevitably, after a short while, you’ll have 20% to 30% of the students that will be left behind, while roughly the same proportion will get bored…” Keeping everyone on board is therefore one of the most serious challenges of Moocs. And since Moocs are about scale, such task has to be handled by machines able to deal with thousands of students at a time. Being able to detect student moods in real-time and to guide them to relevant branches of the syllabus’ tree-structure will be essential.

These mood-analysis techniques are just nascent. Besides Nviso, several well-funded companies such as Affectiva compete for the market-research sector. The field will be reinforced by other technologies such as vocal intonations analysis deployed by startups like Beyond Verbal. And there is more in store. This story of Smithonian.com titled “One day, your smartphone will know if you are happy or sad“, sums up the state of the art with mobile apps designed to decipher your mood based on the way you type, or research conducted by Samsung to develop emotion-sensing smartphones. As far as privacy is concerned, this is just the beginning of the end. Just in case you had a doubt…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Why Google Will Crush Nielsen

 

Internet measurement techniques need a complete overhaul. New ways have emerged, potentially displacing older panel-based technologies. This will make it hard for incumbent players to stay in the game.

The web user is the most watched consumer ever. For tracking purposes, every large site drops literally dozens of cookies in the visitor’s browser. In the most comprehensive investigation on the matter, The Wall Street Journal found that each of the 50 largest web sites in the United Sates, weighing 40% of the US page views, installed an average of 64 files on a user device. (See the WSJ’s What They Know series and a Monday Note about tracking issues.) As for server logs, they record every page sent to the user and they tell with great accuracy which parts of a page collect most of the reader’s attention.

But when it comes to measuring a digital viewer’s commercial value, sites rely on old-fashioned panels, that is limited user population samples. Why?

Panels are inherited. They go back to the old days of broadcast radio when, in order to better sell advertising, dominant networks wanted to know which station listeners tuned in to during the day. In the late thirties, Nielsen Company made a clever decision: they installed a monitoring box in 1000 American homes. Twenty years later, Nielsen did the same, on a much larger scale, with broadcast television. The advertising world was happy to be fed with plenty of data — mostly unchallenged as Nielsen dominated the field. (For a detailed history, you can read Rating the Audience, written by two Australian media academics). As Nielsen expanded to other media (music, film, books and all sorts of polls), moving to the internet measurement sounded like a logical step. As of today, Nielsen only faces smaller competitors such as ComScore and others.

I have yet to meet a publisher who is happy with this situation. Fearing retribution, very few people talk openly about it (twisting the dials is so easy, you know…), but hey all complain about inaccurate, unreliable data. In addition, the panel system is vulnerable to cheating on a massive scale. Smarty pants outfits sell a vast array of measurement boosters, from fake users that will come in just once a month to be counted as “unique” (they are indeed), to more sophisticated tactics such as undetectable “pop under” sites that will rely on encrypted URLs to deceive the vigilance of panel operators. In France for instance, 20% to 30% of some audiences can be bogus — or largely inflated. To its credit, Mediametrie — the French Nielsen affiliate that produces the most watched measurements — is expending vast resources to counter the cheating, and to make the whole model more reliable. It works, but progress is slow. In August 2012, Mediametrie Net Ratings (MNR), launched a Hybrid Measure taking into account site centric analytics (server logs) to rectify panel numbers, but those corrections are still erratic. And it takes more than a month to get the data, which is not acceptable for the real-time-obsessed internet.

Publishers monitor the pulse of their digital properties on a permanent basis. In most newsrooms, Chartbeat (also imperfect, sometimes) displays the performance of every piece of content, and home pages get adjusted accordingly. More broadly, site-centric measures detail all possible metrics: page views, time spent, hourly peaks, engagement levels. This is based on server logs tracking dedicated tags inserted in each served page. But the site-centric measure is also flawed: If you use, say, four different devices — a smartphone, a PC at home, another at work, and a tablet — you will be incorrectly counted as four different users. And if you use several browsers you could be counted even more times. This inherent site-centric flaw is the best argument for panel vendors.

