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Yahoo’s growth options dwindling July 25, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Yahoo reported another disappointing quarter, with ex-TAC revenues (i.e., revenues minus the money it shares with ad network partners) down 5 percent, to just over $1 billion. Its core display advertising business was up 5 percent, but it appears to be losing share to companies like Google and Facebook. Yahoo is still one of the biggest online properties in the U.S., with fairly sturdy content and communications assets, but its options for restoring growth are getting fewer.

The reason? Yahoo has missed the most important new digital consumer trends. It might still have a shot at adding social media; after all, after many failures, Google’s Google+ project to add social elements to its services appears to be gaining traction, at least among early adopters. But Yahoo failed to translate a solid position in casual gaming into social gaming, and it is only dabbling in social commerce, even though it coined the phrase. And its acquisition of “content farm” Associated Content doesn’t seem to be increasing profitable traffic. Meanwhile, outsourcing its search business to Microsoft hasn’t paid off yet. So what is the company to do?

Yahoo blamed its display-ad sluggishness on a sales re-org that delayed some big deals. Let’s give Yahoo the benefit of the doubt and assume it still has good relationships with big-brand advertisers like GMC, Visa and Target (all of which are serving up rich media ads or sponsorships on Yahoo as I write this). If Yahoo cashed out its assets in China, it could use that money for other acquisitions and investments to bolster online advertising and gain a little social media momentum.

Yahoo already has a decent number of online video viewers – it’s a distant No. 3 after YouTube – but it is relatively weak in how much time those users spend with its content (35 minutes per viewer compared with Hulu’s 185, according to comScore). Buying Hulu might be too expensive: Apple and Google are rumored to be interested, and Hulu may not get long-term exclusive contracts for TV shows. But Yahoo’s brand-advertising expertise is still better than Hulu’s, or Netflix’s or Amazon’s. Its IntoNow TV check-in acquisition is already focused on synching twin-screen activities with on-air ads, and Yahoo Connected TV is showing signs of life. Yahoo could make a compelling social TV pitch to advertisers like Coke and Verizon, for example, connecting an on-air ad to an on-screen or PC-based check-in or other activity.

Yahoo could try to be the social-media advertising marketplace for everybody but Facebook. Even a social network as big as Twitter needs help creating and selling ads. If Yahoo didn’t choose to acquire a real-time ad network like OneRiot or 140 Proof that places ads near social streams, it could still bulk up its social targeting and analytics via Lotame, 33Across or Media6Degrees. With some acquisitions and integration, Yahoo could ease the effort a publisher or ad buyer has to make to cobble together customized solutions.

Yahoo is reportedly working on a hybrid content/ad syndication network. Instead of just renting out ad space, a second-tier online publisher could get related personalized content and advertising from Yahoo in a single package. Yahoo has plenty of high-quality content, and it could make Associated Content create advertorial-like opportunities. Newspaper publisher Gannett attributed a solid online quarter partly to its ad network partnership with Yahoo, proving that Yahoo has some success dealing with quasi-competitors.

With some effort, Yahoo could reenergize its business around video, a social advertising network and/or syndication over the next 9 to 18 months. Its costs are under control and its ad business is growing, albeit slowly. If investors or its board don’t have the patience, I suppose it could try to sell itself to Microsoft or AOL, assuming they’re still interested. Either would be a pure consolidation play among general-purpose content portals, combining audiences, tech infrastructure and sales forces. That kind of cost-savings merger is always brutal, and brutally difficult to execute.

Question of the week

How can Yahoo start growing again?
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Integrating Social Media and Traditional Entertainment May 9, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Remember when social media was going to re-invent the entertainment business? Back in 2007 and 2008, Viacom’s MTV Networks tried to tie its shows together into the since-abandoned Flux social network, and even launched a short-lived TV channel driven by user-generated content. About the same time, NBC Universal’s Bravo network bought snarky fan site Television Without Pity, but has done nothing with it since. But that was then, and recent news suggests the social entertainment space is far from dead.

Last week, two big old media companies made acquisitions that signal new life: Warner Home Entertainment, home of the movie studio’s DVD efforts, acquired Flixster/Rotten Tomatoes, and News Corp.’s IGN bought Hearst’s UGO. Warner’s move hints at Netflix-envy: It said it wanted to use Flixster’s Facebook-driven user reviews and Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregation of professional ones to “grow digital content ownership.” Meanwhile, by doubling down on video game info sites, News Corp. is constructing a traditional aficionado-magazine model, but with lots of social media elements (user blogs, friend-following, points for participation). Most think News Corp. will spin off the combination.

Given these moves, has the industry finally figured out how to add social media to traditional entertainment for fun and profit?

Extending and Enhancing Entertainment Formats

Excitement about tablets and apps, lots of startup activity and Facebook’s role in distribution and audience acquisition are combining to create new opportunities to extend and enhance traditional entertainment forms. Expanding on Michael Wolf’s analysis of how this is working in social TV, here’s what TV and other entertainment media can do to capitalize on social media:

  • Discovery and user-based curation: GetGlue is the early leader in cross-media entertainment check-ins, smartly using Facebook and Twitter (a check-in auto-generates a topic hashtag) to amplify the promotion.
  • Extension: Forums and discussion boards give a fan a dose of his favorite TV show more than once a week, and book clubs are migrating online.
  • Shared experience: VH1 showed a slick app last week that, in addition to adding user commentary to live viewing, acts like a “DVR for tweets.”
  • Gamification: Entertainment check-ins deliver the ubiquitous participation stickers and leaderboards; they should offer virtual currency for loyalty.
  • Commerce: Apple’s Ping social network doesn’t seem to be boosting iTunes sales yet, and Facebook’s only just begun to dabble in video rentals.
  • Analytics and fan feedback: FOX Broadcasting and others use Think Passenger’s private communities for audience analysis. Who will figure out if simultaneous Twitter traffic means anything?

What’s Still Missing?

While the check-ins have stickers and can act as a launchpad for Twitter conversations, by and large, companies try to deliver the six objectives above via separate apps or experiences. Would they be more effective if they were integrated? I always thought digital music could blend discovery, retail and consumption, but Rhapsody combined them better than iTunes long before Spotify, and Rhapsody failed to catch on. Likewise, while a friend’s reviews and curation could emerge as valid components to an entertainment recommendation engine, by themselves they don’t appear to be as effective as the collaborative filtering approach of Netflix or Amazon, or Pandora’s professionally and algorithmically curated recommendations.

Perhaps the experiences should remain seaparte, but the business engine behind the apps and sites can benefit from roll-ups like News Corp.’s game-site play, or from formal partnerships and licensing. Some are emerging now: Time Warner already owns a piece of GetGlue and is responsible for many of the paid promotions that run on the service. Yahoo scooped up video check-in service IntoNow and is using audio recognition to track TV advertising. A handful of publishers are building a new digital book club and looking to tap AOL and Starbucks for ad sales and distribution.

It is inherently easier and more efficient in terms of audience reach, segmentation and analysis to offer advertising displayed on a network rather than an individual title or show. That means big media companies are best positioned to package and deliver social entertainment experiences along with advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

Question of the week

How can traditional entertainment companies implement social media strategies?