A high price to pay…

After following a link suggested by a LinkedIn contact I visited Open Forum hoping to read about a recent interview with Sir Richard Branson.

When I got there I was given the option to sign in with LinkedIn, easy I thought…Open Forum

Luckily, I paused at the sign in page long enough to read the terms and realised that signing in with LinkedIn meant I would have to pimp out my beloved LinkedIn contacts… WHAT?

In exchange for access to this interview I have to provide Open Forum access to my LinkedIn contacts, worse still, let Open Forum communicate with my contacts as me! AS ME!(Just like my contact obviously had!)

This doesn’t seem like a fair exchange to me, not by any stretch. Unbridled access to over 1,600 contacts that I know personally and getting to masquerade to those contacts as me to spruik your company message, that would surely be worth many thousands of dollars, way more than the value of the content I suspect.

Time to look for another source of inspiration!

Turning Advertisers off with visual Vomit

As a user, Facebook is frustrating, and as an advertiser, it’s downright useless.

Humans are skilled at ignoring the visual vomit around them, and these are skills that have been perfected over many years of increasingly desperate advertising techniques – from the subliminal to the ridiculous.

Stealing 5 minutes to get critical updates on the latest cat meme is what Facebook is all about, and monetising that experience has mostly been limited to targeted advertising (selling your personal details to advertisers so that they can craft ads most likely to drive a response). But with just $10 of annual revenues from each of its 600m or so engaged users Facebook has a long way to go to satisfy its many Shareholders’ many expectations!

The real challenge for Facebook though is that economically it’s still a One Trick Pony with 8 out of every 10 dollars of revenue coming from advertising. So how does Facebook outgrow the rebounding economy in order to drive up shareholder returns?

I think they have three pillars of advertising growth ahead of them, each of which will likely trade off user experience for advertiser revenue:

More advertising inventory – as the rate of subscriber growth slows more inventory is required to avoid an overall slide in the supply of advertising space – meaning more of the Facebook page will be dedicated to paid media resulting in a poorer user experience

More personal advertising – Facebook will give as much data as it can to advertisers to make the advertising product more effective – meaning Facebook will go even further to leverage their users’ personal data

More interruptive advertising – as consumers get better at ignoring the Advertising Vomit, Facebook will push its products to become more interruptive, meaning you have to wait for them to finish or actively “push” them out of the way. A poorer experience but one that is likely to yield more clicks for the advertiser.

And yet, the real challenge here for Facebook is that it just isn’t a great place to advertise for most businesses. It’s neither a great Brand advertising platform, nor is it a great Performance advertising platform – and in this analytically informed world of Marketing, the investment required to evaluate the effectiveness of an advertising platform is lower than ever before – meaning most big advertising dollars have already come and gone.

Spreets goes Hybrid in a desperate move that might just work.

Spreets recently announced their plan to include offers from competitors alongside their own, making spreets.com.au the first major player to launch a hybrid Group Buying/Super Affiliate offering in the Australian market.

I imagine the evolution of their model went something like this:

Early 2010: Spreets is formed and is among the very early entrants into the Australian marketplace, their model closely echoes the fast growing US originator, GroupOn.

Middle 2010: Spreets finds early success with a single deal each day, deals are sold at 40-50% revenue share to Spreets and consumers are excited about the new model, each offer sells many hundreds of vouchers, competition is light and shareholders are happy!

Late 2010: A number of new entrants intensify competition, including well-funded overseas players GroupOn and LivingSocial, local Catch group player Scoopon and of course Cudo who brought TV advertising to bear for the first time. Spreets immediately lose marketshare to these new upstarts, unsettling shareholders and peaking the interest of Yahoo!7, the natural rival of Cudo shareholder ninemsn. A second “side deal” is now commonplace on Group Buying sites, providing an alternative to the main offer of the day. Revenue shares of 35% are also now common as competition intensifies and daily deals businesses battle to win the best merchants.

Early 2011: Spreets is bought by Yahoo!7 for just over 22m, an incredible outcome for the Spreets’ co-founders and investors. Interestingly, a higher purchase price was touted ($40m) as the new owners congratulate themselves at having managed to jump on the fastest of bandwagons (myspace anyone?). The model has evolved to include 5 or more daily offers, vacation offers and longer running offers. Revenue shares of 30% are common.