But, in the era of Big Data and user profiling, panels no longer have the upper hand.

The developing field of statistical pairing technology shows great promise. It is now possible to pinpoint a single user browsing the web with different devices in a very reliable manner. Say you use the four devices mentioned earlier: a tablet in the morning and the evening; a smartphone for occasional updates on the move, and two PCs (a desktop at the office and a laptop elsewhere). Now, each time you visit a new site, an audience analytics company drops a cookie that will record every move on every site, from each of your devices. Chances are your browsing patterns will be stable (basically your favorite media diet, plus or minus some services that are better fitted for a mobile device.) Not only your browsing profile is determined from your navigation on a given site, but it is also quite easy to know which sites you have been to before the one that is currently monitored, adding further precision to the measurement.

Over time, your digital fingerprint will become more and more precise. Until then, the set of four cookies is independent from each other. But the analytics firm compiles all the patterns in single place. By data-mining them, analysts will determine the probability that a cookie dropped in a mobile application, a desktop browser or a mobile web site belongs to the same individual. That’s how multiple pairing works. (To get more details on the technical and mathematical side of it, you can read this paper by the founder of Drawbridge Inc.) I recently discussed these techniques with several engineers both in France and in the United Sates. All were quite confident that such fingerprinting is doable and that it could be the best way to accurately measure internet usage across different platforms.

Obviously, Google is best positioned to perform this task on a large scale. First, its Google Analytics tool is deployed over 100 millions web sites. And the Google Ad Planner, even in its public version, already offers a precise view of the performance of many sites in the world. In addition, as one of the engineers pointed out, Google is already performing such pairing simply to avoid showing the same ad twice to a someone using several devices. Google is also most likely doing such ranking in order to feed the obscure “quality index” algorithmically assigned to each site. It even does such pairing on a nominative basis by using its half billion Gmail accounts (425 million in June 2012) and connecting its Chrome users. As for giving up another piece of internet knowledge to Google, it doesn’t sounds like a big deal to me. The search giant knows already much more about sites than most publishers do about their own properties. The only thing that could prevent Google from entering the market of public web rankings would be the prospect of another privacy outcry. But I don’t see why it won’t jump on it — eventually. When this happens, Nielsen will be in big trouble.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

What’s the Fuss About Native Ads?

 

In the search for new advertising models, Native Ads are booming. The ensuing Web vs. Native controversy is a festival of fake naïveté and misplaced indignation. 

Native Advertising is the politically correct term for Advertorial, period. Or rather, it’s an upgrade, the digital version of an old practice dating back to the era of typewriters and lead printing presses. Everyone who’s been in the publishing business long enough has in mind the tug-of-war with the sales department who always wants its ads to to appear next to an editorial content that will provide good “context”. This makes the whole “new” debate about Native Ads quite amusing. The magazine sector (more than newspapers), always referred to “clean” and “tainted” sections. (The latter kept expanding over the years). In consumer and lifestyle sections, editorial content produced by the newsroom is often tailored to fit surrounding ads (or to flatter a brand that will buy legit placements).

The digital era pushes the trend several steps further. Today, legacy media brands such as Forbes, Atlantic Media, or the Washington Post have joined the Native Ads bandwagon. Forbes even became the poster child for that business, thanks to the completely assumed approach carried out by its chief product officer Lewis DVorkin (see his insightful blog and also this panel at the recent Paid Content Live conference.) Advertising is not the only way DVorkin has revamped Forbes. Last week, Les Echos (the business daily that’s part of the media group I work for) ran an interesting piece about it titled “The Old Press in a Startup mode” (La vielle presse en mode start-up). It details the decisive — and successful — moves by the century-old media house: a downsized newsroom, external contributors (by the thousand, and mostly unpaid) who produce a huge stream of 400 to 500 pieces a day. “In some cases”, wrote Lucie Robequain, Les Echos’s New York correspondent, “the boundary between journalism and advertorial can be thin…” To which Lewis DVorkin retorts: “Frankly, do you think a newspaper that conveys corporate voices is more noble? At Forbes, at least, we are transparent: We know which company the contributor works for and we expose potentials conflicts of interests in the first graph…” Maybe. But screening a thousand contributors sounds a bit challenging to me… And Forbes evidently exposed itself as part of the “sold” blogosphere. Les Echos’ piece also quotes Joshua Benton from Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab who finds the bulk of Forbes production to be, on average, not as good as it was earlier, but concedes the top 10% is actually better…

