Day Two at Web 2 Summit ends with my interview of Steve Ballmer. Now, the last one, some four years ago, had quite a funny moment. I asked Steve about how he intends to compete with Google on search. It’s worth watching. He kind of turns purple. And not Yahoo purple.
So sure, I’m hoping for more classic Ballmerisms this time around, and there’s plenty to talk about. From investors calling for his head (Microsoft generates impressive cash and dividends, but could hardly be called a growth stock), to the future of Windows, my only concern is we’ll run out of time.
Because I want to talk about the Xbox SDK, Microsoft’s cloud strategy, Bing, Windows 8, the Facebook and Twitter partnerships, the Skype purchase, Yahoo (again), tablets, the Nokia deal…
But enough of my questions. What do you want to ask one of the most important CEOs in the world?
As an extra incentive, I’ll be picking the best three questions from these series of posts (see below and watch for more). The authors of those questions will get complimentary passes to Web 2 – a more than $4000 value. So get to commenting, and thank you!
Today Federated Media Publishing announced it has acquired Lijit Networks, a world-class business partner to online publishers based in Boulder, Colorado. This combination is the result of literally months of work, including a ton of strategic thinking that dates back to Federated’s acquisitions of Foodbuzz, Big Tent, and TextDigger last year.
With reach into nearly 200 million uniques, Lijit is a major player in what we at Federated call “the Independent Web.” While Lijit serves all stripes of publishers, it shines with smaller sites whose size often means they get ignored or minimized by other network players. Lijit not only provides top-tier advertising services (it’s growing like crazy, see Lijit CEO Todd Vernon’s post here), but it was born as a service to publishers – with great analytics and search (I use it here on Searchblog). In the past year, Lijit has built out an impressive set of offerings in the technology-driven display market – a space rife with acronyms like SSP (supply side platforms), DSP (demand side platforms), and RTB (real time bidding). This ecosystem is increasingly complex, and Lijit is committed to helping independent publishers thrive within it.
But Lijit is more than great technology and services. It’s a passionate group of people who share our vision of bringing service and value to the constellation of “small pieces loosely joined” that, taken together, comprise the true voice of the web. When I traveled to Boulder and met the team, including CEO Todd Vernon, COO Walter Knapp, and lead investor Seth Levine of the Foundry Group, I knew we had more than a business deal at hand. I don’t know how else to put it – these are really good people, and I can’t wait to work together to write the next chapter of our work together. Congratulations to all.
Earlier this week I participated in Google’s partner conference, entitled Zeitgeist after the company’s annual summary of trending topics. Deep readers of this site know I have a particular affection for the original Zeitgeist, first published in 2001. When I stumbled across that link, I realized I had to write The Search.
The conference reminds me of TED, full of presentations and interviews meant to inspire and challenge the audience’s thinking. I participated in a few of the onstage discussions, and was honored to do so.
I’d been noodling a post about the meaning of Google’s brand*, in particular with respect to Google+, for some time, and I’d planned to write it before heading to the conference, if for no other reason than it might provide fodder for conversations with various Google executives and partners. But I ran out of time (I wrote about Facebook instead), and perhaps that’s for the good. While at the conference, I got a chance to talk with a number of sources and round out my thinking.
I also got the chance to ask Larry Page a question (video is embedded above, the question is at 19.30). In essence, my query was this: For most of Google’s history, when people thought about Google, they’d think about search. That was the brand: Google = search. For the next phase of Google’s life, what does Google equal?
I asked this question with an answer in mind (as I said, I’d been thinking about this for some time), but I didn’t get the answer I had hoped for. What Page did say was this:
“I’d like the brand to represent the things I just spoke about (for that, see the video) … it’s important that people trust the brand…that we’re trustworthy…and I think also it should stand for a beauty and technological purity…innovation, and things that are important to people, driving technology forward.”
The text above doesn’t really do Page’s answer justice, because somehow when he said “beauty” – a word I was surprised to hear – he delivered it with a sincerity that I and others at the conference found…almost Apple-like.
Then again, Page didn’t directly answer the question, at least from a marketing standpoint. In 2009, Google’s brand = search. That kind of clarity and consistency is what every marketer seeks to define in their brand.
At the moment, Google’s brand is a bit confusing. Google equals Chrome. And YouTube. And Android. And Google Docs. And Gmail. And Maps, Places, Voice, Calendar….and self driving cars, and investments in energy research, and antitrust hearings, and Adwords, and of course search. Not to mention Google+.
Oh, and Motorola.
