Why is this particular mobile vertical monetizing so well?
Firstly, there are billions of mobile gamers. And where there’s an audience of that magnitude, brands will follow. And where brands want to spend lots of money on digital media, tech startups will deliver the right advertising product to help them do it.
Now to recap, the right advertising product on mobile IS NOT banner ads.
Instead, the right advertising product on mobile is IS native ads.
A good native ad on mobile adds to the users’ experience. It delivers relevant branded content that users enjoy interacting with. And that leads to authentic engagement with the advertiser, which delivers the requisite ROI.
So it’s no surprise that mobile gaming’s massive audience has driven innovation in native advertising products, which are helping brands in very effective ways.
Forward-thinking ad tech companies like MediaBrix and Kiip have figured out how to “monetize the emotional moments” in games. For example, they’ll help position the brand as a hero to a gamer who might want to “level up” instantly or “save a life”, or needs a virtual “high five” for completing a new highest score – and can now do so by watching a well placed branded video at an appropriate point the game flow. Brands are lapping this up, meaning mobile gaming publishers who show these ads, like Zynga, are making hay.
But by definition, native ads have to be “native” to the underlying content. So an effective native ad in gaming can’t easily be applied to other verticals which might have completely different content types.
Said another way, different verticals with huge user numbers that brands want to engage with will need different native ad formats to be well monetized.
Photos will be the next mobile vertical that is well monetized.
Like the gaming vertical, mobile photos’ massive audience means brands want to engage that audience in effective ways. And innovative, vertical specific native advertising products are beginning to emerge.
— Instagram showed off some gorgeous looking native ads for photos today. Remember: a good native ad on mobile adds to the users’ experience. The predominant user experience on Instagram is to consume content in the stream. So Instagram’s native ad product pushes branded content into the stream that users will enjoy interacting with.
(It’s the visual equivalent of the Promoted Tweet. I’m not sure why Twitter haven’t already rolled out the same product via Cards, but hey).
— At Aviary, we have our own spin on gorgeous native ads for photos. The predominant user experience on Aviary is to create content (often to share on social networks like Instagram). So Aviary’s native ad product places brands right at the center of that content creation experience – by offering branded photo filters, frames and stickers that people can get creative with to make their photos look amazing. We soft-launched the program with Gap and Atlantic Records in April. Even in careful test mode since then, we’ve delivered over 50 million minutes of brand engagement. Full launch is imminent…
— Meanwhile, Snap Chat is developing their own spin on native ads for photos. The predominant user experience on Snap Chat is less about creation or consumption of gorgeous photos, and more about unfiltered visual communication between millions of people. Brands like Taco Bell are very effectively blasting that audience with ads – in a totally native way. The potential here is awesome.
So. Photos will be the next mobile vertical that is well monetized. There are literally billions of mobile photographers. Big brands need to engage that huge audience. And that has driven innovative tech startups like Instagram, Aviary and Snap Chat to deliver the right native advertising product to help them do it.
The obvious question from an investor’s or an entrepreneur’s perspective then is: what’s next?
Charts like this one from Flurry are helpful to show what mobile verticals are picking up massive audiences… which point to where brands need to be… which indicates where there will soon be demand for amazing native ad products that work in those verticals. If I wanted to take a big risk, I’d be betting or building right there right now. But if I wanted to back a sure thing, I’ll be looking at Instagram, Aviary and Snapchat for a while yet ;-)
— Meanwhile Twitter bought MoPub for a rumored $350m. MoPub is a leader in programmatic mobile advertising. Twitter is a leader in native advertising, with products like Promoted Tweets. Combine the two and you get programmatic mobile native ads at real scale. That’s exciting. Add a location element to that, and you could deliver online-to-offline targeted mobile advertising (as I’ve written about here), which to many is the holy grail.
— Meanwhile, at Aviary HQ, we delivered the latest post-campaign report to another happy client of Aviary’s native ad model for mobile photos. We work collaboratively with clever brands to deliver branded content (like photo filters, and stickers) to our 64 Million MAUs, who engage with the content in creative ways as a natural part of their photo editing experience. We soft-launched the program with Gap and Atlantic Records in April. Even in careful test mode since then, we’ve delivered over 50 million minutes of brand engagement. Full launch is imminent…
Mobile advertising is dead. Long live mobile advertising. The native kind.
Thanks John! And I hope Aviary does you proud at OpenCo.
I’ve never met John Battelle, though I owe a lot of my career to him.
Let’s rewind… I was at Cardiff University, finishing my PhD in the school of Civil Engineering, as the consumer web started taking off in the mid-90s. I fell in love immediately, and co-founded a “portal” (remember those?!) with some college mates. We didn’t know what we were doing, and neither did anyone else around us. The Welsh Valleys weren’t exactly Silicon Valley. There were no VCs. Instead, we got a GBP 7,000 grant from The Prince’s Trust, which bought exactly two desktop computers. There were no “meet ups” or “open coffees” to learn from others. In fact, apart from the bloke who set up a cyber cafe in the city center, I don’t think anyone else knew what the internet was. And there we’re no developers to hire. Luckily my flat mates (Physics PhDs) knew how to program, as did I. My PhD involved applying Machine Learning techniques to solve Civil Engineering problems, and I taught myself to code to get there. So between us we learnt html by copying sites we liked (thank you View->Source on Netscape browsers!) and got busy creating static web pages. Needless to say, we didn’t get very far.
So I moved to London, and eventually joined a company called Net Decisions in 1999. ND was a boutique consulting firm, specializing in e-commerce. There I finally learnt how to succeed with Internet 1.0 businesses. But when that first consumer web bubble burst, Net Decisions switched focus to Enterprise IT – and so did I. Cutting a long story short (via a detour to run an offshore software development center in India), I ended up in NYC selling speech recognition software to call centers. Bored out of my brains mid-way through 2005, a friend recommended I read John Battelle’s “Search” … which I did… and a whole new world opened up for me.
Suddenly I saw the potential of big-thinking technology ideas, and how they could impact millions of consumers across the globe. Suddenly I saw that my Machine Learning knowledge could be applied to “big data” problems at internet scale (though those terms weren’t in common parlance then). And suddenly I realized I could not only read The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine and “get” it, but I could also re-write the search algos if I wanted to.
As it happens, I over estimated that last bit. As a self-taught programmer who’d hadn’t programmed for 5 years, I wasn’t going to cut it as a professional developer. But I knew how to sell, and parlayed that into a BD role at a company called Me.dium in Boulder, Colorado. Me.dium (awkward period intentional - it was all the rage back then ;-) provided a realtime social overlay to the internet. Essentially, you could hang out with your friends online. Which presented another problem for me. Since my switch to Enterprise IT, I hadn’t paid much attention the consumer web, and was intellectually miles behind the thought leaders of what was by then known as “web 2.0”. This is where John helped me again…
I turned up to his now sadly defunct Web 2.0 Conference. It was the year that Twitter “broke” at SxSw, but still very early days. MySpace was hot, Facebook still required a .edu email address to register. And at the conference I listened intently as folks like David Hornick delivered master-classes on new topics like “going viral”. Personally, it was a transformative event. It got my brain in gear. We ended up pivoting Me.dium into OneRiot – a search engine that re-ranked search results based on current trends across the social web. I still couldn’t code the algo, but I cheekily wrote our version of “The Anatomy of…” titled “The Inner Workings Of A Realtime Search Engine”.
Next, we had to figure out how to monetize. So I started reading more of John’s work. He was now preaching how brands had to become publishers to stay relevant in the era of the realtime social web. I figured that if we were about to witness an explosion of branded content, as brands sought to stay relevant in realtime, then there should be an “ad-sense” which promoted that branded content to users querying realtime-relevant search engines like OneRiot. By now, I was CEO, and we ended up focusing the whole company on this model. Cutting, another (very) long story short, we ended up being bought by Walmart. So John, a guy who I’ve never met (though who I now email with occasionally), helped me with an exit too ;-)
I probably won’t get to meet John this week either, and that’s fine (I expect he’ll be pretty busy!). But I feel like I owe him a couple of big ones at this point. So let’s hope, as a starter, we can deliver a great session on Thursday. Please come!
Native ads, in the context of a massive amount of mobile photos
This year over 500 billion photos will be taken worldwide, and nearly half of them will be taken on smart phones. Considering that all those mobile photos can be shared widely across text messages, group messages, social networks, blogs and more, it’s clear that mobile photography is massive.
So what opportunities do brands have to tap into all this mobile activity?
Brand engagement on mobile has been a difficult case to crack. Because of the intimate place mobile has in peoples’ lives, it’s important that any kind of mobile advertising feels “harmonious”. As I blogged about previously, this means native and additive to the users’ experience, not interruptive and out-of-context like a banner ad would be.
For the past few months, we have been quietly testing and iterating our own version of “harmonious” mobile advertising at Aviary.
To Aviary – as the world’s favorite mobile photo editing platform – a great native advertising offering has to:
Help brands engage authentically in the mobile photo workflow
In a way that harmoniously adds value to tens of millions of end-users across our partner network
And brings the necessary brand engagement to deliver ROI
We’ve been fortunate to work with some of the biggest brand names during our testing phase, including Red Bull, H&M and Atlantic Records. For these brands, we’ve created harmonious, native, branded experiences that users appear to love.
You can see the results of a recent campaign for Atlantic Records by searching Twitter or Instagram for “#EvilFriends”.