As for Native Advertising, two years ago, Forbes industrialized the concept by creating BrandVoice. Here is the official definition:

Forbes BrandVoice allows marketers to connect directly with the Forbes audience by enabling them to create content – and participate in the conversation – on the Forbes digital publishing platform. Each BrandVoice is written, edited and produced by the marketer.

Practically, Forbes lets marketers use the site’s Content Management System (CMS) to create their content at will. The commercial deal — from what we can learn — involves volumes and placements that cause the rate to vary between $50,000 to $100,000 per month. The package can also include traditional banners that will send traffic back to the BrandVoice page.

At any given moment, there are about 16 brands running on Forbes’ “Voices”. This revenue stream was a significant contributor to the publisher’s financial performances. According to AdWeek (emphasis mine):

The company achieved its best financial performance in five years in 2012, according to a memo released this morning by Forbes Media CEO Mike Perlis. Digital ad revenue, which increased 19 percent year over year, accounted for half of the company’s total ad revenue for the year, said Perlis. Ten percent of total revenue came from advertisers who incorporated BrandVoice into their buys, and by the end of this year, that share is estimated to rise to 25 percent.

Things seemed pretty positive across other areas of Forbes’ business as well. Newsstand sales and ad pages were up 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively, amid industry-wide drops in both areas. The relatively new tablet app recently broke 200,000 downloads.

A closer look gives a slightly bleaker picture: According to latest data from the Magazine Publishers Association, between Q1 2013 and Q1 2012, Forbes Magazine (the print version only) lost 16% in ads revenues ($50m to $42m). By comparison, Fast Company scored +25%, Fortune +7%, but The Economist -27% and Bloomberg Business Week -30%. The titles compiled by the MPA are stable (+0.5%).

I almost never click on banners (except to see if they work as expected on the sites and apps I’m in charge of). Most of the time their design sucks, terribly so, and the underlying content is usually below grade. However, if the subject appeals to me, I will click on Native Ads or brand contents. I’ll read it like another story, knowing full well it’s a promotional material. The big difference between a crude ad and a content-based one is the storytelling dimension. Fact is: Every company has great stories to tell about its products, strategy or vision. And I don’t see why they shouldn’t be told  resorting to the same storytelling tools news media use. As long as it’s done properly, with a label explaining the contents’ origin, I don’t see the problem (for more on this question, read a previous Monday Note: The Insidious Power of Brand Content.) In my view, Forbes does blur the line a bit too much, but Atlantic’s business site Quartz is doing fine in that regard. With the required precautions, I’m certain Native Ads, or branded contents are a potent way to go, especially when considering the alarming state of other forms of digital ads. Click-through rates are much better (2%-5% vs. a fraction of a percentage for a dumb banner) and the connection to social medias works reasonably well.

For news media companies obsessed with their journalistic integrity (some still do…), the development of such new formats makes things more  complicated when it comes to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. Ultimately, the editor should call the shots. Which brings us to the governance of media companies. For digital media, the pervasive advertising pressure is likely keep growing. Today, most rely on a Chief Revenue Officer to decide what’s best for the bottom line such as balancing circulation and advertising, arbitraging between a large audience/low yield or smaller audience/higher yield, for instance. But, in the end, only the editor must be held accountable for the contents’ quality and the credibility — which contribute to the commercial worthiness of the media. Especially in the digital field, editors should be shielded from the business pressure. Editors should be selected by CEOs and appointed by boards or better, boards of trustees. Independence will become increasingly scarce.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Mobile’s Rude Awakening

 

Mobile audiences are large and growing. Great. But their monetization is mostly a disaster. The situation will be slow to improve, but the potential is still there — if the right conditions are met.    

