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November 2007 Archives

November 1, 2007

Re-Visiting Topix

As is well chronicled on this blog, this summer I decided to leave Topix and try some new things. While I no longer work there, that doesn't mean I don't check out the site from time to time for my fix of local news and just to keep tabs on the new stuff they're doing.

One of the things that has impressed me recently is the way the site is being adopted by various communities to share information. Case in point, the recent SoCal fires. This thread was started for people to share neighborhood information. If you scroll through it, there is some really useful information being shared there. Pretty cool.

They've got lots of other interesting features going on there - including the Top Picks, the polls, etc. All good stuff. The only downside is that they've added so many cool new features that the pages are starting to look a bit crowded, but I'm sure they'll fix that in due time.

Anyway, the one really cool new feature (well, new in the sense it started after my departure) I like is the editor blog. First and foremost, the information on the blog is really interesting and helpful. And spotlighting active editors is a great idea. When I was there, I was always bugging the community team to interact with users through more than policing offensive posts and/or handling complaints, etc. This editor's blog is a great example of that. ShopLocal does something similar on their site with Eva the Shopping Diva's blog. There's great content on that blog as well, but it always seemed a bit out of place on a shopping site. On Topix the editor's blog content is a much more natural fit. Maybe Topix can get Eva to start editing a page or two on Topix...

Anyway, it all seems to be working as traffic is going gangbusters for the site. So congrats to everyone down there. One of these days i am going to head down there to actually re-visit Topix in person.....

November 5, 2007

The Opposite of a Roll Up

In an entry a few weeks ago, I questioned whether there was a viable future for roll-ups of web properties. In that entry, I noted that the closest thing to a roll up on the net was IAC and I didn't really see that working from either the cost or revenue side.

Apparently neither did Mr. Diller. Today's big news is that IAC is giving up on its roll up strategy and spinning out its properties into five separate companies. From the press release:

Each of these spun-off businesses is in fact a distinct business sector, and each will benefit from standing on its own, with its own capital structure, its own currency which will enhance its ability to attract and retain superior talent and make acquisitions, and a focused story investors can clearly understand and buy into...

The strategy for a roll up is in essence, the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The strategy for a spin-out is the opposite. Clearly the sum of IAC's parts exceeded the sum of its whole.

November 6, 2007

Thoughts on Facebook Ads

I'm reading the initial coverage of the Facebook Ads, and had a few thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Interesting Ad Products...I think. Not having seen the screen shots, I'm not sure I entirely "get" the various products (social ads, insights, beacon), but the gist of it is using the demographic data Facebook has from users to provide messaging opportunities for advertisers. Since Facebook's users information is usually accurate, this provides some interesting opportunities to target.

2. Does it Matter if No One Clicks? Regardless of the targeting capabilities, at the end of the day we're talking about display advertising (i.e. not a direct response to a user action). And the one thing we know about display advertising is that no one clicks on it - well, not no one, but much less than search. So, if you're a marketer and you have a limited marketing budget and you can spend your money on a product that generates clicks and one that does not, what do you do? Still a fundamental question...

3. Or Is this the Beginning of Brand Advertising? Unless of course this is beginning of the coveted brand advertising package, in which case clicks don't matter. Perhaps it's possible. In that case, the success of the program comes down to pricing. There are plenty of brand ad opp's out there now (tacoda, ad.com, even adsense) that are priced, for the most part, at remnant prices. If Facebook wants to build a business on this brand advertising, they need to make the case that their demo information is SO much better, that it deserves a premium price. Maybe it is, but, as is the typical question: how do you measure?

4. Ode to a Marketing Budget. Life is good when you've just raised $240m and have Microsoft as your partner. You can do things like: rent out Loft Eleven, hire Charlie Rose to moderate a panel, etc., etc. and not feel like your pressing your bet. Life becomes alot easier.