Branded Sticker Pack in Aviary’s Photo Editing app, and a search page for “#EvilFriends” in Instagram
To support Atlantic Records’s goal to build excitement around the upcoming launch of Portugal The Man’s new album, Aviary collaborated with the band to design a sticker pack that put their distinct creative aesthetic in the hands of their fans. Millions of music-loving mobile photographers created their own “evil friends” – then shared their work on social networks. The results are highly creative, and the engagement very obvious.
Equally important during this exploratory phase is that we’ve been collaborating with a select set of Aviary partners, who have integrated our SDK into their apps and offer their users photo editing capability through our standard UI. We now have over 4,000 partners - and a number have been working closely with us, testing to ensure that these new native advertising experiences work well for different types of users – from PicStich’s creative collagers to Tango’s social IMers. The conclusion is: they do.
This is critically important, because it give Aviary the scale that advertisers want (and we can generate revenue for our partners).
Native ads by their very definition are native to a particular service. If you’re Twitter, you can show your native ads (promoted Tweets) to your 200MM users and give advertisers the scale they need. But if you’re, for example, Path, recently on a rocket ride but still “only” at 10MM users, a native ad play would be hard because of that relative lack of scale. With the Aviary SDK providing a standard UX/UI across thousands of apps and reaching 45MM MAUs today (and growing at a ridiculous rate), we can deliver a native ad experience at scale – in a distributed fashion, across many apps. Essentially, we’ve now got a huge “visual mobile native ad network” (with apologies for the buzz-words!). That means big brands like Gap can come in and reach tens of millions of consumers – as they did recently with a triple play of branded Filters, Stickers and Frames to support their collaboration with Diane Von Furstenberg on a new line of children’s clothes.
Gap/DvF Sticker Pack in Aviary, and across Aviary Partner apps, enabling Gap to reach millions of mobile photographers.
Exciting times – but definitely still early days. We’ll have a lot more to share in the coming weeks and months.
To me, it’s paid-for content that looks and feels like organic content, and can be engaged with (commented on, shared, etc) in exactly the same way. A Promoted Tweet is the best example – it looks and feels like a Tweet, can be retweeted, @replied, fave’d, but it’s been paid for.
Said more succinctly, a good Native Ad should add to the users’ experience. It should deliver additional content that users enjoy interacting with - leading to authentic engagement with the brand advertiser, which delivers the ROI required.
On the conference panel, David Shing of AOL described this as “Harmonious advertising”. It’s a neat term – you have believe that an ad which is “harmonious” with the underlying consumer service has to be better received by end-users, and it follows that it should deliver better performance.
This take-over ad for Billionaire.com is far from harmonious - it’s just plain obnoxious. It completely covers the content I’m looking for, there is no “X” to close it, and every pixel on the ad unit clicks through to the advertiser’s website, which is full of content about what luxury yacht I might want to buy next summer – i.e. it’s completely mis-targeted to boot. (Though at least it’s not as offensive as the Equinox ad in the bottom right. #FFS)
No wonder users “hate ads”. More specifically, they hate traditional, interruptive, banner and take-over advertising. And that shows - with industry-standard click through rates hovering around 0.something percent. (Compare that to 3-5% engagement on Twitter ads).
Kim-Mai has a great sense of the monetization momentum that successful social / messaging apps are now beginning to enjoy – driven by “native” business models, not just from Twitter but also from Asian powerhouses like Line App (by NHN).
When talking about monetization for MessageMe, Arjun says: “We really don’t want to focus on advertising. We don’t want to be focused on moving users out of the experience”. Said another way, we don’t want interruptive, obnoxious ads - otherwise users get annoyed and quickly move on to a new app. Monetization, especially in mobile, has to be native and additive to the experience.
At Aviary we’ve been thinking a lot about native ads in the context of mobile visual communication. Can you bring brand dollars into the equation in a way that enhances the user experience and delivers authentic, impactful brand engagement? In other words, can you do this “harmoniously”? The answer is: yes. And I’m looking forward to talking more about some of our initial findings in the weeks and months to come, as we continue to experiment in our own apps and those of close partners like Tango.
iWatch is coming. Google Glass is coming. “Mobile” is moving from the 5 inch mini computer in your pocket towards the world of wearable technology - and fast.
How will the mobile devs of today translate their services to these new platforms? Or will consumer demand mean they have to develop entirely new ones - leveraging native capabilities that enable new and unique user experiences. And can devs do this while keeping their “legacy” products (e.g. iPhone apps) alive?
Maybe an entirely different community of devs will emerge to take advantage of the new new thing, just as the iphone left old-skool web devs eating dust (initially) and breathed new life into previously marginalized (by market size opportunity) Mac OS devs.
I haven’t felt this excited about a paradigm shift since i built my first m-commerce site in the year 2000. It was a cheap flights finder, built for Nokia WAP browsers. It was clunky as fuck, but you could tell this was going to be “da future”.
A lot of devs who jumped to mobile around that time got stuck in the mud of J2ME and all that jazz. That initial wave of “mobile” took 10 years to hit mass market, and a lot of those early devs hit the rocks of changing technologies before you could make much money. However, this next wave is coming at us much, much faster. If i was a dev, i’d be jumping with confidence right about now…
I joined Aviary today as the company’s CEO, and I couldn’t be more excited. Here’s why:
Aviary has built the best SDK for photo editing, sharing and monetization. More than 2,500 developers already use that SDK in apps across mobile, tablet and web. In November, Aviary saw 25m unique end users across that developer network. On Thanksgiving Day alone, Aviary’s technology helped edit and share more than 15m photos. Meanwhile the company has just topped 2bn total photos edited (up from 1bn as reported in September).
Those are big numbers, showing significant growth, and indicating real traction. Partners like Flickr, MailChimp and Walgreens agree, having integrated Aviary into their offerings. Last week, Twitter joined that roll call. Likewise, Aviary is the go-to photo platform partner for many and varied indie devs, including Muzy, Palringo and Recipe Search.
When you get to know the company, it’s easy to see how they got to this position. A) the team that’s been put together to date is awesome and B) the core product rocks. If you’re a developer, and you’re thinking “photos”, you’re likely thinking “Aviary”.
For about a year, I’ve been talking with Aviary’s co-founders Avi and Iz about the B2B direction they’ve been taking their company. We’ve always clicked as people, and I love their big vision of democratizing creativity. Likewise we’ve talked for days about the business potential, especially in the context of a mobile photo space that already seems huge but is really only just getting started.
Last month, they asked me to join the company. Through our conversations, it became apparent that some of the experiences I’ve been through and the lessons I’ve learned in my career – especially when CEO of OneRiot – would complement Avi and Iz’s strengths as they sought to scale their business and better serve their developer community.
One of the hardest decisions startup founders can ever make is to bring in an outside CEO. The fact that Avi and Iz were so clear on why they wanted to do that now was very impressive and compelling. In addition, having Mo Koyfman from Spark Capital as Aviary’s lead investor was also a plus. Spark was the lead in OneRiot. They, like me, see the benefit in getting the band back together.
So here we are: Avi, Iz, me, a very talented flock at Aviary’s NYC HQ, and a board full of brain power, ready to help our developer community create and monetize the best photo apps possible for their users, while taking this company to the next level and beyond.
The Aviary team celebrates the Twitter Photos launch
As I said, I couldn’t be more excited. I feel very fortunate to be joining such a top team who’ve created a great product that is loved by so many developers and photo takers around the world. Now… it’s time to get to work.
Just got acquired? 10 adjustments to make when working for a Big Co.
I just left Walmart.
I arrived in September 2011 as part of the transaction that saw OneRiot acquired by the world’s largest retailer.
We had some clever technology for targeting relevant content at mobile consumers based on their social signals, not to mention a super-smart team of Big Data devs and Machine Learning PhDs. Meanwhile, Walmart was beginning to realize that social and mobile would change not just e-commerce but commerce period. So they got busy buying up a number of startups in the space (OneRiot, Kosmix, Set Direction, Small Society, and more) to help them figure it out. Together, we would be referred to as “@WalmartLabs”.
It was Walmart’s way of dealing with Innovators Dilemma - and it’s working. In the last 12 months @WalmartLabs, often working in conjunction with more established teams across the wider Walmart world, have built search engines incorporating social signals that improve sales conversion by 15%; m-commerce experiences that account for 40% of online holiday traffic; and truly innovative apps to help shoppers while they’re in the store – not just embracing show-rooming (the very thing most physical retailers are scared of) but positively encouraging it, based on the confident belief that Walmart will have “everyday low price”.
There’s a whole book to be written on what Walmart is pulling off here – innovating on the edge while building upon 50 year-old beliefs. (This Fast Company article is a good start). Whatever you think of Walmart, it’s mighty impressive to see this done at real scale. However, that’s for another time. This post is focused much more on the individual. Specifically the individual from a startup who gets acquired by a Big Co. Hopefully it will be useful if that ever happens to you.
I’ve met a lot of startup people this year who were acquired, and talked with them about their experiences while trying to execute in their new Big Co. There’s a lot of overlap in lessons learned – whether they were bought by a Walmart (millions of employees), a Google (tens of thousands) or a Facebook (thousands). Guess what? It’s different than a startup. Here are some tips to survive – and hopefully thrive.
(A big hat-tip to Dion Almaer who helped me think though this list.)
