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I was talking to the founders of Zintin recently about their iPhone app. Although they had initially expected their dominant usecase to be “keep in touch with your friends”, it rapidly became “meet nearby people”. The Zintin team did a great job of rolling with their users and evolving their product development towards the dominant use case, rather than treating it as a “user error” problem.

It reminded me of this great quote from one of the founders of IMVU, Eric Reis:

In our first year at IMVU, we thought we were building a 3D avatar chat product. It was only when we asked random people we brought in for usability tests “who do you think of as our competitors?” that we learned different. As product people, we thought of competition in terms of features. So the natural comparison, we thought, would be to other 3D avatar based products, like The Sims and World of Warcraft. But the early customers all compared it to MySpace. This was 2004, and we had never even heard of MySpace, let alone had any understanding of social networking. It required hearing customers say it over and over again for us to take a serious look, and eventually to realize that social networking was core to our business.

The moral of this story, if you disagree with your users about what your product is for, then you are wrong and your users are right. There is no such thing as “user error”.

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As I have mentioned previously, we are entering an overall advertising recession and even online advertising growth has slowed. Notes the LA Times in August:

“Advertisers have pulled back in a pretty meaningful way, and display is feeling the brunt of it,” said Clay Moran, a Stanford Group analyst who recently wrote a research report called “Online Advertising: caution required.”

In recent weeks:

* Yahoo Inc. Chief Executive Jerry Yang told analysts that demand for display advertising was “softening.”

* Online publisher Tech Target Inc. lowered its third-quarter forecast, blaming “macroeconomic weakness in the U.S. and its impact on advertising spending.”

* Lending site Bankrate Inc. cut its 2008 guidance. CEO Thomas Evans explained that the company had “continued to experience softness in display advertising from several of our largest financial advertisers.”

* Ad network ValueClick Inc., based in Westlake Village, blamed the economy for a slowdown in display advertising, which led to a 6% drop in its second-quarter profit.

What does this mean for startups? When advertising budgets dry up, three things happen:


    1. Advertisers buy what they know

This has two implications. The first is simply brand recognition. It is much easier to make the case to buy media on a well known site. As a result, scale matters. The leaders in both web 1.0 (AOL, Yahoo, Cnet etc) and web 2.0 (Facebook, Myspace, Rockyou*, Digg etc) will continue to see high demand for their advertising inventory.

As the web 1.0 leaders are already at scale, they may see greater negative effects from the overall market, but there will continue to be a strong core of demand. Many of the web 2.0 companies have grown out their traffic and brand in advance of their sales forces, so they may be able to ride the growth of their sales teams to better mitigate the market effects.

But being big (5m+ UU/mth), and a leader in your category, will help a lot.

The second implication is that advertisers will continue to buy advertising against targeted content. Advertisers are used to buying content adjacencies. Targeting against users (whether behavioral or demographic targeting) can’t be counted on to lift CPMs in the next couple of years.

Sites with highly targeted content that attracts endemic advertisers (Flixster*, iLike, Streetfire.net* etc) or demographic clusters (TMZ, PopSugar, AskMen etc) will be better off than broad reach sites.


    2. Experimental budgets are the first to get cut.

In an ad recession, advertisers appetite for experimentation is low. They like to stick to the established ad standards. New forms of advertising are hard. Startups whose sales processes feel more like business development than selling off of a rate card may have a tougher time.

Companies selling standard ad units will weather the recession better than those that have unique ad units.

    3. Marketers keep funding direct response advertising.

The brightest spot in an ad recession is direct response. As Ad Age notes:

Many analysts now agree that when marketing budgets come under pressure in a stressed economy, those sectors that can best document their connection to ROI, such as search-engine advertising, are far more attractive to corporate chiefs than other kinds of less-trackable traditional advertising.

Direct marketers will continue to spend to acquire customers if that spend can be directly tracked to a sale. Lead gen companies (Quinn Street, Tippit*, LowerMyBills etc) will hold up better, as will companies with CPC and CPA models (Google, TripAdvisor, $uperRewards, etc). However, they may also be affected if the overall number of people “in market” goes down, or prospective buyers become less likely to buy, due to the overall economy slowing down.

Who will have it toughest? Sites that are sub scale (<1m UU month), with no targeted content AND selling custom ad units are going to have to work the hardest over the next few years. Great teams always find a way, but the road may be long and hard.

What are your thoughts as to what sort of online media companies will survive the ad recession best?

UPDATE: WSJ also finds that experimental budgets are getting cut

FURTHER UPDATE: Which companies might benefit from an online ad recession?

* Rockyou, Flixster, Streetfire.net and Tippit are Lightspeed Portfolio companies.

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The online ad market is not immune to the overall advertising recession, and growth has slowed. Many online media companies and ad networks are counting on targeting to help lift CPMs.