One can forgive the average consumer if he or she is a bit confused about what Google really means.
In conversations with various Google executives over the past few weeks, including leaders in product, marketing, and search, it’s clear that the company is well aware of this problem, and is focused on finding a solution. And while most have seen Google+ as the company’s answer to Facebook’s social graph, I now see it as something far bigger.
In short, Google+ = Google.
Google VP of Product Bradley Horowitz, who I know well enough to know he doesn’t say things without thinking about them a bit, recently told Wired as much, but the context was missing. To wit:
Wired: How was working on Google+ different from working on the company’s previous offerings?
Horowitz: Until now, every single Google property acted like a separate company. Due to the way we grew, through various acquisitions and the fierce independence of each division within Google, each product sort of veered off in its own direction. That was dizzying. But Google+ is Google itself. We’re extending it across all that we do—search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube—so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are.
Horowitz is making an important point, but the interview moved on. It should have lingered. In those conversations with Googlers over the past month, I’ve heard one consistent theme: Larry Page is obsessed with Google+, and not just for its value as a competitor to Facebook. Rather, as I wrote earlier this month, Google+ is the digital mortar between all of Google’s offerings, creating a new sense of what the brand *means*.
So what is that meaning? I’d like to venture a guess: one seamless platform for extending and leveraging your life through technology. In short, Google = the operating system of your life.
At the moment, there are really only three serious players who have the technological, capital, and brand resources to stake such an audacious claim. Of course, they are Apple, Microsoft, and Google (Amazon seems on the precipice of becoming the fourth). Of the three, Apple has the best handle on its brand. And Microsoft made its brand in the operating system world, so it has at least pitched its tent in the right part of our collective mindspace.
But Google? Well, Google’s got some brand work to do. Google’s products don’t all work together in a seamless way, and at first glance, don’t seem to all speak to the same brand experience. Google+ is the company’s attempt to address that problem, such that every experience with Google “makes sense” from a brand perspective. Which is to say, from the customer’s point of view. As a very senior Google marketing executive recently told me: “There’s a reason it’s called Google….plus!”
If this is correct, then the stakes of ensuring that Google+ succeeds are raised, significantly. Google has twice tried to out-social Facebook (Buzz, Orkut), and neither quite worked. But this time, Google’s not just trying to beat Facebook. It’s being far more ambitious – it’s trying to redefine what happens inside your brain when you consider the concept of “Google.” Part of that is social, sure. But far more of it has to do with being the brand to which you entrust nearly every technology-leveraged part of your life.
If that indeed is what the company is trying to do, I’m more certain that Google+ will succeed. Why? Because it means the company is committed in a new way to a singular purpose. It means it will cut new kinds of deals so as to compete (like bringing Cityville to Google+, or undermining Facebook’s Skype partnership through Hangouts, or, soon, bringing media and marketing into Google+). It means tying Google+ to its core promotion engine of search (which it most certainly has). And it means, as Horowitz told Wired, “extending (Google+) across all that we do.” I recently asked Google’s head of local, Marissa Mayer, what percentage of her products were integrated with Google+. Five or so percent, she told me. But she quickly added: That’s going to change, and fast.
At Zeitgeist, when Page answered my question about the brand, he answered mostly with meaning – innovation, trust, beauty. But Larry spoke for twenty or so minutes prior to my asking him that question, and he mentioned Google+ over and over, pressing how important the project was, and how excited he was about it. So come to think of it, maybe his first response to me – I’d like the brand to represent the things I just spoke about - was all the answer we really needed.
(image) Recently I was in conversation with a senior executive at a major Internet company, discussing the role of the news cycle in our industry. We were both bemoaning the loss of consistent “second day” story telling – where a smart journalist steps back, does some reporting, asks a few intelligent questions of the right sources, and writes a longer form piece about what a particular piece of news really means.
Instead, we have a scrum of sites that seem relentlessly engaged in an instant news cycle, pouncing on every tidbit of news in a race to be first with the story. And sure, each of these sites also publish smart second-day analysis, but it gets lost in the thirty to fifty new stories which are posted each day. I bet if someone created a venn diagram of the major industry news sites by topic, the overlap would far outweigh the unique on any given day (or even hour).
This is all throat clearing to say that with the Facebook story last week, I am sensing a bit more of a “pause and consider” cycle developing. Sure, everyone jumped on the new Timeline and Open Graph news, but by day two, I noticed a lot more thought pieces, and most of them were either negative in tone, or sarcastic (or both.) Exmples include:
Can Facebook Become the Web? (Fortune)
Analysis of F8, Timeline, Ticker and Open Graph (Chris Saad)
All of life has been utterly… (Dan Lyon)
Now, I am not endorsing all these pieces as perfect second day posts, but collectively, they do give us a fairly good sense of the issues raised by Facebook’s big news.