5. Ode to a non-cannibalistic product. At Topix, when we did our re-launch we talked about putting together a similar event, featuring the CEO's of Gannett, TRB, etc. as a way to get some huge press attention (like Facebook is getting). Unfortunately, the newspapers always thought of Topix as competitive to their local brands, so they would never step-up and get behind any marketing efforts in a serious way. Imagine if Google won the Facebook deal, given their relationship with MySpace and their own products (Orkut), would/ could they step-up? Microsoft, for better or worse, has no such issue.

6. Impressive list of Partners. Coca-Cola, Dove, Sony, Verizon. Really impressive. Getting any one of these guys to do something - and working through the infinite layers of marketers, media buyers, ad agencies, etc., etc. - is hard enough. Getting them all lined up so you can announce them all on the same day - really impressive. Nothing better for a product launch than a great list of partners lined up...

In any event, congrats to Facebook. Competition is always a good thing and we've been going on waaayy to long with only one real game in town.

November 7, 2007

How Not To Sell A Company

We pick up our story in the corner office of BigCo, where Web Todoto, BigCo's Corp Dev. manager, is pitching his boss, I. G. Olfalot, BigCo's SVP of Corp Dev., on his latest recommendations for strategic acquisitions:

Web: We've got to act fast, sir. All of our competitors are out spending big bucks on strategic deals. We're getting left behind! Internet advertising is going to be $42 billion in a few years!! We need to position ourselves now!!

IG: I don't know web...seems like lots of these deals are way to rich...I mean $15billion for face book? Do they even make $100mm annually in revenue? I've heard $200mm can't even get you a deal anymore. And look what you get for $300mm these days....I don't know. Wht happened to the old build it vs. buy-it analysis?

Web: You can't just build users base - or a network effect. It's either there or it isn't. And, yes, we get good traffic on our sites - but there's no network effect...and we need one...yesterday!

IG: ok, ok - what do you have in mind.

Web: Sir, I'm just giddy over this one. I can't beleive it's still out there. You remember Digg? The social news site?

IG: Right. the one where the kid says he's worht $62mm, even though they make no money.

Web: Ancient history, sir. They're tearing things up these days. 11.5 mm uniques according to comscore. Huge network effect. Very passionate users.

IG: Go on....

Web: Well sir. They're amenable to an aquisition with a forward thinking partner like us. They can see we understand their goals and want to grow their business. Which is why they're open to selling to us for...get this...only $300mm.

IG: cough, cough....$300mm?? Seems rich. Well, if you think it's a good idea Web, we can probably sell it to the big man. Before we head up to his office though, let's just do a quick search to see what the buzz on these guys is....

Close up of IG's screen:

Just Sell Digg Already, Jay

IG: Ummmm, on second thought Web....I'm late for a tee time. Let's brief the big man some other time. In the menatime, keep digging - no pun intended - to see what else is out there deal wise.

Fade out...

November 13, 2007

Here an Ad Network, There an Ad Network

I think it's official, everyone is now in the ad network business:
Called “Martha’s Circle”, the network pulls together websites and blogs with dynamic user-bases and rich content worthy of association with the Martha (Stewart) brand.

So just how crowded is this field? Ok, just off the top of my head, here's a list of ad networks out there:

Google's adsense - the top dog

Y! Publisher's network - hardly a viable #2 anymore

Right Media - part of the Y! family

Microsoft - monetizing the Facebook and Digg pages - anywhere else?

Tacoda - behavioral targeting in the AOL family

Quigo - last I checked, not too many advertisers. Mostly a technology where sites can sell ads themselves, but a small network nonetheless. AOL bought them too...

FM - monetizing the pages of various bloggers through "conversational marketing" - whatever that means.

Ad.com - another part of the AOL family (that's 3 in that family for those keeping score at home);

Intermarkets - monetizing Matt Drudge's pages, on a daily basis

Tribal fusion - been around so long I almost forgot about them....

Burst Media - monetizing page views for "specialty content" providers, whatever that means.

AdBrite - may be more of an ad serving system than a network, but my recollection is they do have a pool of advertisers for back-fill.