This year, a major European newspaper expects to make around €16m in digital advertising revenue. The business is even slightly profitable. But there is a catch: while mobile devices now provide more than 50% of its traffic, advertising revenue from smartphones and tablets will only reach €1m. For this particular company, like many others, mobile advertising doesn’t work. It brings about 5% or 6% of what desktop web ads do — which, already, suffer from a 15 times cut in revenue when compared to print.

Call it a double whammy: Publishers took a severe hit by going digital in a way that compounded commoditization of contents with an endless supply of pages. The result is economically absurd: in a “normal” world, when audiences rise, advertising reaches more people and, as a result, rates rise. At least, that was the rule in the comfy world of print. No such thing in digital media. As many news sites experienced, despite double digit audience growth, CPMs (Cost per Thousand page impressions) actually declined over recent years. Fact is, this sector is much more sensitive to general economic conditions than to its extraordinary large adoption. And as if that wasn’t enough, publishers now take another blow as a growing share of their audience moves to mobile where money hasn’t followed… yet.

Granted, there are exceptions. Nordic media, for instance, benefit from an earlier and stronger mobile adoption (think Nokia and Ericsson, even before smartphones). Supported by many paid-for services, Scandinavian media houses extract a significant amount of profit from mobile. Similarly, Facebook mobile operations are faring quite well. According to the latest TBG Digital report, Click Through Rate (CTR) on ads placed on mobile News Feeds are 23 times higher than those displayed on the desktop version (respectively a CTR of 1.290% vs. 0.049%).

The digital mediasphere is struggling with mobile ads. In June, we went through most of the causes (see Jean-Louis’ note Mobile Advertising: The $20bn Opportunity Mirage). Problem is: there are still few signs of improvement. Inventories are growing, ad creativity remains at a low point (just look at the pixelated ads that plague the bottom of your mobile screens). As you can see below, programmatic buying is on the rise as this low-yield market remains vastly intermediated (click to enlarge):

– Too many middlemen? –

This results in the following eCPMs (effective CPM is the price advertisers are willing to pay for a given audience) as surveyed for different mobile platforms:

iOS iPad........... $0.90-$1.10
iOS iPhone......... $0.70-$0.80
Android Tablet..... $0.60-$0.70
Android Phones..... $0.40-$0.60

Advertising-wise, mobile is mostly a dry hole.

OK. Enough whining. Where do we go from here? What to expect in the next 18 months? How to build upon the inherent (and many) advantages offered by the mobile space?

For rate cards, we have some good news: prices on Android and iOS are converging upward as Android demographics are rising; soon, the two dominant mobile platforms will be in the higher price range. The value of ads is also likely to climb a little as screens gets better and larger, and as bandwidth increases: such improvements will (should) allow more visually attractive, more engaging ads. The ecosystem should also benefit from the trend toward more customized advertising. Ideally, promotional campaigns should be completely integrated and provide a carefully designed continuum within the three digital vectors: desktop web to be viewed at home or at the office; mobile formats for quick reading on the go; and tablet-friendly for a slower, more engaged, lean-back consumption (reading time is five or ten times higher on an iPad than on a PC). But, again, as long as creative agencies or media themselves do not commit adequate resources to such a virtuous chain, the value created will stay dangerously close to zero. (Those players better hurry up as a myriad of agile startups are getting ready to take control of this neglected potential.)