I’d like to add one more thought. Perhaps this might be called a “second week” post, given it’s been four or five days since the big news. In any case, the thing I find most interesting about the new approach to sharing and publishing on Facebook lies in what Mark Zuckerberg said his new product would deliver: “The story of your life.”
Now, long time readers know where I stand when it comes to telling the “story of your life.” I’m firmly in the camp that believes that story belongs to you, and should be told on your own domain, your own terms, and with a very, very clear understanding of who owns that story (that’d be you.) And this applies to brands as well: Your brand story should not be located or dependent on any third party platform. That’s the point of the web – anyone can publish, and no one has rights over what you publish (unless, of course, you break established law).
It was our inherent desire to tell “stories of our lives” that led to the explosion of blogging ten or so years ago. And crafting a rich narrative is just that, a craft (some elevate it to art). Yet Facebook’s new timeline, combined with the promiscuous sharing features of the Open Graph and some clever algorithms, promises to build a rich narrative timeline of your life, one that is rife with personal pictures, shared media objects (music, movies, publications), and lord knows what else (meals, trips, hookups – anything that might be recorded and shared digitally).
Now, I don’t find much wrong with this – most folks won’t spend their days obsessing over their timelines so as to present a perfectly crafted media experience. I’m guessing Facebook is counting on the vast majority of its users continuing to do what they’ve always done with Facebook’s curation of their data – ignore it, for the most part, and let the company’s internal algorithms manage the flow.
But our culture has always had a small percentage of folks who are native storytellers, people who do, in fact, obsess over each narrative they find worthy of relating. And to those people (which include media companies and brands falling over themselves to integrate with Open Graph), I once again make this recommendation: Don’t invest your time, or your narrative exertions, building your stories on top of the Facebook platform. Make them elsewhere, and then, sure, import them in if that’s what works for you. But individual stories, and brand stories, should be born and nurtured out in the Independent Web.
I’ve got plenty of philosophical reasons for saying this, which I wont’ get into in this post (some are here). But allow me to relate a more economic argument: At present, there’s no way for our story tellers to make money directly from Facebook for the favor of crafting engaging narratives on top of the company’s platform. And from what I can divine, Facebook plans to make a fair amount of money selling advertising next to these new timeline profiles. As they get richer and more multi-media, so will the advertisements. Do you think Facebook intends to cut its 800 million narrative agents into those advertising dollars? I didn’t think so.
Which is just fine, for most folks – for people who don’t see the “stories of their lives” as a way to make a living. But if crafting narrative is your business, or even just a hobby that brings in grocery money, I’d counsel staying on the open web. (BTW, crafting narratives is *every* brand’s business.) For you, Facebook is a wonderful distribution and community building platform. But it shouldn’t be where you build your house.
This is what users who are not logged in see on the home page of Google. Clearly, folks at Google would very much like you to sign up for Google+.
There’s a lot more to say on this subject, but I’m on the road. Just wanted to capture this for posterity. Google+ is a major play by the company to put digital mortar between all of its offerings, and create a new sense of what the brand *means* – far more than search. It’s Google’s clear declaration that it will be a platform player alongside Microsoft and Apple. More on this over the weekend.
Now, given the antitrust fever that has hit Washington and other international capitals, this move might be viewed dimly by some competitors, depending on how things play out over time. It’s clearly “tying” dominance in one market – search – to another – social media. Then again, no one is forcing you to use Google….
(image) As I posted earlier, last week I had a chance to sit down with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. We had a pretty focused chat on Twitter’s news of the week, but I also got a number of questions in about Twitter’s next generation of ad products.
As usual, Dick was frank where he could be, and demurred when I pushed too hard. (I’ll be talking to him at length at Web 2 Summit next month.) However, a clear-enough picture emerged such that I might do some “thinking out loud” about where Twitter’s ad platform is going. That, combined with some very well-placed sources who are in a position to know about Twitter’s ad plans, gives me a chance to outline what, to the best of my knowledge, will be the next generation of Twitter’s ad offerings.
I have to say, if the company pulls it off, the company is sitting on a Very Big Play. But if you read my post Twitter and the Ultimate Algorithm, you already knew that.