And then there's the various affiliate networks out there - Amazon, Ebay, LinkShare, etc. etc. Also, don't forget the newspapers keep theatening to get into this space. And now we also have Martha....

Again, this is a list of networks rattled off the top of my head in five minutes. If you want a really long list of ad networks here you go. Also, I didn't include Facebook in this list because, as far as I know, Facebook ads are not being exported off-site.

Anyway, isn't it funny that despite all these networks, no publisher can seem to get a decent CPM out of their display network. Maybe advertisers have too many options. Since none of the display networks are delivering clicks anyway, there's no good measurement for success, which means that all these ad networks are selling the same BS demographics and really just competing on price. (I know that when I was buying ads for Topix, I based all my buying decisions based on price.) With so many options out there, the price keeps coming down....

Unless you can figure out how to deliver clicks, I'm thinking that the right move is to just open source the ad market by creating an ad network that pays publishers 99% of the revenue (i.e. everything but the cost). Maybe you can get enough publishers to adopt it that there would be critical mass and then you could actually start selling for a higher CPM. If nothing else, you'd get market share - and market share, while not necessarily revenue, does seem to command a purchase price. Who knows?

Until then, just like the old Cracker song goes, what the world needs now is another ad network, like I need a hole in my head.

The Fourth Estate....

remains hard at work:

GAUHATI, India (AP) - In a Nov. 13 story, The Associated Press incorrectly reported that Paris Hilton was praised by conservationists for highlighting the problem of binge-drinking elephants in northeastern India. Lori Berk, a publicist for Hilton, said she never made any comments about helping drunken elephants in India.

Glad we got that straight.

November 14, 2007

AT&T: Your World. Delivered. Poorly.

Team Blekko has a conference call on Friday and, being a start-up, has no conference call capabilities. As the only non-coder on the team of very busy coders, its my job to set up stuff like this. So, being a logical man, my thinking was thus: we use AT&T for our phone service - AT&T is a big telephone services company - con call services is clearly something they do - I'll give them a call. And thus started my adventure.

First stop, call the AT&T operator (by dialing zero)- he or she will just transfer me to the right person. Or so I thought. They're advice: call 411 and ask for the number for AT&T con-call services. Now if this advice came from a third party, it would certainly be sound. Coming from an AT&T operator? Well, it struck me a bit odd.

OK, I call 411 and ask for conference call services - they connect me to....somewhere. Somewhere being a place that has a vast menu of pre-recorded push button options and less than stellar voice recognition software. After a few minutes of yelling "operator" (since con call services was not on the pre-recorded option menu), I'm finally connected to a person who politely tells me that I've actually reached residential services, what I need is business services. Great. Onward and upward.

Next stop, AT&T business services. Same land of pre-recorded push button options (none of which is con call services, of course) and crap voice recognition technology. After a few minutes I give up. There must be an easier way.

Google search: conference call services. Click on the Office Depot link (they do con calls? who knew?). Call the 800 number. Four minutes later account activated and call set up. Literally that easy.

Thanks AT&T!

November 16, 2007

Man vs. Machine

From what I've been reading lately, in the search engine world the herd continues to head towards the human powered search results. Just off the top of my head there's the aforementioned Wikia search, Cha Cha, Mahalo, and url.com. And the way herds typically work, more to follow.

Forgetting about the scalability issues, the brand issues and the marketing challenges in general of human powered search, I'm wondering if these companies will be able to live up to their bottom line value proposition: that humans can provide better results than machines.

Right after we sold Topix, Yahoo came a calling and tried to get us to switch from Google Adsense to their contextual product. Given the success we had with Adsense, this was going to be a tough sell, so they had us come down to Los Angeles, meet with their team and pitch us on their value proposition. At the time (not sure if this is still the case), their claim was that they actually manually build ad libraries for the pages on our site and, as a result, delivered better results.