A few more reasons for being bullish on mobile. For instance, the level of personalization has nothing to do with what we see on the PC; a smartphone is not shared; it’s personal; and it’s the best vector to carry an intimate environment in which to create one’s dedicated social interaction system, transactional tools, entertainment selections (games, movies, books, TV series), etc. Mobile devices come with other, high potential features such as geolocation, ability to scan a bar-code — all favoring impulse buying. (This happened to me more than once: In a Paris bookstore, if the only copy left of a book I want is worn-off, or if the salesperson seems annoyed by my mere presence, I quickly scan the bare-code and order it from Amazon on the spot, right from the store. Apparently, I’m not the only one: about 20% of mobile users admitted they scanned a bar-code, or took a picture of a product in a store). And soon, these features will be supplemented by electronic wallet functions. Think about it: which marketeer wouldn’t dreamed of having access to such capabilities?

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

The Internet Split

 

Web sites will soon fall into two categories: high audience low yield, low audience higher yield. Such a divide will impact digital advertising.

This Autumn, whomever you talk to will tell you this: internet advertising yields are taking a dive. CPMs (cost per thousand page views), now down to single digits, keep falling. This you hear on both sides of the Atlantic. Economic conditions, concerns with the level of debt (both private and public), business-hostile tax policies (see Jean-Louis’ Monday Note on French Entrepreneurs Revolt), the upcoming fiscal cliff in the United States, the fragility of the Eurozone are all pointing in the same direction. Even Google’s cash machine is showing weakness.

In such times, advertising budgets are usually the first ones to get the ax. Slowing down an industrial production line can get complicated, but slashing an ad campaign can be done with a mouse click. In the Fall, when everyone struggles with next year’s projections, a marketing director is inevitably tempted to hit the delete key to embellish his/er spreadsheet (remember: we are all short-termists.)

According to ZenithOptimedia’s recent forecasts, Eurozone ad expenditures will end this year in the red: -3.1% overall. But all countries are not equal: Just to illustrate the reactivity of advertising expenditures to economic conditions, consider three regional economies badly impacted by Europe’s downturn:

Italy:       -6.5% in ad spending vs. 2011
Spain:       -12.2%
Portugal:    -12.2%

And just for the sake of it, let’s award a special prize to the Greek economy: its advertising expenditure will be down 33.2% this year and it will be off its 2007 peak by… 63%! This shows how the ad market reacts and amplifies an economic crisis. (For 2013, Zenith predicts +0.9% growth in the Eurozone, but has since it downgraded its entire Western Europe 2012 projections from +0.4% in June to -0.7% in September. As a result, no one seriously believes Zenith’s projection for upcoming year.)

For digital media, such a trend will be the underlying cause of three evolutions:
- A rise in paid-for-performance advertising
- A rise in alternate formats beyond traditional display — for better or worse
- And a split between volume-driven and quality-driven digital properties.
To an extent, the third trend is a consequence of the other two. Let’s give it a closer look.

First, this graph:

A quick disclaimer: To avoid offending anyone, note there is no scale, nor any proportions between media outlets. The point is to map out clusters among various brands, to see who sits where relatively to others.

On the top left part of the chart, high audience but low yield: The Guardian (£40-50m in revenue for a stunning 60+ million uniques visitors), Business Insider, The Huffington Post and TV networks web sites. However, they have different ways of gathering huge audiences: The Guardian does it thanks to its fantastic journalistic machine and its unabated investment in digital (read this interesting story in last summer’s GQ); as for the Huffington Post, it has elevated clicking-techniques to an art.

Business Insider has become a class in itself. In the last two or three years, it drifted from a good tech/business blog to a compilation of eye-grabbing-headlines (a rather profuse one: I counted more than 90 items on BI’s home page this weekend.) Having said that: it remains interesting reading, and its crew sometimes gets scoops. But the entire editing is built on grabbing attention. And it works beautifully, so to speak. Here are some examples of stories and how they score:

12 Long-Dead Brands That Are Ripe For Resurrection:
55,000 views
Stunning Images From The Best Wildlife Photo Competition Of The Year:
78,000 views
19 Chinese White Collar Criminals Who Were Handed The Death Sentence :
104,000 views
There Is Simply No Other Plane In The World Like Air Force One :
650,000+ views
These Pictures May Give You Nightmares About Canada’s Oil Sands :
1.17 million views