But Julie Ruvolo reports from the Adweek conference last week that media buyers are still hesitant about highly targeted ad campaigns:

In the traditional media-buying paradigm, advertisers buy audiences by buying content. Coca-Cola sponsors American Idol, Nissan sponsors Heroes, and so forth. But social media, ad networks, and especially behavioral ad networks, are chipping away at the “content as a proxy” mentality and positing that ads can be as or more effective if they’re tied directly to people and not to content…

But for all the talk it’s garnering, media buyers remain hesitant about jumping on the addressability band-wagon for several reasons.

First, while agencies are opening up to a more data-centric approach, operational challenges abound. One of the key issues is that it’s easier to buy a national TV ad than to set up and constantly manage a million-word AdSense campaign, or develop video creative for hundreds of demographics instead of one broad demographic…

Further, advertisers are struggling with the sheer volume and sophistication of data available to them. As digital marketing agency Avenue A’s Andy Fisher said, “We’re drowning in data.” …

We can talk all day about how wonderful digital media is, how addressable and trackable and cheap the media is, but the reality is that there’s a decades-long and multi-billion-dollar symbiosis between the ad industry and the TV industry. It’s going to take more than superior product, logic and efficiency to supplant that relationship.

I think Ruvolo is right.

Online advertising has typically been sold in one of three ways:

1. Endemic advertising targeted against relevant content, typically commanding double digit CPMs. An example would be selling movie advertising against Flixster (a Lightspeed portfolio company).
2. Demographically targeted advertising, typically targeted against relevant content, typically commanding low single digit CPMs. An example would be selling a “women” demo against TMZ.
3. Broad reach inventory, typically commanding $1 or below CPMs. An example would be a selling Yahoo email inventory.

Advertisers are comfortable with buying advertising against content adjacencies.

There are four flavors of ad targeting popular today:

1. Geographic
2. Demographic
3. Contextual
4. Behavioral

Through demographic and behavioral targeting, online media companies are asking advertisers to follow the user instead of following the content:

But, online ads should follow users and communities, since users are the ones to decide what content they want to put where, says David Carlick, Managing Director at Vantage Point Venture Partners.

“[I] say no, now you [the advertiser] are sponsoring the consumer—not the content online, but what they want to do online. If they want to go on MySpace and look at half-naked drunk photos, who are you to say that’s not good for my brand? You need to go where the people are and sponsor what they do, and not attach yourself to the 5% of content that looks like TV.”

Or as Jeff Jarvis says:

That’s [buying content adjacencies] still treating us like a mass. That’s still about lazy advertisers who want to buy upfront and don’t want to converse with us as individuals or at least communities. We need advertisers’ money; that will be the primary support of online media. But we need to both retrain them and give them the infrastructure and data to enable them to market smarter and create meaningful relationships — and, in the process, support small instead of big.

In my experience, when the guys with the money [advertisers] want to do things one way, and the guys who want the money [media companies] want to do things another way, then it is usually the guys with the money who walk away happy.

Behavioral and demographic targeting to the user level will likely have success with direct response advertisers who can readily measure and potential lift in response rates. But brand advertisers will want to continue doing business the way they are used to doing business. Furthermore, an advertising recession is not going to be an easy time to “retrain” advertisers. Content adjacencies will likely be the way most brand advertising is sold for the next couple of years at least.

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An entrepreneur asked me recently if I was concerned about the impact the credit crunch will have on venture financing for startups. I responded:

For high quality companies, the short answer is no. The more nuanced answer is that

(i)

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Neilsen Mobile recently reported on US 2008 Q2 mobile phone usage. They find that the number of calls made per month averages 204 across all users but does not vary all that much with age between 13-54:

On the …

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Virtual Worlds News noted last week that:

PayByCash announced … that over 50% of its US transactions were coming from its Ultimate Game Card, a prepaid card that supports over 150 virtual worlds and games, like Club Penguin, Nexon America,

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Arctic Startup, quoting an article written in Finnish at Kauppelehti, the leading business magazine in Finland says:

The Helsinki based virtual goods operator Sulake saw a profitable first half in 2008. According to Kauppalehti, net profits were around

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Marketing Sherpa notes seven design elements to add to your banner ads to increase click through rates from 25-50%:

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Last year I noted how the “performance” aspects of social networks was moving more birthday wishes from private communication channels (e.g. email) to public ones (e.g. Facebook wall posts). This year, the trend is even more pronounced if my …

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At AGDC last week Bioware’s Damion Schubert spoke about end-game design in MMOs. Massively notes:

Endgame gameplay, elder gameplay, is a mandatory and compelling part of the genre’s equation. In fact, in Damion’s opinion complex elder gameplay exemplifies what makes

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