We decided to take the Yahoo solution for a test drive and ran a test on the product. Actually, many tests. We used the Yahoo ads with various form factors, placements, fonts, colors, etc. Unfortunately for Yahoo, it turned out that their product never even came close to the performance of AdSense on our pages. Turns out the machines did a better job. To their credit, we never had any brand issues with the Yahoo ads (like Sampsonite ads on pages talking about body parts in a suit case washing ashore, or Thailand vacation ads on pages containing Tsunami stories). But from a performance side (CTR, CPC, effectivce CPM- however you want to measure) Google's contextual approach (with the keywords and hints we provided) was clearly superior.

Now you could call this a scaling issue. With Topix having in excess of 400,000 pages on the site, perhaps Yahoo was unable to unleash the full power of its human powered libraries across the site - and therefore was doomed to fail. Perhaps. But even on more generic pages (like sports, entertainment, etc. - as opposed to more obscure pages like Plano, TX news), Google still performed better.

Another explanation is that Yahoo didn't have a large enough pool of advertisers to compete. Or perhaps this was a branding issue - I've always theorized that the "Ads By Google" labeling of the Adsense box made it more likely to be clicked on. The Google brand being there instantly turns those ad links into trusted links, something just labeling "Sponsored Links" can never do.

It's hard to pin-point an answer. But maybe though the machines, without going into solving a problem with the baggage of a particular editorial slant or any pre-conceived notion of a "right" answer, did a better job. Who knows? We'll see how this plays out in search world.

November 20, 2007

Turkey Bowl

As Kelly and I are getting ready to make our Thanksgiving trek to my parents place, I started to get nostalgic for Thanksgivings past. Not the turkey or the Cowboys and Lions games on tv - those will be there this year like they are every year. No, what I'll be missing this year, like I have the past few, is the turkey bowl.

Like lots of folks out there, for many years Thanksgiving meant to me not only stuffing my self silly, but also getting together with my old high school buddies for a post thanksgiving game of pigskin. Yep, there was nothing like a cold, dark November day in Pittsburgh for me and my friends to try to channel our inner Terry Bradshaw/ Lynn swann/ Jack Lambert. For anyone watching (not that there ever was), I'm sure what we played was stretching the definition of football, but for us, every year was Super Bowl 13 all over again.

The game itself had all the usual pick up game rules: three completes for a first down, five second rush, no fake punts (if you check), etc. The location was wherever we could find an empty field at one of the local schools. The prime score was carving out a spot on the high school turf (although perhaps not anymore) because (a) it was turf; (b) yard lines, end zones and out of bounds we're already defined and (c) with the stands, sidelines, etc. it just felt like a real game. But since lots of people had the same idea, getting a spot on the field was rough. So often times it was elementary or jr. high fields (advantage: grass and mud (as opposed to turf) made it feel like a real game).

The game itself was usually four on four or five on five - any more than that, someone had to play offensive line and who wants to do that? When we were younger it was strictly tackle, but as we got older and more susceptible to injury it evolved to two hand touch. Although I remember many times following the "gentler" two hand touch game, feeling so sore that tackle wouldn't have made much of a difference. Given that its usually pretty cold in Pittsburgh in November, you'll feel any contact for the next few days.

Unfortunately, since my parents retired and moved south, I don't get back to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving, which means no turkey bowl. But that doesn't mean I don't miss it. So rumpy, goose, kess, uni, craig, bullzy, bill, fitz and everyone else, if you do play this year, consider yourself lucky. Thanksgiving with turkey, but no Turkey bowl, just isn't the same.

November 24, 2007

Jobs Rank Follow Up

A few months ago I wrote an entry discussing the lack of a hit-making formula for music in our fragmented society. In that entry I noted that what Steve Jobs had really built in Itunes was a vertical search engine for music, but it was still missing the hit-maker formula (i.e. the equivalent of what Page rank has done for sites like Wikipedia, about.com, etc.). Perhaps I was wrong:
Since 2001, small, independent bands appearing in iPod commercials have sold thousands of records, been placed on numerous Billboard charts, and drawn the respect and admiration of music fans around the world. Apple's promotional influence has grown so great that music industry insiders now compare it with Oprah Winfrey's ability to create best-sellers through her book. club.