1 - Develop patience. It’s a virtue. (And pushing multiple initiatives is the only way to maintain sanity.) In a startup, you can have an idea while brushing your teeth in the morning and it’s in market that afternoon. If it doesn’t work, you just roll it back – easy. It’s not like that in a Big Co, for a bunch of reasons – many very valid. In Walmart IT circles, there’s a saying that goes something like: “the ‘one in a million’ happens 15 times a day at Walmart scale”. In other words, if there’s the smallest chance that something you push is not 100% perfect, your customers are going to have issues multiple times everyday. And if they’re biggies, that could cost you millions of dollars in lost revenue – which is unacceptable. You have to take the time to get it right. So it follows that things you think should be banged out in a week can often take a month, and initiatives you think could be in market this quarter can often take a year to fully realize – especially if they touch multiple parts of various other business systems and processes. Understanding that reality, and working with it, is the key to avoid frustration. So rather than kicking off one single initiative, and possibly waiting around for a year to see it finally being used by customers, you can kick off several things and pace them in parallel. Individually, they might all be going “slower” than you’re used to in startup land, but in aggregate they’ll keep you busy and deliver a big impact when they finally pop.
2 - Learn to love “Alignment”. Achieving it will become a big part of your job. In the physical retail world, it’s often said that the three most important things are location, location and location. When trying to get something done in a Big Co, the three most important things are alignment, alignment and alignment. No matter how small or isolated you think your particular initiative is, there’s a good chance that it’s going to impact someone else’s – possibly in a part of the business you’ve never even contemplated before. And it might also be true that someone else is already working on something related (or worse, working on something conflicting). Getting alignment upfront is the key to avoiding frustration with other folks downstream, and reducing the risk of someone somewhere executing expensive, redundant work. But getting that alignment in a Big Co takes patience, time, and a whole lot of repetitive, consistent communication. At OneRiot, we use to do a whole-company standup meeting every Friday morning to make sure we were all on the same page. But we only had 20 people. That doesn’t scale when you have 2 million employees like Walmart. But you still need the same level of alignment to avoid tripping yourselves up. Just prepare for that to take time, and commit to making it happen. (One technique I used was actually borrowed from my startup days: a monthly “board meeting" for my products.)
3 - Understand the Mission Statement. Mission Statements are often derided for being vacuous or disconnected with what the company is actually doing for its customers in the real world. But when you’ve got a good one, it can act as THE reference point for every decision that’s made. Think about “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. If you are working at Google, whether you’re setting top-level strategy or committing a single line of code, if you’re doing something that helps “organize the world’s information…” then you know you’re probably doing the right thing. You can proceed quickly and with confidence. A good Mission Statement can be very powerful in a Big Co – as a means to speed up decision making while keeping everyone on the same page. At Walmart, the mission is to “save people money so they can live better”. If a new search engine could better surface the best deals for customers, let’s do it. If a new mobile app meant parents could get home-delivery of weekly groceries, saving them a couple of hours dragging two toddlers around a supermarket, then let’s do it. The mission statement wasn’t “let’s build some cool shit and throw it at the wall to see what sticks”. It was very much focused on price-conscious customer retention and loyalty, which in turn set the tone for new customer acquisition and additional growth. Understanding that – and making sure that your new ideas, initiatives and projects line up with that mission – can be key to quickly getting all the support you need to deliver something that will be met with success in the market.
4 - Seek out the brilliant people in other departments, and learn from them. It’s probably true that Big Co got big because they know what they’re doing. (Maybe not in every department, but certainly in their core business.) And they know what they’re doing because the people there know their shit. Working in a Big Co is a fantastic opportunity to seek out these folks, and to learn from them. Often they will come from different worlds to the one you inhabit (e.g. Walmart is brimming with brilliant operators and merchandisers – something I wouldn’t come across while deciphering social signals all day long at OneRiot). And while it’s often interesting to talk about specific details of their job, it’s always really fascinating to hear these people’s bigger picture insights on topics like “how do you execute at massive scale?” or “what triggered the fastest growth spurt you’ve ever seen at this company?” It’s great to spot patterns and parallels in their answers that can help back in “your world”. To get the most out of this, a friend who got acquired by Cisco gave me the idea of doing “200 breakfasts” in a year. That’s practically a breakfast every workday with someone from around the organization who you could learn from. I don’t think I quite hit 200, but I definitely absorbed lessons from a great many people who’ve had fabulous and successful careers in complete different fields to mine. I feel much richer for that experience.
5 - Understand, and revel in, the scale. The scale of Big Co might be a reason why things can go slow (you need lots of alignment, the one-in-million is always around the corner, etc, etc). But if you wrap your head around it, you can also leverage that scale to achieve some crazy things. Consider my tiny slice of the Walmart world… I was working on mobile initiatives for non-US markets. With a small scrappy team, we launched 5 mobile apps in 9 months for the UK, and took that market from a standing start to 50% of typical weekly global mobile revenue. We achieved that not only by building quality products, but by leveraging the organization’s massive scale to distribute our products to acquire highly active customers at staggering rates. Likewise, my colleagues in the mobile team focused on the US delivered some incredible stuff this year – including innovations like smart phone-based self-checkout and amazing user experiences to help crush Black Friday. The scale of what we achieved this year might be “normal” to many folks in Big Cos, but it was eye-poppingly enjoyable for me.
6 - Realize that you’re sometimes at war with other departments, not just your competitors. In startup land, everyone is in it together. You’re busting your collective guts to make sure your company wins – end of story. In a Big Co, that might not be true all the time. A friend who was acquired by Microsoft put it well: “in a startup, you’re at war with your competitors. At Microsoft, I was often at war with other departments”. Microsoft’s woes here are well documented, but I found a flavor of that sentiment in talking to everyone who’d been acquired by a Big Co this year, whatever company they landed at. You might be at war for budget, for resource, for senior management mindshare, or because your boss wants to annex other parts of the business and build an empire. There will be politics, perhaps hostility, and certainly lots of posturing and positioning. For many startup folks, that’s completely alien. But those are the rules of the game. If you think you’re going to build a long career at Big Co, then it’s best to jump in, learn the rules and start playing. If you’re happy staying on the sidelines (“I’m keeping my head down, just doing my job”) then that’s fine – but accept that you will likely be always on the sidelines. Thankfully, I saw a few folks learn to use their political powers for good – it was heartwarming, like watching the Rebel Alliance strike back.
7 - Get the highest-ranking job title you can. It impacts the speed with which you can execute. Startups tend to be mercifully free of much hierarchy. The first tech company I worked for had few role titles internally. But the founder knew that titles were important “signals” to the outside world we were doing business with. So we were given license to call ourselves whatever we needed to get the next sales meeting. I can remember being told: “if you need to be the VP of Intergalactic Importance to get the meeting, then you are now VP of Intergalactic Importance. Just get the bloody meeting!” I’ve always adopted that approach in startups - but it seems a different approach is required in Big Cos. In a Big Co, where many initiatives can be cross-department, or even cross-continent, you’ll often need to connect and communicate with folks you don’t know and who don’t know you. In that case, it helps speed up the process if you really are VP of Intergalactic Importance. That signal – your title – tends to inform other people’s speed (or even willingness) to respond. And, unlike in startup land, you can’t make it up. You and your title are “in the system” – easy to look up, and easy to be bumped down someone’s priority list if the signal isn’t strong enough. This can result in some infuriating, time-wasting behavior – for example, bringing more senior folks into a meeting, simply to ensure that the meeting takes place. But if you get the right title, you can navigate the organization fluently, and easily exert influence in all the right places to get your initiatives out the door. That title also helps information flow to you as well. For example, email distros for “VPs and above” might contain info that helps you understand what’s going on in other parts of the organisation, giving you a broader appreciation of business dynamics and where you can contribute most. If you’re not on that list, you’ll struggle to get that insight. In summary: if you are about to be acquired by a Big Co, fight for the highest title you can – walk in the door with the strongest signal that you’re here to execute and have the authority to do so.
8 - Accept that certain things in your workday are going to suck, or else everything will suck. Assuming you have a decent role, on a decent project, and are generally happy with what you have to deliver day-to-day, there’s still a lot of stuff around the edges of your workday that is going to suck. You’re on a Mac using Chrome, but the timesheet system will only work on a PC with IE. Security systems make working remotely difficult. Impenetrable Travel and Expenses policies mean you just let receipts pile up on your desk unclaimed. Etc, etc, etc. The easy flow of working at your Google Apps-oriented startup could well be replaced by a bureaucratic grind supported by ancient, creaking systems. But none of that matters. At least it shouldn’t. More to the point, you’re unlikely to change it – so don’t fight it. I’ve seen many people lose much energy rallying against the system and process, to the point where they lose sight of why they’re there in the first place. It’s better to simply focus on what you’re there to deliver, and make that fun. Ignore the sideshows.
9 - Don’t forget who you are. At the end of the day, that’s why you were bought. On my first day at Walmart, I was pulled aside by a very senior executive who told me: “We’re going to teach you a lot of new things while you’re here. But we’re also going to learn from you. So don’t lose your startup spirit. Just figure out how to apply it at Walmart scale.” I will always remember that. And every time I felt beaten up, or boxed in, or not listened to, or just frustrated, I went back to that day-one conversation and started charging again. Above all else, that’s really what Walmart wanted me to do.