Buried deep inside this accumulation of SEO-dreams-come-true items, there are some serious stories, but their scores are paltry:

Here’s The Big Mystery With Google’s $8 Billion Mobile Business :
7000 views
Jeff Bezos: People Who Are Right Are People That Change Their Mind A Lot :
6400 views

Well, you get my point. Again, I’m not judging here. With incredibly hard work, Henry Blodget and his team have built a great franchise, and I’d wish more business sites would learn — just a little bit, say 5% — how to stage business news and catch readers. And to be fair with Business Insider, let’s underline that its must-read 139 slides about The State of the Internet, attracted nearly 5 million viewers in three weeks.

Coming back to the chart above: on the bottom left, web sites like Slate or Salon (there are many others) enjoy strong reputation, loyal readership… but — as unfair as it sounds — tiny ones. On the upper right corner, we have the exception(s), lead by the New York Times: high audience, high ARPU (about $160m-200m in advertising revenue, recently supplemented by a $60-100m in subscription revenue that didn’t exist 15 months earlier.)

Let’s wrap up with advertising formats. Bottom line: ad agencies and their clients will always seek to blur the distinction between editorial and commercial contents. In that respect, the future lies, again, in the Business Insider model, which pushes the envelope pretty far (in my own, probably conservative opinion.) On this weekend’s home page, you can see how BI morphs its editorial team into sales reps with this story : 15 Tips For Getting The Perfect Tailored Suit, an advertorial for a wannabe hip Manhattan tailor. The package looks entirely like news coverage and it comes into two stages. Linked to the We-Give-You-Great-Tips treatment, you get the full monty: The secret suit shop underneath Mazza’s swank Chelsea sports bar, complete with a 20 pics slide-show and a glowing profile of the owners. The two stories gathered more than… 100,000 views (including mine — note that I linked to the stories because I’m pretty sure you’ll click on it…) But it’s pocket change compared to the rather straightforward Here’s Why Peter Luger Is The Best Steakhouse In New York City which collected an amazing 244,000 views. (Business Insider wins on both ends: for the advertorial — Henry, please, don’t tell me you do that for free — and the ads surrounding it.)

With very few exceptions, the editorial independence of lifestyle and consumer sections is now long gone (this includes “respectable” legacy media.) But this obvious violation of the separation between Church and State is bound to percolate into more pernicious “brand content” (see this earlier Monday Note) for more serious subjects than food or clothing. That’s where the credibility issue will set in.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

Google’s Amazing “Surveywall”

 

How Google could reshape online market research and also reinvent micro-payments. 

Eighteen months ago — under non disclosure — Google showed publishers a new transaction system for inexpensive products such as newspaper articles. It worked like this: to gain access to a web site, the user is asked to participate to a short consumer research session. A single question, a set of images leading to a quick choice. Here are examples Google recently made public when launching its Google Consumer Surveys:

Fast, simple and efficient. As long as the question is concise and sharp, it can be anything: pure market research for a packaging or product feature, surveying a specific behavior,  evaluating a service, intention, expectation, you name it.

This caused me to wonder how such a research system could impact digital publishing and how it could benefit web sites.

We’ll start with the big winner: Google, obviously. The giant wins on every side. First, Google’s size and capillarity puts it in a unique position to probe millions of people in a short period of time. Indeed, the more marketeers rely on its system, the more Google gains in reliability, accuracy, granularity (i.e. ability to probe a segment of blue collar-pet owners in Michigan or urbanite coffee-drinkers in London).The bigger it gets, the better it performs. In the process, Google disrupts the market research sector with its customary deflationary hammer. By playing on volumes, automation (no more phone banks), algorithms (as opposed to panels), the search engine is able to drastically cut prices. By 90% compared to  traditional surveys, says Google. Expect $150 for 1500 responses drawn from the general US internet population. Targeting a specific group can cost five times as much.