In that post, I laid out what I thought to be Twitter’s biggest problem/opportunity: surfacing the right content, in the right context, to the right person at the right time. It’s one of the largest computer science and social engineering problems on the web today, a fascinating opportunity to leverage what is becoming a real time database of folks’ implicit and explicitly declared interests.
I also noted that should Twitter crack this code, its ad products would follow. As I wrote: “If Twitter can assign a rank, a bit of context, a “place in the world” for every Tweet as it relates to every other Tweet and to every account on Twitter, well, it can do the same job for every possible advertiser on the planet, as they relate to those Tweets, those accounts, and whatever messaging the advertiser might have to offer. In short, if Twitter can solve its signal to noise problem, it will also solve its revenue scale problem.”
Well, I’ve got some insights on how Twitter plans to make its first moves toward these ends.
First, Dick made it clear last week that Twitter will be widening the rollout of its “Promoted Tweets” product, which pushes Tweets from advertisers up to the top of a logged-in user’s timeline (coverage). Previously, brands could promote tweets only to people who followed those brands. (This of course drove advertisers to use Twitter’s “Promoted Accounts” product, which encouraged users to follow a brand’s Twitter handle. After all, if Promoted Tweets are only seen by your followers, you better have a lot of them).
Just recently, Twitter began to allow brands to push their Promoted Tweets to non-followers. This adds a ton of scale to a product that previously had limited reach. Remember, Twitter announced some pretty big numbers last week: more than 100 million “logged in” users, and nearly 400 million users a month on its website alone. Not to mention around 230 million tweets generated a day. All of these metrics are growing at a very strong clip, Twitter tells me.
All this begs we step back and ask an important question. Now that advertisers can push their Tweets to non-followers, how might they be able to target these ads?
Twitter’s answer, in short, is this: We’ll handle that, at least for now. The first iteration of the product does not allow the advertiser to determine who sees the promoted tweet. Instead, Twitter will find “lookalikes” – people who are similar in interests to folks who follow the brand. Characteristically, Twitter is going slow with this launch – as I understand it, initially just ten percent of its users will see this product.
(The implication of Twitter finding “lookalikes” should not be ignored – it means Twitter is confident in its ability to relate the interest graphs of its users one to another, at scale. This is part of the issue I wrote about in the “Ultimate Algorithm” post, a major and important development that is worth noting).
Now, I’ve spent many years working with marketers, and even if Twitter’s lookalike approach has scale, I know brands won’t be satisfied with a pure “black box” answer from the service. They’ll want some control over how they target, who they target to, and when their ads show up, among other things. Google, for example, gives advertisers an almost overwhelming number of data points as input to their AdWords and AdSense products. Facebook, of course, has extremely rich demographic and interest based targeting.
So how will Twitter execute targeting? Here are my thoughts:
- Interest targeting. Twitter will expose a dashboard that allows advertisers to target users based on a set of interests. I’d expect, for example, that a movie studio launching a summer action film might want to target Twitter users have shown interest in celebrities, Hollywood, and, of course, action movies.
How might that interest be known? There are plenty of clear signals: What a user posts, of course. But also what he or she retweets, replies to, clicks on in someone else’s tweet, or who they follow (and who that followed person follows, and, and….).
- Geotargeting. Say that movie is premiering in just ten cities across the country. Clearly, that movie studio will want to target its ads just in those regions. Nearly every major advertiser demands this capability – consumer packaged goods companies like P&G, for example, will want to compare their geotargeted ads to “shelf lift” in a particular region.
Twitter has told me it will have geotargeting capabilities shortly.
- Audience targeting. I’d expect that at some point, Twitter will expose various audience “buckets” to the marketer for targeting based on unique signals that Twitter alone has views into. These might include “active retweeters,” “influencers,” or “tastemakers” – folks who tend to find things first.
- Demographic targeting. This one I’m less certain of – Twitter doesn’t have a clear demographic dataset, the way Facebook does. However, neither does Google, and it figured out a way to include demos in its product line.
- Device/location targeting. Do you want your Promoted Tweets only on the web, or only on Windows? Maybe just iPads, or iOS more broadly? Perhaps just mobile, or only Android? And would you like location with that? You get the picture….
Given all this targeting and scale, the next question is: How will advertisers actually buy from Twitter? I think it’s clear that Twitter will adopt a model based on two familiar features: a cost-per-engagement model (the company already uses engagement as a signal to rank an ads efficacy) and a real-time second-price bidded auction. The company already exposes dashboards to its marketing partners on no less than five metrics, allowing them to manage their marketing presence on Twitter in real time. And its recently announced analytics product only adds on to that suite. Twitter has also said a self-serve platform will be open for business shortly, one that will allow smaller businesses to play on the service.