10 - Don’t drag it out to the point of diminishing returns. There will come a point when you’ve done what you set out to achieve at Big Co. That might be seeing your original startup product rolled out to market at massive scale, or it might be the delivery and acceptance of a new initiative you were driving. At that point, you’ve probably also delivered ROI on your acquisition - so everyone should be happy with what you’ve done, including you. And when you’re at that point, take a good hard look at yourself and ask: am I going to make a bigger impact next year? If the answer is no, and you’re at the point of diminishing returns, then it’s probably time to walk and find the next startup. You’re not helping anyone by moping around making half the impact you were last year. Especially yourself. Certain startup skills (that you don’t use in Big Co) might go stale – making your entrance back into startup land difficult. Or you might get “comfortable” – making your entrance back into startup life almost impossible. Of course, in many situations, deciding to stay at Big Co might have a bigger impact on your wider world (maybe you’re on a retention plan that could set your family up for life). It’s never that black and white. But it’s always worth considering…
So, working for a Big Co is very different than working for a startup. It’s a different world, with different rules, but it’s a chance to learn new skills, absorb lessons from talented people, and execute at a whole new scale. I’m glad I did it. But I’m equally glad that I’m moving on to the next thing now…
Facebook retargeting, what Twitter should do next, and why this is just the beginning of a magical moment in mobile monetization.
I got retargeted on Facebook today – and it was magical.
Here’s what happened. I wanted to buy a Ted Baker gingham check sports shirt. So first I went to Google and searched for “Ted Baker gingham check sports shirt”. That’s a pretty explicit signal indicating that I’m looking to buy a pretty specific item. The top result was for a matching product page on Nordstrom.com, which I clicked. On that page, I then looked at different colors, scrolled down to read the reviews, but didn’t buy. Said another way, I signaled that I was engaging with the content but for some reason didn’t complete the purchase. From Google to Nordstrom to engaging with content… Close, but no sale. Yet.
Then I went to Facebook to see what my friends were doing.
However, this time, I got an ad on Facebook featuring the specific Ted Baker gingham checked shirt I’d searched for, that I could buy Nordstrom.com. In other words, I got retargeted. From Google to Nordstrom to engaging with content… to Facebook, to clicking on the Ted Baker ad, back to Nordstrom.com, and finally this time to purchase. This time they got me.
As a former ad-tech guy, I love re-targeting for a number of reasons:
The revenue opportunity is huge. Millions of potential online sales get dropped just before the point of purchase. Before re-targeting, those potential customers simply vanished into the ether. Now they can be reeled back in and converted.
The technology is cool. In the above example, cookies are dropped on my browser which indicate that I am in the market for specific shirts; the option to show an ad to me when I land on Facebook is made available on an Ad Exchange, along with the information that I’m market for shirts; Demand Side Platforms bid for those ad impressions on behalf of their advertising clients, pricing their bid on that shirt information; and the winning bidder dynamically creates an ad to show me specific products that I’ve previously looked at but haven’t yet bought. It’s the nerd-perfect blend of data flow, systems integration, targeting, and creative – and it all happens in real-time. Totally cool. And, according to super smart folks like Triggit’s Zach Coelius, it works.
The user experience rocks. A lot of ads you see on the web are poorly targeted, meaning they are not relevant to the user and – surprise, surprise – are completely ignored. Worse, they can be annoying. A re-targeted ad shows me something I’m clearly interested in, and adds to the experience rather than detracts.
However, as a social technologist, this type of retargeting on Facebook is interesting for other reasons. Primarily because it indicates that Facebook can’t effectively monetize with “just” the mountain of the demographic and interest-based data it has about you.
The Interest Graph vs Intent Data
Demographic and interest-based targeting is good for top of funnel brand awareness. For example, an advertiser like Nordstrom could target males, 30-40, who have “liked” various fashion brands – and make them aware that Nordstrom.com offers a good selection of fashionable clothes. It’s like advertising in GQ Magazine – you know the audience is broadly in your target, and you hope that some of them end up buying something at your store. But it’s a bit hit-and-hope, which is why – as an advertiser – you wont pay top dollar for it. Or, from the other angle, Facebook can’t charge a lot for that type of advertising space.
The real money is made on bottom of funnel conversion. If Nordstrom know that I am this close to buying a Ted Baker shirt, and now have a chance to advertise that very same shirt to me, they will pay a lot of money to do so. i.e. Facebook can charge a lot of money for that type of advertising space.
But in order to offer that premium opportunity, Facebook needs to understand – and share with the advertiser – my recent intent to buy. And it’s never going to derive this from my Facebook activity or my interest graph. I go to Facebook to catch up with friends and family, not to signal that I’m market for a new shirt.
This is why Google, in comparison, is such a money making machine. Every time I search for a product on Google, I’m showing my intent to buy – and lots of advertisers will pay lots of money to show their ads intermingled with those search results. In fact, it’s this very need to understand intent – to command higher advertising dollars – that has so many commentators harping on about Facebook needing to build a search engine.
However, as clearly demonstrated in the Nordstrom example above, Facebook doesn’t necessarily need to do that. Thanks to the underlying ad-tech that traces a user from site from site, Facebook can instead exploit the fact that I’ve searched on Google, then landed on a product page on Nordstrom.com before going to the social network. From those clicks, before I got to Facebook, it can understand my recent intent and sell high priced advertising against that information.
So is the interest graph – from a monetization perspective – useless? Is making serious money all about understanding intent?
I’d like to think that re-targeting can be refined with a blend of interest graph data and intent data, and a big dollop of data science. Which is where the technology could get really cool…
Let’s say Nordstrom retarget as above, showing ads on Facebook to users who’ve previously been to their product pages but didn’t make a purchase. And let’s say Nordstrom could also access the interest graph of the users that subsequently converted to purchase as well as those who didn’t. A data scientist would have a field day trying to decipher a pattern between intent and interest data that resulted in the highest number of sales. Who knows, maybe 35 year olds in New York who like Joy Division and Manchester United are more likely to buy Ted Baker shirts than 40 year olds in San Francisco who like REM and like eating at good restaurants. Those two characters might show the same intent (e.g. both searched for the same thing on Google, and both checked out the same product page), but the data might show that one has a higher propensity to ultimately buy. And if you were Nordstrom, armed with that information… you might now spend more money to retarget to the very specific niche – based on intent and interest – that you knew converted at the highest rate.
Twitter, Retargeting, and… mobile magic
I’ve talked mostly about Facebook here, but what about Twitter? Well, of course, they can do exactly the same. At OneRiot, we discovered that Twitter has an implicit interest graph every bit as strong as Facebook’s. But, as Facebook are finding out, to make real money, they need to sell against retargeted intent. Likewise, Twitter needs to enable retargeting.
Now, the ad in a retargeting campaign can take the form of any creative – be that a sponsored post on Facebook, a traditional banner ad, or a Promoted Tweet. So, let’s say in the above example… I went from Google, to Nordstrom and then not to Facebook but to Twitter. Just as on Facebook I saw an ad that had been dynamically created to show me the exact product I had just been looking at, I could now see a Promoted Tweet talking about the same Ted Baker shirts at Nordstrom.com. It could even be hyper-personalized and structured as an @reply. That would be awesome.
Where this could get super exciting for Facebook and Twitter is if they supported retargeting cross-platform (web and mobile), and combined that with geo-location… to enable localized, multichannel, bottom of the funnel advertising. Lots of buzz words there – let’s break it down into plain English:
Let’s say I’ve searched for Ted Baker shirts on Google again, landed on the product page on Nordstrom.com, not bought… and then stepped away from my computer to head down town. While I’m walking the streets, coincidently in the near vicinity to a Nordstrom, I open my Twitter mobile app… and at the top of my stream is that retargeted, personalized, Promoted Tweet from the retailer. But now that Tweet also includes a link to Google maps giving me directions to the store. Using intent data gathered from my online activity, Twitter can deliver a bottom-of-the-funnel Promoted Tweet to my phone that’s informed by my current physical geo-location.
If you really push the boat out and get aggressive, Twitter could even send me a push notification, based on my current geo location, saying “Nordstrom just tweeted you about Ted Baker shirts”. Opening the app, I’d then find a Tweet that linked to not only to store directions but also included a 10% discount voucher redeemable for the next 30 minutes. That would definitely reel me in!
However, for the above examples to work – for that type of cross-platform, geo-located, personalized ad targeting to work – my intent (the information that kicks this whole cycle off, the information that says “this guys wants a shirt!”) needs to be explicitly tied to my personal profile. Today it’s buried in some cookie linked to an abstract understanding of an anonymous user tied to a desktop web browser. That’s just not useable in a cross-platform, multichannel world. Said another way, “@tobiaspeggs” on the desktop needs to be identified as the same “@tobiaspeggs” that opens his mobile device downtown 1 hour later.
I can hear privacy wonks screaming already – and that’s another discussion altogether. But if we can get over that hurdle, cross-platform retargeting becomes a reality. i.e. Bottom of the funnel mobile ads can be targeted based on your earlier, desktop web browsing behavior. And the ad-supported properties with massive numbers of logged-in users who engage with them in pervasive, cross-platform ways (i.e. switching from desktop to mobile and back) become the big winners. Which is why I’m so hot about Twitter and Facebook. They are with us all the time, whether I’m tied to a desktop or walking the streets. And they can show me retargeted ads – focused on conversion, and driving me to purchase online or in a physical store if I’m near one – at any time.
