In each of the past five years I’ve written a predictions post – usually at year’s end or by the first of January. This one is late, and I’ll admit it’s because I found it hard to write. The world is showing itself to be predictable in only one way: bad news begets bad news. I’ve spent a lot of the past two weeks, where I was ostensibly “not working,” thinking about what this year will bring. And I’m not much further from where I started: this is going to be a very difficult year, for a lot of people. But I do have a fair amount of hope. I think times like this force all of us to make honest choices about what we do with our energy, our resources, and our lives. And in the end, that brings long term health to markets.
Last year I wrote my predictions as something of a narrative, and when I looked back to check how I did, I found it somewhat difficult to mark the scorecard. So this year, I’m going to try to be focused, brief, and calculable. Keep me honest, will you?
1. Macro economy: We’ll see an end to the recession, taken literally, by Q4 09. In other words, the economy will begin to grow again by the end of the year, but it won’t feel like we’re out of the woods till next year at the earliest. That’s because Q4 08 was so damn bad, Q4 09, rife as it will be with government stimulus, will look much better. But until we have another year or two to really find our footing, it’s going to feel like we’re treading water.
2. The online media space will be hit hard by the economic downturn in the first half, but by year’s end, will have chalked up moderate gains over last year in terms of gross spend. I think it’s possible that Q1 09 will be lower than Q1 08, marking the first time that has happened since 01, if I recall correctly. This will cause all sorts of consternation and hand wringing, but in the end, it won’t matter. The web is where people are spending their time, the web will be where marketers spend their money.
3. Google will see search share decline significantly for the first time ever. It will also struggle to find an answer to the question of how it diversifies its revenue in 2009. Search is the ultimate harvester of demand, and Google has become search’s Archer Daniels Midland – wherever a seed of demand might pop its head through the web’s soil, Google is there to harvest it. The media business is more than a demand fulfillment business, and Google must learn to create demand if it’s going to diversify. That means playing the brand game – a game that has long been owned by what we call “traditional media companies.” With these companies in a paralyzing economic death spiral (and their new media brethren, Microsoft, AOL, and Yahoo, in continued strategic sclerosis), Google has a unique opportunity to become a new kind of branded media company. It will fail to do so, mainly for cultural reasons.
4. Despite #3 above, Google stock will soar in by Q3-4 of 2009, mainly because demand will pick up, and when demand picks up, it’s like rain on a field of newly sown wheat. This after the stock tanks when the first half of #3, above, becomes apparent.
5. Tied to #3 above, Microsoft will gain at least five points of search share in 2009, perhaps as much as 10. This is a rather radical prediction, I know, but hear me out. I think Redmond is tired of losing in this game, and after trying nearly every trick in the book, Microsoft will start to spend real money to grow share (IE, buying distribution), while at the same time listening to the advice of thoughtful folks who want to help the company improve the product. However, search share is half the game, as we know. The second half is monetization, and Microsoft will continue to struggle here, unless it manages to buy Yahoo’s search business. Which it won’t, because….
6. Yahoo and AOL will merge.
7. However, in the second half of the year, Microsoft will buy its search monetization from the combined company.
8. Apple will see a significant reversal of recent fortunes. I sense this will happen for a number of reasons (yeah yeah), but I think the main one will be brand related – a brand based on being cooler than the other guy simply does not scale past a certain point. I sense Apple has hit that point.
9. Major brands will continue to struggle with the best way to interact with “social media.” They will take budget reserved for media spending (IE buying banners and building out branding campaigns) and start to become publishers in their own right. This is not a new tactic (many marketers, in particular technology companies, have published magazines, for example, and many consumer brands create or co-create television series), but given the plastic and social nature of online media, many marketers will see these efforts fail, in particular when the efforts are executed in partnership with major media companies. The reason has to do with putting the cart before the horse: in order to truly succeed in conversational media, the company must itself be fluent in that conversation. A partner with tons of traffic, but who is not fluent, will not be the “translator” major brands need.
10. Agencies will increasingly see their role as that of publishers. Publishers will increasingly see their role as that of agencies. Both can win at this, but only by understanding how to truly add value to real communities – not flash crowds driven by one time events. I don’t see a conflict here, long term. As opposed to simply being creators of media, media companies have realized (or will soon) that their job is to create platforms for communities to make media. Publishers are agents for communities, agencies are agents for brands. They need each other. It takes both agents to get good media made.
11. Twitter will continue its meteoric rise. This is a very hard prediction to make, because so much depends on the company’s ability to execute two crucial – and exceedingly difficult – new features: The integration of search into the service, and the monetization of that integration. I think Twitter’s management team (and its backers) will want to keep the service independent through 2009, both because prices are down but also because I think they want to prove something (this will not keep nearly every major web media company from trying to buy Twitter). The company has a tiger by the tail, and two really defensible assets: a passionate, committed, and growing community, on the one hand, and a valuable, growing, and meaningful database of realtime conversations on the other. Note I did *not* say they have algorithms. That will come. But the key is the community and the conversation that community is having. By the middle of 2009, the integration of Twitter’s community and content will become commonplace in well-executed marketing on third party sites.
12. Facebook will do something entirely shocking and unpredictable. I am not certain what, but it won’t have a “status quo” year. It might be a merger with a traditional media company, a major alliance with Google, hiring a head scratcher as CEO, or something else at that level of “WTF!?” As I think about it, it might be as simple as making Facebook Connect truly open, and changing its policies to make it drop dead easy to get data out of the service. Also, Facebook will build a Twitter competitor, but it will never leave beta and will ultimately be abandoned as not worth the time. Instead, Facebook will “friend” Twitter and the two companies will become strong partners.
13. Lucky #13 is reserved for my eternal mobile prediction: 2009 will see the year mobility becomes presumptive in every aspect of the web. By that I mean what I wrote back in 2007: “Mobile will finally be plugged into the web in a way that makes sense for the average user and a major mobile innovation – the kind that makes us all say – Jeez that was obvious – will occur. At the core of this innovation will be the concept of search”
14. Lastly, I promise, I will have sold my book and will be hard at work on it. And yes, still running FM too. I think I have a way to do both, given I wrote 15K words last year without even knowing it….
Happy New Year, Searchblog readers, and thanks for caring enough to read my musings. Here’s to hard work, smart choices, and learning from our mistakes….