Next up? APIs that allows third parties to run Promoted Tweets, as well as help marketers manage their Twitter presence. Just as with Facebook and Google, expect a robust “SEO/SEM” ecosystem to develop around these APIs.
The cost per engagement model is worth a few more lines. If an ad does not resonate – is not engaged with in some way by users – it will fall off the page, an approach that has clearly worked well for Google. The company is very pleased with its early tests on engagement, which one source tells me is one to two orders of magnitude above traditional banner ads.
Finally, recall that Twitter also announced, and couched as very good news, that a large percentage of its users are “not logged in,” but rather consume Twitter content just as you or I might read a blog post. Fred writes about this in his post The Logged Out User. In that post, he estimates that nearly three in four folks on Twitter.com are “logged out.” That’s a huge audience. Expect ad products for those folks shortly, including – yes – display ads driven by cookies and/or other modeling parameters.
In short, after staring at this beast for many years, I think Twitter is well on its way to cracking the code for revenue. But let’s not forget the key part of this equation: The product itself. Ad product development is nearly always in lockstep with user product development.
Twitter recently surfaced a new tab for some of its users called “Activity”, and I was lucky enough to get it in my stream. It makes my timeline far better than it was. The “Mentions” tab (which we see as our own handle) is also far richer, showing follows, retweets, and favorites as well as replies and mentions. But there’s much, much more to do. My sense of the company now, however, is that it’s going to deliver on the opportunity we’ve all known it has ahead. It’s mostly addressed its infrastructure issues, Costolo told me, and is now focused on delivering product improvements through rapid iteration, testing, and deployment. I look forward to seeing how it all plays out.
From time to time I have the honor of contributing to a content series underwritten by one of FM’s marketing partners. It’s been a while since I’ve done it, but I was pleased to be asked by HP to contribute to their Input Output site. I wrote on the impact of location – you know I’ve been on about this topic for nearly two years now. Here’s my piece. From it:
Given the public face of location services as seemingly lightweight consumer applications, it’s easy to dismiss their usefulness to business, in particular large enterprises. Don’t make that mistake. …
Location isn’t just about offering a deal when a customer is near a retail outlet. It’s about understanding the tapestry of data that customers create over time, as they move through space, ask questions of their environment, and engage in any number of ways with your stores, your channel, and your competitors. Thanks to those smartphones in their pockets, your customers are telling you what they want – explicitly and implicitly – and what they expect from you as a brand. Fail to listen (and respond) at your own peril.
More on the Input Output site.
I could not make Twitter’s press event today, but I did get a chance to sit with CEO Dick Costolo (the Web 2 Summit dinner speaker this year) yesterday afternoon, and got a chance to do a deep dive on today’s news. I’ll write up more on that as soon as I can, but the recap:
100 million active users around the globe turn to Twitter to share their thoughts and find out what’s happening in the world right now. More than half of these people log in to Twitter each day to follow their interests. For many, getting the most out of Twitter isn’t only about tweeting: 40 percent of our active users simply sign in to listen to what’s happening in their world.
This is from their blog post, but there are a lot more stats to share (400 million people visit Twitter.com each month, for example), as well as insights and thoughts from our conversation yesterday. Stay tuned.
It’s been a while since I’ve said this, but I’ll say it again: Google is a media company, and at some point, most media companies get pretty deep into the Making Original Content business. With the acquisition of Zagat* Google has clearly indicated it’s going to play in a space it once left to the millions of partners who drove value in its search and advertising business. Google is walking a thin line here – media partners are critical to its success, but if its seen as favoring its “owned and operated” content over those who operate in the open or independent web, well, lines may be redrawn in the media business.
Now, it’s easy to argue that this was a small, strategic buy to support Google’s local offering. Then again…Blogger, YouTube, and GoogleTV are not small efforts at Google. And if I were an independent publisher who focused on the travel and entertainment category, I’d be more than a bit concerned about how my content might rank in Google compared to Zagat. Just ask Yelp.
So…what other content-driven categories might Google find the need to get into? Well, ask yourself this question: What other content-driven business categories are important to Google?
Answering that question falls into the category of “things that make you go….huh…”
I’ll have more thinking on this soon, I hope. But I wanted to note the sale as indicative or a larger trend worth watching.
*Zagat has had a commercial relationship with FM, a company I founded, but not a material one on either side as I understand it.