Broadening the target on mobile
Of course, one of the paradoxes of targeted advertising is: the better you target, the smaller the audience you can hit. If you are Nordstrom, and you want to send a promoted Tweet with a discount code to Twitter users who open their app within half a mile of a store, who have recently displayed intent to buy a shirt, who like Joy Division and Manchester United because they tend to convert at a higher rate… then you are looking at a very small audience. Broadening the audience, without losing site of the target, is key.
This is where Facebook have got the technology lead right now – and I’m thinking here specifically about Facebook’s new mobile ad network. Launched in September, it means an advertiser can now run ads “Powered by Facebook” across thousands of other 3rd party mobile apps. Which surely means, one day soon, advertisers will have the ability to retarget, from web to mobile, not just to users who open the Facebook app (relatively small number)…. but potentially any app (relatively huge number!)
Think about this example. Let’s assume Rovio becomes a publisher in the Facebook mobile ad network. Now I could search on Google for a Ted Baker Shirt; poke around on Nordstrom.com but not purchase; go to Facebook and see a retargeted ad… but still not bite; head down town… stand in line at Starbucks, open my phone to play 2 minutes of Angry Birds… and see a Facebook-powered ad telling me to buy that Ted Baker shirt at the Nordstrom two blocks away. Now that’s powerful!
So where’s this all going?
Dave Morin has a great line about the disintegrating distinction between “online” and “offline”. He argues that there’s now just awake and asleep. When I’m awake, I’m connected – at my desktop or via my phone. This is really interesting from a retail perspective. It means it’s time to bring all the techniques we’ve developed to increase conversion and basket size online and bring them into the “awake state” – i.e. to bring them to the phone and to make them work seamlessly cross-platform.
Of course, we’re already seeing a lot of this beginning to happen. Mobile apps that show online reviews of a product I’m looking at in the store; QR codes that link to mobile web pages show more product information; realtime mobile chat that connects you to an expert in the very product you’re standing next to right now. Etc, etc, etc. But now, by tying intent and interest information to a user profile – a user profile that’s consistent cross-platforms – we could start to bring over all manner of ad-based conversion techniques to his “awake state” as well. Such as retargeting; Such as personalized ads (dynamic creative); Such as recommendations (“people who looked at your shirt also bought these jeans”); And even context-sensitive calls-to-action (e.g. directions to a store two blocks away that’s selling those jeans that would look great with your new shirt).
Nerds will rule the world
A lot of nerds love Minority Report for the cool UIs. I always loved Minority Report for the ads. In the movie, Tom Cruise walks past a billboard downtown which scans his retinas to trigger a personalized ad based on past purchase history and inferred intent. Something like: “You bought Kakhis last week, now you need a vest. The nearest GAP store is two blocks away”.
What I’ve outlined in this blog post is a small step away from what was envisioned in Minority Report… and you could pretty much piece it together today (replacing retina scanning and billboards for a Twitter ID and a mobile phone ;). Sure, there are plenty of holes and inaccuracies in what I’ve outlined – but that’s why it’s a blog post not a business plan. What i do know for certain is that there are smarter folks than me who are thinking more diligently about this space, and building out the required technology platforms that will turn into humungous business.
The first time I was retargeted on Facebook, I thought that was magical. But we ain’t seen nothing yet…
That’s really hard to monetize (e.g. with advertising).
The 1% are too cool to pay attention to any attempts to monetize. (e.g. they ignore ads you might put in front of them).
The 90% give you absolutely zero information about who they are or what they are interested in. (e.g. you can’t sell ads at high CPMs based on accurate user data, you can only sell ads at low CPMs based on volume and inferred demographics).
The 9% give you signals you can work with. You can determine their interests (e.g. by categorizing what they comment on), and target ads accordingly. But 9% of even the biggest social networks is a small–ish number, and most unlikely to be big enough to build a significant business around.
That’s why the Like is so effing genius. (And for “like”, read: “reblog”, “heart” or what ever casual signal for “two thumbs up” is used on your favorite social network*)
The Like makes it so easy to “comment”, that more people do. Rather than taking the time to engage with content via crafting text to comment, you simply click or tap “like” and make your opinion known. It’s easy to do, so lots of people do it. I’ve no idea what the Facebook breakdown is, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re now closer to 90% engaging with the content and 9% passively consuming.
In other words, now it’s 90% giving off signals that Facebook can work with. 90% giving off signals to help Facebook determine interests, so they can target ads accordingly. And 90% of the biggest social network is a massive number, certainly big enough to build a significant business around.
While i’ve always liked the Like, i’ve never liked Twitter’s “Favorite”.
Liking something seems so inconsequential. I can indiscriminately like a band, a brand, my best friend’s photo. Whatever it is, if i like it, i can “like” it. No problem. But to “favorite” something… that takes a lot more thought. My favorite band? I spent 3 years at University arguing about that one, and i still don’t have an answer. My favorite brand? Well, what does that choice say about me? Is the brand my favorite for its product or its packaging? Meanwhile, if my best friends post photos of their kids, is the image of one child really my favorite over all others? Etc etc.
Said another way, every day Facebook gets as many signals from me as i’ve given Twitter in total over 2,000 days. Which means Facebook has a mountain more data on me with which to better target ads.
So i’m really happy to see Twitter experimenting with its own likes. I’d love to “like” more Tweets. I’d love to give Twitter as many signals as i give Facebook. And I’d love Twitter to use those signals to serve me better targeted ads.
It’s a subtle semantic difference - as simple as a minor product copy change - but it could be worth gazillions of dollars.
When i was at University in the early 90s, i ran every night. The technology i used was… a Sony Walkman. I’d shove in a well worn tape cassette of New Order’s “Technique”, put the headphones on, hit play and start running. That album is just shy of 40 minutes. I’d run… get half way through… turn around and run home again. That was probably about 8KM a night. It kept me fit. Simple technology at work.
These days, i still carry one gadget in my hand when i run… but it’s infinitely more powerful. On my iPhone, i might still listen to New Order, but now it’s streaming via Spotify. And i might still run 40 minutes, but at the half way point i’ll check my email or catch up on social networks. Complex technology slowing me down! But the real difference are the measurement apps, devices and services in the iPhone ecosystem that i now use. These include:
Runkeeper / Strava - these apps track my time; give me other stats like average speed; give me “awards” for doing well (a little virtual high-five for setting a personal best, etc); store my data in a log that i can access at any time to see my running (and cycling, etc) history; and let me simply share that data to social networks so that my friends can see how i am doing and give me encouragement in comments, likes or @replies.
NikeFuel Band - this is a wearable bracelet with built in sensors that track “exertion”, and give me “Fuel Points” the harder i work. Broadly speaking, the band tracks motion, and acceleration. So if i’m moving around, and doing that vigorously, I get more points than if i’m sat around doing nothing. I can set myself a points target each day, and track my progress towards it. Personally, i set myself a goal of 3,000 points per day - that equates to about one 20 minute run, one dog walk, and a couple of walk-around-the-block meetings at work. If i spend all day sat in front of my computer, i miss my goal. I hate missing my goal (any goal!), so i’ve found that the bracelet - or more accurately, the data it shows me - to be a pretty effective way of making sure i get off my arse and get active each day.
Perfect Cadence - this is a simple app that tick-tocks in my earphones at 180 bpm. That’s the perfect running cadence you see Olympic runners skipping along at. My body naturally wants to run at 160 - which means, naturally, i tend to pound the pavements with long, bouncy strides that hammer my joints too hard. Recently, i’d been picking up injuries (knee, calf, achilles), and got advice from Boulder Center For Sports Medicine on running at the perfect cadence for injury prevention. It seems to working so far…
So, with all these miles, and all this technology, am i doing a good job of tracking my health? Well no.
Let’s assume general health is equated to weight. Being a good weight is healthy. Being overweight is the fast lane to a heart attack, and being under weight leads to all sorts of malnourishment issues. It’s a simple model - but a good rule of thumb for life. Good weight = good health.
But achieving a good weight is more than simply exercising regularly. In fact, exercising is only one half the equation. To remain at a good weight, calories ingested needs to equal calories burned. In other words, what you eat is equally as important as how much you exercise in maintaining good weight.
This hit home for me one night last week.
It was about 8 at night. I was thinking about winding down for the day, glanced at my Fuel Band, and saw that i was 500 points away from my daily target. So i laced up my running shoes, got the Perfect Cadence app tick-tocking, started playing New Order on Spotify, hit “start” on RunKeeper, and ran…. 15 blocks to Spuntino where i proceeded to eat quarter of a pint of the best Seasalt Caramel icecream in Denver.
I hit my goal for exercise, but ate like a pig and definitely gained weight that day. Of course, that day’s gain would have been barely noticeable. But if i did that everyday for a year, i’d soon know about it.
So do I now need apps to track my calorific intake as well? There are plenty about. But that bumps up to the second problem with all this stuff. It starts to become a pain in the ass to measure everything. You have to pull out your phone, press start, stop, whatever, on several apps… all the time. And if i’m now tracking calorie intake, i’m having to enter what i’m eating, or take pictures, at every meal… ug. For someone who loves food, and loves to work out, all the measuring takes some of the fun out. I get measurement fatigue.
That’s why of all the above, i like the FuelBand best. Basically, you wear it and forget it - and glance at your point score a couple of times a day to check-in on your progress. It’s ambient measurement that takes little effort from me. Which is great. But, as i’ve said, it’s only measuring half what it needs to measure. (Perversely, you could gain Fuel points by going down the pub and lifting glasses to your mouth all night while drinking 10 pints of beer.)