So it turns out Jobs rank isn't an algorithm or technological breakthrough, but rather a marketing strategy. Pretty cool. As society fragments more and more, and TV advertising becomes less and less effective in reaching a critical mass, the hit-making prowess of these ads will certainly diminish. Until then:

November 28, 2007

Phil at the Warfield

Last night, for the second time in the past few month, I went to see Phil Lesh and Friends play. The lineup of the band (which is usually ever changing) was pretty much the same as last time, with the exception of the new bass sax player, who I don't recall being at the Greek in September. Anyway, great show. Really enjoyed it. Phil looks healthy and strong which is great to see. And the band has been obviously playing together now long enough that they're really rocking. With that, a few notes on the show:

1. The Warfield , once inside, is a great place to see a concert. Don't get me wrong, I love the Greek - it's a beautiful outdoor amphitheater. But that's precisely the downside of it too - because its outdoors, you don't feel like your immersed in the music. That's not the case of the Warfield - it's small, warm and great sound.

2. The Warfield outside is a shitty place to see a show. It's right on Market Street nestled in between a strip joint, a checks cashed place and an adult book store. Lots of aggressive crazies there hitting you up for money, etc. - not fun.

3. The band itself is as sharp as ever. The really rocked the joint. From the opening number (Bertha) through the 5 or 6 song acoustic second set and on until the final set, the band had the place jumping. Pretty funny moment: during the third set, while the band played the Jackie Greene song Mexican girl, in honor of Jackie's birthday the band wheeled out a 6 foot cake onto the stage. Of course, out popped a girl from it (Mexican, of course), balloons fell from the ceiling and everyone sang happy birthday. Pretty funny.

4. Speaking of Jackie, since September he's morphed from being a member of the band to really becoming its leader. He's more confident and playing/singing better than ever. I went to the show with my buddy JT he was convinced he was watching the next great musical star. I don't disagree.

5. One downside, the break between the second and third set was realllllllly long. Seriously guys, do you need 45 minutes after a 6 song acoustic set??

6. I miss my cameraphone. No camera phone (and no flickr photos available), no pics of the show for the blog. That sucks.

Anyway, great night at the Warfield and can't wait to go check them out again at their next show.

November 29, 2007

Who Is SVP John Galt?

A general discussion of the paradoxes of life reminded me of the many paradox within the work world. here's three that come to mind:

1. You're the CIO of your company. Like every year, you're allocated a certain budget. You figure out a way to save the company beaucoup bucks this year through some clever technology/ implementation/ etc. But you know if you don't spend your entire budget this year, come budget time next year there's no way your going to be allocated the same amount. You'll get much less and have to fight over every dime of that. Who wants that? And the company might need a bigger IT budget in upcoming years. So what do you do? Of course you spend the full amount and ignore the savings.

2. You're the director of marketing of your company. You have a certain amount to spend on advertising, both offline and online. You know that the offline stuff just isn't working anymore. Audiences are shrinking and, accordingly, impression prices are increasing. Online's not much better, but online audiences are growing, and prices are more reasonable. Problem is online actually can be measured for effectiveness, offline can not. So what do you do? Of course, keep pouring money into the offline stuff. Your company has a history of spending money there and since there's no measurability your budget can't be slashed (and you can't be fired for bad ad buys).

3. You're the VP of engineering for a start-up. From your years of experience, you know that the most effective team for the product you're building is a small one. Hiring lots of people takes time, is a distraction and won't lead to a better product. However, your CEO and your board are pressuring you to grow the company faster. In their mind that means getting more people on board and quickly. Essentially, you don't hire more, a new VP of eng will. So what do you do? You get the recruiter on the phone, the product be damned.

Anyway, I'm sure there are countless situations like these that people run into every day. These are three that I came up with. I just find it fascinating when history plus the cost of change trump individuals making the right decisions.

About November 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Marksonland in November 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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