Second upside for Google: it gets a bird’s eye on all possible subjects of consumer researches. Aggregated, anonymized, recompiled, sliced in every possible way, these multiple datasets further deepen Google’s knowledge of consumers — which is nice for a company that sells advertising. By the way, Google gets paid for research it then aggregates into its own data vault. Each answer collected contributes a smallish amount of revenue; it will be a long while, if ever, before such activity shows in Google’s quarterly results — but the value is not there, it resides in the data the company gets to accumulate.

The marketeers’ food chain should be happy. With the notable exception of those who make a living selling surveys, every company, business unit or department in charge of a product line or a set of services will be able to throw a poll quickly, efficiently and cheaply. Of course, legacy pollsters will argue Google Consumer Surveys are crude, inaccurate. They will be right. For now. Over time the system will refine itself, and Google will have put  a big lock on another market.

What’s in Google’s Consumer Surveys for publishers whose sites will host a surveywall? In theory, the mechanism finally solves the old quest for tiny, friction-free transactions: replace the paid-for zone with a survey-zone through which access is granted after answering a quick question. Needless to say, it can’t be recommended for all sites. We can’t reasonably expect a general news site, not to mention a business news one, to adopt such a scheme. It would immediately irritate the users and somehow taint the content.

But a young audience should be more inclined to accept such a surveywall. Younger surfers will always resist any form of payment for digital information, regardless of quality, usefulness, relevance. Free is the norm. Or its illusion. Young people have already demonstrated their willingness to give up their privacy in exchange for free services such as Facebook — they have yet to realize they paid the hard price, but that’s another subject.
On the contrary, a surveywall would be at least more straightforward, more honest: users gives a split second of their time by clicking on an image or checking a box to access the service (whether it is an article, a video or a specific zone.) The system could even be experienced as fun as long as the question is cleverly put.
Economically, having one survey popping up from time to time — for instance when the user reconnects to a site — makes sense. Viewed from a spreadsheet (I ran simulations with specific sites and varying parameters), it could yield more money than the cheap ads currently in use. This, of course, assumes broad deployment by Google with thousands of market research sessions running at the same time.

A question crosses my mind : how come Facebook didn’t invented the surveywall?

–frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

 

 

Apple Ads Only Samsung Could Love

Over the years, Apple has produced a number of memorable TV commercials. The “1984” Super Bowl spot, with its dystopian noir and portrayal of Big Blue as Big Brother, is arguably the most celebrated commercial ever made. This bit of sixty-second cinema by Ridley Scott (now Sir Ridley) — director of epoch-making films such as The Duellists, Alien, and, my favorite, Blade Runner — was, and still is, mesmerizing. After the ad was screened for the first time at Apple’s Fall 1983 Sales Meeting in Honolulu the crowd sat in stunned silence… for about three seconds.

When Steve Jobs rebooted Apple in 1997, he needed a rallying cry…and he found one that still resonates: Think Different. Richard Dreyfuss narrated the campaign’s “The Crazy Ones” commercial, but there’s another, never-aired version voiced by Jobs that still moves me to tears. (Last year, on the occasion of Jobs’ demise, AdWeek edited the famous commercial and spliced in a smiling picture of the young Steve at the ending, right after the image of the child opening her eyes… )

Then there’s the long and well-loved “I’m A Mac, You’re a PC” series, featuring John Hodgman and Justin Long (the link gives you access to all 66 TV spots of this historic campaign). It’s more than good fun, it’s a great, lasting example of a classic (a polite way of saying apparently “unoriginal”) strategy: Us vs. Them. The ads are brilliant, consistent, cleanly executed with simple, unencumbered visuals and a sly, understated humor. A joy.

Occasionally, Apple’s sense-of-commercial misses the mark, such as in this PowerMac G4 dud that features tanks and a US Army sergeant voice-over. But the missteps have been few; Apple advertising is typically well thought out and well done. Good ideas, near flawless execution.