So that’s why i get excited by the coming wave of wearable, and even swallowable, sensors that can measure a million and one signals about the health of your body without you having to do a thing. There was a good roundup in the NYTimes this weekend.
Combined with big data analysis that can crunch through the numbers these devices throw off, you should soon be able to see realtime analysis of your health measured from every angle. I envisage an iPhone app showing me a personal dash board of health data - all powered by the sensor in some microscopic gadget that i’ve swallowed. This could understand both calories consumed and burned, but also make recommendations for how to stay healthy that day (e.g. what exercise you need to do, or what else you should eat) in the context of other bodily signals such as hydration levels and heart rate.
For example, if you’ve spent all day on a plane - eating bad food and sat in a chair - you might think that you should go for a run when you land. But the data might actually show that your heart rate is up, you’re dehydrated, and you’re tired. Based on the long term health performance of millions of other people also passing their data ambiently into the system, the app lets you know that the best thing to do is sleep, and crank out some exercise tomorrow when properly rested.
Technology that told me all that… would be brilliant. And it really can’t be far away.
As a footnote, one interesting thing in the NYTimes story is that the writer couldn’t readily identify additional value for all this data. If you could build a system like this, and offer it to end consumers for free, how could you monetize? The obvious answer to me is: sell the intelligence to health insurance companies! They would love to insure only healthy customers - and if they could offer discounted plans to people who are quantifiably healthy, the risk profile of their portfolio would go way down. They would pay a lot of money for that sort of intelligence.
I dont understand why i still use an RSS reader to get my industry news. More to the point, i dont understand why i dont feel comfortable that one of the automagic, social-signal-using, content aggregator thingies will show me everything i need to read.
I’ve tried them all - from flipboard, to wavii, to the latest darling prismatic. OneRiot even took a vertical-focused hack at this with RiotFeeds - so it’s obviously something i’ve been thinking about / wanting for a while.
The proposition for all these things is broadly the same: “there’s too much content on the web. We’ll surface the stuff that your social and/or interest graph thinks is “important”, and that should give you what you need.”
Said another way, they deliver all the news that’s fit to share. But i dont trust them to show me everything i need to know. Which is really annoying.
In the old days, you’d buy The New York Times - all the news that’s fit to print. It didn’t show you every story on the planet… but you trusted the editors to show you the important stuff that you should read.
Then came Google. You’d search for a topic… and it didn’t show you every web page that had ever been published on that topic. Instead it showed the “important” stuff as the top result… and 99 times out of 100, that result was great. We trusted Google.
But i really dont trust the social readers yet. I always feel like i’m missing news, and go back to check the trusty RSS reader again.
Or maybe it’s because i seek out very specific information on tech news? Biz Dev is my my DNA, and i like to “read between the stories”, to spot the nascent trends that others might not have seen yet, which could open an opportunity for my company before anyone else knows what’s going on. In order to do that, i can’t rely on reading what everyone else already knows. The social readers are great at telling me the latest iPhone 5 rumors, but not a lot else. I never use a flipboard or a prismatic and come away satisfied. It’s like skimming The Sun when i know to be effective I should be reading The Economist cover to cover.
But i never finish The Economist. And i frequently let my RSS reader overflow. So i still need a solution here.
Maybe it’s a cross between Google and Social. What if i could feed a Google Alert for a topic though a social resonance filter? Google would find me everything, and the social filter would determine which of those things are being read/shared by others right now - which would be an indicator of quality or importance. (It’s interesting that Google is now pulling in social signals via Google+ to deliver exactly that effect on Search. Maybe if Google News used the same approach - a combo of exhaustive crawling and ranking algos, passed through a social filter - it would be what i need.)
One thing is for sure. There’s a lot of innovation in this space - so someone will crack it soon enough. Until then… back to my RSS reader!
It’s a cool service. Essentially, it delivers a stream of content that’s been socially shared by bands you’ve “liked” on Facebook.
The chances are, you would miss this content by looking at your newsfeed on Facebook.com. When a band (or anyone else) shares something on Facebook, less than 20% of their fans/followers see it. That’s because of EdgeRank - the algorithm Facebook uses to determine what content you see.
Facebook doesn’t show you all the content that’s aimed at you - from new videos posted by bands you like to status updates broadcast by friends. All that content would be way to noisy and impossible to consume. So instead, EdgeRank figures out “the best stuff” and shows you only that.
So it follows that lot of shared music-related content is missed. This sucks for the bands trying to communicate with their fans. And it sucks for music-mad users who would love to see this stuff. Enter Hipset. Now you’ll never miss a piece of content shared by a band you like.
In other words, the problem Hipset addresses is that “Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm is wrong”. Or, more specifically, for the subset of users who are music-mad, and value content shared by bands over friends status updates… the EdgeRank algorithm is wrong. And Hipset makes it right.
This got me thinking about the work we did at OneRiot on so-called “realtime search”.
I remember the day Michael Jackson died. The social web - much smaller than it is today, but still a significant population in the hundreds of millions - went crazy. Huge numbers of people were sharing stories on Twitter, submitting news articles on Digg, posting videos on Facebook, etc etc. If you could take “the pulse of the web” at that point in time, there was an emotional explosion of MJ-related content being shared by millions of people. And even more people wanted to find that content: to engage with it, to react to it, to share it even more. But if you did a search on Google right then for “Michael Jackson” the top result was the official Sony Music artist page for Michael Jackson. Not the content you wanted to find.
In other words, “Google’s PageRank algorithm was wrong”. Or, more specifically, for the large number of users who at that point in time were MJ-mad, and valued content being shared by other emotionally charged people over well-SEO’d record label blandness… the PageRank algorithm was wrong. And OneRiot made it right.
We build a search engine that re-ranked search results based on what was hot on the social web at that point in time. We fixed the algorithm. Search for “MJ” on OneRiot that day, and the top result was the latest CNN video with new details on the emerging story. Search for “Hudson River” on Jan 15 2009, and the top result was a picture of a plane crash, not a Wikipedia Page earnestly explaining that the Hudson River is 315 miles long (which is what you got on Google then, and still get now). Search for “Tour de France” this summer and you would have seen eulogies to Team Sky and the winner Bradley Wiggins. But you couldn’t, because OneRiot realtime search didn’t exist any more. We killed it in July 2010.
We never got real traction as a stand-alone destination site. And neither did any of the competitive services who all had the similar ideas. Evidently, not enough users wanted realtime search enough of the time. To them, PageRank wasn’t broken. It was just a bit crap for certain use cases. And that wasn’t enough to make OneRiot a winner in search. (Note, subsequently we pivoted to a mobile content targeting network and sold to Walmart).
Which brings me back to Hipset.
For Google read Facebook. For the Search Results Page read the Social Stream. For PageRank read EdgeRank. For OneRiot read Hipset. For “the pulse of the web” read “content shared by bands you like”. Except this time i think it’s different. And this time i think that Hipset will win.
At OneRiot, we fell at three major hurdles… that i think Hipset will clear.
1 - User Acquisition.
We launched in an era pre-“growth hacking”. For example, the first incarnation of Facebook Connect launched after we did, and the Open Graph was years away. User Acquisition meant working two channels. A) marketing - expensive, and a complete waste of time when you’re competing for “search mindshare” with the likes of Bing and Google. B) Biz Dev - we ran a really successful distribution program to get our search results to appear on other search engines, including Yahoo’s (ie “powered by OneRiot”, with attribution links back to our destination site). But the number of users we acquired through this program was still peanuts in comparison to Google. Basically, we could never acquire enough users to be a success as a search engine.
For Hipset, user acquisition is very obviously built into the product’s and team’s DNA. A well executed PR exercise this weekend generated a ton of interest from early adopters - who all signed up via Facebook auth. Meanwhile, the product aggressively (that’s a complement) integrates with Facebook’s Open Graph. Every time i engage with content on Hipset, it gets posted to Facebook. So all those early adopters using the product are actually busy sending notifications to their impressionable friends on Facebook about this cool new service. And, of course, those friends click, join, start sending notifications to their impressionable friends and… the cycle repeats. Easy! (As long as the product rocks, which in this case it does).
In summary: for user acquisition, OneRiot faced a big marketing budget or a lot of lengthy BD hustle. Hipset have a smartly executed PR push and the Open Graph - and they are working it to perfection. (note: I’m ignoring any growth factors built into our respective revenue models - this post is long enough already ;)
2 - Most users generally want all the content, not just a specialized slice.
OneRiot’s top search result showed you “the pulse of the web”. In the Hudson River case mentioned above, on that particular day, OneRiot rocked. But what would you use OneRiot for the next day? Most of the time, you actually wanted everything that Google provided. Until the next disaster stuck or the next celebrity died. But by then you’d forgotten about us. Because, in the desktop browser paradigm - which is where we were - people never kept a tab open for OneRiot “just in case”. That was too much real estate wasted, or to much of a hassle. In the desktop browser paradigm, having all the desired content in one place is a winning strategy. Google, mostly, did that. We only provided a specialized slice. We didn’t win.
Hipset need to be careful here. Right now, they have a destination site in the desktop paradigm that provides a slice. They show me all the content bands I like have shared, but not my friends status updates. Facebook might only show 20% of the content aimed at me, but it’s “the best stuff” and so generally feels ok. I going to go to Facebook.com more than I will to Hipset.com. And I’m probably ok with only seeing 20% of my liked bands’ shared content. And, eventually, i’d forget that Hipset.com was there.
Will Hipset suffer in the same way we did - i.e. by showing the specialized slice rather than the generalized whole? Being to Facebook what OneRiot was to Google. I don’t think so… if they can figure out mobile fast.
Albert Wenger has an excellent post on how mobile is “unbundeling” the content we used to find on one site in the desktop browser paradigm. As he says: “On my phone another app is just a button push away and there is relatively little that fits on each screen. So it is just as much effort to go to another part of the Facebook app as it is to go to a different app altogether. So ‘Facebook for mobile’ may not be Facebook at all but rather a combination of say Instagram, Kik, Twitter, Foursquare and others”. Others like Hipset for music content.
Hipset doesn’t seem to have much mobile DNA. There’s no mobile app. Not even a mobile-optimized website that i would be willing to “Add to Home Screen” as a web app. Of course, they have just launched. Mobile may be around the corner. But i hope it is. With a mobile app, they would be on my phone’s home screen. It would be easy for me to dip in and out of their content stream - it would be just one button-push away. Push notifications for new content would pull me back even more regularly. But if Hipset stays in the desktop browser paradigm, i will probably forget it.
In summary: it’s hard to become a successful destination site in the desktop browser paradigm if you’re “just” presenting specialized content slices of the general whole. However, that approach works really well on mobile. Hipset dont need to clear the same hurdle OneRiot faced. Instead, they should sidestep it completely with a mobile product.
[note: What Hipset does have in its favor is email outreach to drive return usage. According to this coverage in Forbes, a band i’ve liked can now email me if i’ve signed up to Hipset. Assuming this content is valuable (and i dont get spammed with crap, leading to an unsub) i can see this working. At OneRiot, we tried something similar with email alerts and RSS feeds for search queries. This meant users could subscribe to a realtime stream of top search results for specific queries as they changed with the ebb and flow of the social web. But user adoption was very small. I hope Hipset’s execution is better than our was - let’s see.]
3 - The big boys saw what we did, then built their own version.
In Oct 2009, both Google and Microsoft announced deals with Twitter. That gave them access to the data that could power realtime search - to help them re-rank their algorithms to reflect the pulse of the web. And they both went ahead and built what we’d built. (For the curious, i’m not going to divulge anything about conversations we might have had with one or both at the time, but suffice to say they decided to build vs buy ;).
Although we faced a user acquisition problem, OneRiot had enough users to prove the point that there was pent up demand for realtime search results - when delivered at the right time. So Google and Bing got busy building “slot 1 inserts” - which would automagically inject realtime results at the top (“slot 1”) of a “usual” search results page when the licensed social data suggested something unusual was happening right now (a plane crash, a celebrity death, etc). Although what OneRiot did was technically difficult, for Google it was relatively easy to replicate - after all, they had hundreds of search engineers when we had 10. Once Google replicated what we were offering - and could provide that “slice” at the right time to millions of people already glued to their destination site every day - we were toast. Said another way, for users wanting to know the pulse of the web on certain occasions, Google’s PageRank algorithm was now magically right. Why go anywhere else? (Twitter is the exception that proves the rule - millions of users were already glued there too).
So if Hipset gets traction, won’t Facebook simply replicate what they have built? I don’t think so.
There are two reasons for this. First is that Facebook has a pretty poor record of replicating “slices” at the heart of other single-purpose social services. Think about Facebook checkins? Did you stop using Foursquare when that was released? But perhaps more important is the second reason - which is that Hipset contributes to the Facebook experience. Using Hipset means i am posting more (music-related) content in to stream, giving more of my friends more to engage with… which, of course, generates more opportunity for Facebook to monetize us.
I’m not even going to fantasize that OneRiot was any threat to Google. But no matter how small our size, we were taking searches away from Google - searches they couldn’t monetize any more. Far from adding value to Google, and giving them more opportunity to monetize, we were taking away. They had to swat that gnat. Conversely, Facebook should be encouraging Hipset - for contributing content to the Facebook stream, and for showcasing the power of Facebook’s platform tools and Open Graph which can only encourage more developers to do the same (and, in turn, contribute even more to the Facebook ecosystem).
In summary: OneRiot worked against Google and, theoretically, could have reduced monetization opportunities. So they killed us. Hipset works with Facebook, contributing to Facebook’s experience and increasing opportunities to monetize. That behavior should only be encouraged.
So, what happens next?
I like Hipset. The consumer-facing product rocks (again, i’m not contemplating the business model here). They are leveraging smart PR and Open Graph for a winning user acquisition strategy. And I don’t see them being chopped at the knees by Facebook, because they are adding value to that ecosystem rather than competing and taking away. I just hope they hurry up and deliver a mobile experience, otherwise they risk being that tab that’s never opened in a desktop browser paradigm.
It appears that the team behind Hipset (Tracks.by) is exclusively focused the music industry. So i expect others to fill the void and create Hipset-like services for additional content verticals - “Hipset for Sports”, “Hipset for Celebs”, etc. (Again, to borrow some thinking from Albert, Facebook have already moved in this direction with their Camera app - the consumption experience is “Hipset for Photos”.)
And I’m fascinated to see how the business models for these new services pan out. I’m assuming they’ll go for a native ads model - paid content to appear on my Hipset page, or in an email.
But let’s not get ahead ourselves. For now, let’s just celebrate a cool new service for music-content consumption. For music-heads everywhere, we can’t get enough of this!
- opening screen’s CTA is to “pair” with an existing desktop blog, or create a new one
- there appears to be no notion of “consumption first”; i.e. discovering cool content on the network or any other means of uncovering network value quickly
Create a new blog
- the experience on previous versions of the app was dreadful. They were clearly designed to augment the management of an existing desktop blog. there was little-to-no notion of onboarding new users
- onboarding here is still pretty ropey. I must have used my email address to create an account previously, which i cant remember doing. But because of that i get thrown in a loop with no help. I end up creating a new email address simply to sign up. I go through too many subsequent screens where i am unsure of the required action, but just keep hitting “ok” until finally i can post something
- i open a “hello world” post. I get it, but i think it might be intimidating for “normals”. Full of html mark up. Is there anyway to avoid this (and still do simple mark up?)
Guided creation, kinda
- Each post offers fields for Title, Tags, Category and then the post. These all seem to be optional (i dont like options!). Categories seems a bit complex - i want to add the category of “testing software”, but get thrown into to a hirachy of parent categories and… i’m lost and give in.
- Pretty intuitive options for adding a link, bolding a term, etc. Use the native “select” to highlight a word(s), then hit the “link” button to pop open a dialogue asking you to enter a URL. Nice and easy to copy a link from mobile web (via mobile Safari) and paste it into the dialog box.
- likewise, it’s easy enough to add media (photo’s etc) from the native library.
For an experienced blogger, this is a pretty nice app. For managing an existing blog on-the-go, or publishing a new post / new blog, there’s a lot of goodness here. But for me, there are two big drawbacks
1 - it’s very publisher-centric. The app exists to publish posts. And it’s good at that. (linking, formatting, adding images, etc). But there is no consumption experience - no way to see value in the network, no way to (socially) discover great content to follow, etc etc. So if a mobile blog is published in the woods and no-one hears it… That’s what SOMO blogs (instagram, etc) do so well. None of that is here. To me, this is the number one mechanism for user acquisition… and it’s not here.
2 - it’s fussy and complicated. Too many screens, options, deep layers, etc. It feels like an app that has had to provide the options to keep up with several years of desktop product evolution. It needs a damn good edit. (but, to counter that, some really obvious things are missing. For example, there doesnt seem to be a way to socially share my new post to let facebook/twitter friends know i’ve blogged). One of the reasons Tumblr blew up is because the CMS was dead simple. Wordpress have not learned their lesson.
Then i went back to *really* explore all the options and functionality…
And… at the top of the facebook-like menu, is “reader” - which is where you discover all the cool content on wordpress. yay!
(I’m assuming if I was an existing desktop user, this would have been more obvious?).
There is a simple graphical menu to select content channels (e.g. “technology”, “fashion”), and then you are presented with some relevant blogs to follow. I can also see my Twitter friends wordpress blogs and follow them, etc etc. The layout here is quite lovely - it comes from a different paradigm than anything else in the app (ie it looks like it was done by new hires, with new ideas and sensibilities).
Now “Reader” is valuable to me. It’s a good consumption experience. However:
- Still a bit too fiddly for my liking. This is no get-up-and-running quickly a la Instagram.
- Consumption experience is very irregular (because the publishing tools are made to take away constraints for desktop publishing… so as the content flows from publish to consume… the lack of constraints turn into an irregular consumption experience). This is really jarring on mobile.
I’m assuming now i’ll get notifications for new posts in my stream. That would drive engagement.
- consumption-first is key for onboarding mobile users (show me the value, fast)
- guided / constrained content creation ultimately flows to a consistent consumption experience, which is key for mobile / aesthetics / (and ultimately monetization… think: fashion magazine)
- there are some nice publishing/editing tools here… but only everything you would expect. This envelope can be pushed.
i’ll come back to this post and add some thoughts after using it for a day or two…. this post is a work in progress…
Driving decisions by a regular cadence of meetings
When I was CEO of OneRiot, we started doing board meetings every 4 weeks.