That brings us to today. Over the past few months, Apple has put out a series of commercials that fall into two categories: a good idea poorly executed, and the great execution of a troubling concept.

First, we have the “Genius” ads. The Apple Store Geniuses provide, undoubtedly, the best tech support in the industry, leading the company’s products to top scores in customer satisfaction surveys. An ad campaign that promotes this advantage while poking subtle fun at the immodesty of the “Genius” designation should have been a straight shot. The idea lends itself to a series of humorous vignettes that end with a relieved customer, a show back on the road, a CEO in distress saved from embarrassment, and so on.

But in practice, as you can see for yourself here, here, and here, the ads fail. The worthy idea is ruined by stories that feel forced and overly cute, the message falls far short of the clarity we expect from Apple’s marketing campaigns… and they’re just not funny. Even the production seems cheap and hurried, right down to continuity problems: A sleeping Genius, garbed in his official blue t-shirt, is roused by a panicked knock on the door and appears a split-second later… with his badge-cum-business card holder now draped around his neck.

The ads were widely panned and, soon, mercifully yanked.

In the more troublesome category, we have the Siri commercials featuring celebrities Zooey Deschanel, Samuel L. Jackson, John Malkovich, and Martin Scorsese. They’re smart and well-produced, they’re flatteringly imitable — and Samsung must love them.

Why?

Because they’re pernicious: They dilute the focus, they detract from Apple products’ own well-deserved and well-earned celebrity.

As a comparison and a template, regard the series of Louis Vuitton ads produced by the great photographer Annie Leibovitz. What, or rather, who do you see? Sean Connery, Catherine Deneuve, Michael Gorbachev, Roger Federer, Keith Richards, Muhammad Ali…

… with a Louis Vuitton bag.

The message is cynical but clear: Our bag is no better than a Gucci or an Hermès, but if you sport our logo, you’ll have something in common with iconic athletes, artists, intellectuals… You, too, can be like Mikhail Gorbachev or Michael Phelps… if only in our accoutrements. (The Annie Leibovitz campaign is pompously called “Core Values” — or, given the roster of subjects, is this unconscious honesty?).

This is an exceedingly well-thought out and executed plan; Louis Vuitton is an astute, superbly managed company, at the top of its game. But what does it say about the iPhone if Apple feels it has to use Louis Vuitton-like tactics to entice consumers?

Until the Siri celebrity campaign, Apple products had always been the focus of Apple marketing. The product is the hero, the ad extolls what it does and how it does it. The recourse to celebrity endorsement sends a new message: The product isn’t strong enough, it needs the propinquity of the famous. And that message becomes even more dangerous because the ads are so slick, so well executed. (The Scorsese ad even includes a sweet visual joke that refers to the director’s 1976 Taxi Driver movie. A nice touch…but it has nothing to do with Apple.)

That’s why Samsung must have an extra reason to smile when they see Ms. Deschanel dance in her pajamas, and that’s why these ads should be yanked and why the celebrity strategy — a first for Apple if memory serves — should be reconsidered.

And, then, at the risk of piling on, there is the product being promoted: Siri.

Doubtless, it works for some people, but how many?

How many give up after a few tries?

I recently asked an Apple insider that very question. The individual thought a moment but couldn’t recall seeing a Siri-using colleague.

There is a difference between a beta product such as a spreadsheet exhibiting annoying but reasonably well-defined bugs — and a beta like Siri that “kind of works” and discourages some users while pleasing others.

I have no doubt Apple has thought out ambitious long term plans for Siri, plans that might unfold in time and make Siri as universally and reliably usable as a other iPhone functions and apps. But, for the time being, besides their feeble Vuitton-like recourse to celebrities, the slick Siri ads could be perceived as misleading. Another reason to shelve them.

As for the Genius campaign: Fire the ad agency, but keep the concept. Press the reset button, keep the message, rewrite the ads. The idea has potential for a series of effective and fun ads.

JLG@mondaynote.com