But we fell into a trap of subconsciously running the business - and driving the product - to a cadence where we had to have good stuff to put in a deck to talk about at the board meetings.
This didn’t necessarily line up with the pace our customers were running or, more importantly, what our sales and engineering teams thought was best.
So we moved to longer periods between board meetings. Now we could more naturally reflect on all the organic progress that had been made since last time.
Rather than have brilliant people being constrained to artificial deadlines, they instead delivered their awesomeness when it was right - for customers, or for them - and we showed that off at the board meeting. Overall, we did more faster that way.
In a big company, there’s a different dynamic.
Making a decision can often involve meetings with 20 people in a room in an attempt to get cross functional alignment, only to find out that the decision might impact some other department you’ve never even heard of before. So now you have to go talk to them, and… etc etc etc… and before you know it you’ve lost a month. Maybe for good valid reasons, but you’ve still lost a month.
So today I started a ‘monthly board meeting’.
The team worked together to create a deck giving the State of the Union for our suite of stuff, and we presented it to relevant execs.
Over the last couple of days working on the deck, the team has spotted holes in previously promised deliverables or future plans that had to addressed before our ‘board meeting’. So we hunkered down, sorted out our shit, bashed through all the cross functional alignment stuff in record time… and today - at our ‘board meeting’ - presented an impressive review of recent achievements and a coherent, tight, executable plan for what’s next. We didn’t lose a month… And we’re going to do the same in 4 weeks time to make sure we don’t lose a month then as well.
In start ups, it a cliche/truism that you should skate towards where the puck is heading. However, if you’re a consumer play, and thinking about an ad product for monetization, there’s an argument to be made that you should skate towards where the puck is at right now.
The trouble is, ad buyers in the main don’t buy what’s new, they buy what’s proven to work. And it doesn’t matter how clever your new ad unit is, if they haven’t seen it before, 99.9% of advertisers won’t buy it. Unfortunately, it’s hard to build a company selling to the 0.1% who will.
Digg ended up dead for many reasons. But i’m sure many of those could have been solved if advertisers were buying those native ads at scale (ie revenue was growing, the company had a feelgood factor, and that revenue was being reinvested into the organic product).
Fast forward 5 years, and Madison ave is in love with native ads. Twitter is kicking ass here. Tumblr is about to massively benefit. (It helps that every ad buyer is on twitter and has a tumblr). Native ads is where the puck is at. And if I was building a new consumer service today, no matter how original and forward-thinking the organic consumption experience was, I’d be making sure there was a native ad monetization line in my product roadmap. I fully expect Betaworks to do this as they rebuild Digg.
It’s a nice app - but it’s obviously a mobile app built to support a desktop web service. It just ‘feels’ like that. There must be room for a ‘mobile-first tumblr’ (or a ‘mixed media instagram’) featuring - beautiful design for mobile web - pick from several themes, or customize in a way that’s easy/quick/optimized for mobile - set up new blogs from the app (eg Tobias’ blog) - set up sub blogs from the app (eg Tobias’ holiday to England) - automagic formatting (eg turn this into a nicely formatted bullet list without me having to know any markup) - easy image embeds (think: foursquare’s checkin then add photo from library) - seamless social integration (to Facebook timeline) - easy on-tap sharing to other services (email, twitter, etc) - save drafts automatically on close of app (I’ve got 2 mins to blog on my mobile while waiting at Starbucks… Make it easy for me to finish one post over multiple sessions) - all the standard goodness of great social publish/consume apps (following stream as the home page, reblog, hidden like, etc,etc) - following in two buckets: must read and everything (maybe limited must read to 128 blogs?) - monetization thro paid content (mobile native ads) - alerts (friend just blogged, someone reblogged you, etc) - ‘random’ button to find new stuff to read (which learns what you like over time) - channels (based on implicit tagging of UGC via semantic tech) to aid discovery - etc If instagram can get to 30m users in a year more or less organically (huge numbers of people crave lovely mobile aesthetic) an viddly can get to a billion users in 2 seconds with aggressive timeline integration, I think this ‘mobile-first tumblr’, leveraging Facebook properly, could grow at a nice pace. Hmmm…
Btw, this was banged out on tumblr iOS. How do I upload a picture?
Getting pumped up about this year’s plan of attack
Today was a very odd first day back at work. I’m kicking off 2012 not as CEO of a startup (OneRiot was acquired by Walmart), or even the leader of a standalone business unit. Instead I’m a cog in the wheel of a big company’s machine. For the last 10 years I would have spent the last week thinking: how do I make sure the troops are fired up on day 1? This time I’ve been thinking: I wonder what they’ll want me to do this year?
Asking that different question has got me thinking about what we did (or at least, what we should have done) at OneRiot in an attempt to kick the year off with a bang, rather than stumble into January with hazy, post-holiday hangover. Getting everyone pumped up fast about this year’s plan of attack is critical. So how did we do that?
1 – Start communicating this year’s plan last year
Whether this year’s plan of attack involves new products, bigger numbers, radical shifts in strategy, or simply a refinement of a familiar theme… start communicating it to everyone in December. Even if they’re away on vacation, team members will spend some time between Xmas and New Year thinking about the year ahead. Painting the big picture in December means everyone will spend that time thinking about stuff that is directionally correct, rather than mentally running off into random territory (or, worse, thinking that there is no plan).
2 – Re-iterate the plan on the first day back
Getting everyone in a room the first day back, and then delivering a clear, concise and energetic overview of the plan, is key.
A - It sets the immediate tone. “We’re back, and we mean business.”
B - It clarifies. If things weren’t understood by anyone in December, or became fuzzy over the holidays, this is a second chance to discuss and align and make things crystal clear.
C - If needed, it can also reignite the camaraderie that’s critical in a startup. Folks may well have been away, spent time with family, or generally fallen out of the habit of working closely with colleagues. An all-hands on day 1 is a great way to get everyone back into that habit, fast.
3 – Make the plan clear
Setting out the plan of attack for the year ahead is not a time for fuzziness. Folks want clear objectives, clear goals, backed up by a strong sense of how the company is going to get there. Even the bits that are not yet clear can be communicated clearly. For example, if you are going to turn on a revenue model in Q3, but don’t know what exactly it is yet… state that. Clearly. “Determine and agree revenue model by end of Q1. Roll out to users by mid Q3.” It lets everyone clearly know that something awesome is coming. It lets everyone clearly know that the time for ideas is now. And it lets everyone clearly know that we’ll all be heads down executing an agreed approach 3 months from now. It also clearly explains why the specifics don’t exist yet (i.e. because the thinking-about-what-it-is bit is yet to be done) and, also, why that’s absolutely fine.
4 – Make the plan – and the presentation of the plan – concise
No-one wants to sit through hours of Powerpoint presentation. Especially on the first day back. Less is more. But creating something kickass that is concise can take a lot of preparation time – so make sure you put in the effort in advance. Cramming potentially complex plans into easily digestible presentations can be hard. Frequently, to counter potential complexity, we would use a simple “business framework” to communicate. This would clearly illustrate the big levers in our business, and describe what we were doing to pull them. So even if pieces of the micro detail were missed by some, everyone would walk out of the meeting with an understanding the macro framework. This would do three things.
A - Give everyone an appreciation of how his or her “stuff” fitted in with the bigger picture.
B - Provide a common reference language for future discussions on particular product details (“How does feature X help us pull Lever Y?”).
C - Set the context for any follow up discussions with individuals that were needed to clarify any remaining fuzziness.
5 – Show how your plan for the year is another step along the way to winning
In startups, stuff changes. All the time. If things are going well, you’ll be shifting quickly through the gears of scaling the business or tackling new markets. And even though this means you’re kicking ass, it can often feel like whiplash for many team members who will be in the front line for the new stuff. So it’s key to show how this year’s specific plans make sense in the context of a bigger, stable, strategic picture. It’s key to explain that what can feel like whiplash is actually a desired gear change. (Or, if it really is whiplash because the business is not doing well, and you’re really changing direction, then it’s perhaps even more important to communicate what’s going on and why).
6 – Be prepared to keep communicating the plan
If you did it right, most of the team provided input to this year’s plan – explicitly (because you asked them) or otherwise (because you listened, synthesized, and incorporated the best ideas). But only a few people (maybe only you) really, deeply, “know it” end-to-end before you start communicating. And the only way you can communicate things so clearly is that you have likely soaked in this specific plan 24/7 for weeks. It took you a long time to “get it”. So don’t expect everyone else to get it first time. Be prepared to keep communicating consistently and clearly until everyone really understands – and that might take some time.
I’ve made this mistake so many times it’s painful. I’d communicate once, assume everyone got it, then move on – leaving everyone behind and subsequently getting frustrated when things weren’t being executed to plan. Luckily (finally!) as CEO at OneRiot I learned to slow myself down to speed the company up – by consistently communicating the plan until everyone is soaked in it. Last year, we did 1-on-1s with everyone in the team to review the plan and discuss their specific role in it. For some folks we did that session two or three times. (note: I appreciate that probably only works for a small startup. We had 20 people at OneRiot – so the whole process took a week or so. Different techniques are needed when you have bigger companies, but the basic principal remains the same).
So, in summary, getting people pumped up about this year’s plan of attack requires a lot more work than simply standing up and delivering a single rousing speech. It can take days, even weeks to communicate effectively. But every minute is completely worthwhile if you want a team that’s pulling in the same direction, fast, and feeling like this is the year when they’re going to kick some serious ass.