Late 2011: Some 80 competitors exist in the market and Spreets market-share has flattened to 12-14%, products offers become frequent often at under 15% revenue share for the Group Buying business, customer discontent is at an all-time high due to shoddy product suppliers failing to deliver and 20+ daily offers are now common resembling a deal marketplace and requiring an increasingly large and expensive sales force to meet that demand.

2012: 2012 was make or break for many group buying businesses with a large percentage falling away in the second half of the year. Average revenue shares of 25% are typical and with 50+ daily offers on each of the larger group buying sites the average voucher sales per offer has declined significantly making it hard to fund the sales force required to meet the demands of a deal marketplace.

December 2012: Spreets calls it quits on the Group Buying model deciding to give the Hybrid model a go instead.

For many, the economics of a deal marketplace don’t stack up, which seems to be the case for Spreets. Meeting the demands of a marketplace without the overhead of a large sales force is possible though if competitor deals are surfaced alongside those deals originated in-house as a Hybrid affiliate/group buying business. Doing so can be profitable too, Affiliates are commonly paid 10% of gross revenue when a new customer is introduced, or almost half of the revenue retained by the group buying company, which is a good bounty given no sales effort, customer support or refunds and no exposure to shoddy merchants!

Assuming their Group Buying competitors sign up to having their offers surfaced on Spreets.com.au deal choice on the site will grow and no doubt customers will thank them for it. But what is the long term outlook for this Hybrid model?

Spreets customers will be absorbed by the competition over time, Spreets will already be losing 4-8% of Subscribers each month though natural churn and may not have the funds to replace them so a customer exodus to the competition will hurt greatly. The more successful the Hybrid model is at generating Affiliate fees the more quickly the exodus will occur and unless they can make their marketplace a great destination through the curation of compelling deal content and email targeting/personalisation they won’t come back either.

Alternatively this may be Spreets way of simply “milking the asset” until they close the doors on the business given this model will lead very quickly to some much needed profits, given their original investment it would be nice to see some return!

Group Buying fortunes on the up?

After bottoming out during the past few months, the fortunes of some Group Buying businesses seem to be on the up, albeit a significant number have collapsed or been acquired in the past six months and the outlook remains grave for many more!

The fact that the sector’s nose is slightly up is in part due to the weeding out of weaker and often less scrupulous competitors who often served only to undermine the reputation of the sector as a whole.

In fact out of the 50 largest Group Buying businesses assessed in April, only 29 remain intact just 6 months on. And given only 10% (5) of those businesses were acquired that supports the view that smaller Group Buying businesses are of limited real value. In such a crowded and undifferentiated market lifesaving investment is tricky too given a lack of brand equity, good will or asset strength (off the shelf web sites are common and subscriber base overlap with top-tier competitors is often well over 70%) resulting in the collapse of underperforming and debt laden Group Buying businesses.

A quick browse through the sites of the 29 still standing uncovered indicators of pending doom for some.

Here are the choking canaries of the Group Buying world:

  • A high degree of niche product deals, such as robotic vacuum cleaners or iPad accessories
  • No sign of “number purchased”, an essential component of Group Buying that is quickly discarded when numbers are low
  • Extended Deal deadlines, this industry was founded on deal a day for good reason!
  • A smorgasbord of deals on one page, suggesting desperate recycling of old offers

Group Buying remains a $1bn future industry in Australia, regardless if that industry seemed to lose its way and stall when it was only half way there. Regaining lost momentum will be down to the leading players showing the way once again with a combination of brilliant marketing and a commitment to helping consumers discover great business products.

The strongest already have their playbook (Living Social, Cudo and Ourdeal) and will extend their positions in the coming 6 months through a focus on back-to-basics Group Buying offers like quality restaurants, high value vacation offers and utility products such as Cudo’s Meat Merchant.

Although I suspect another 15 from April’s top 50 will be gone by April 2013, leaving only a dozen or so standing, I think I already know who they are, I wonder if they do?

Good commercial sense underpins sustainable philanthropy

BC Logo new

In 1999 the ever cheery Brits (of which I’m one) were flabbergasted when their #1 Son Richard Branson lost a bid for the National Lottery. His manifesto for the People’s Lottery was based on it being run as a Not for Profit meaning that profits would be provided as donations to the lottery commission over and above the standard fun-raising efforts of the National Lottery. Even though these additional donations would exceed $1bn each year the Lottery Commission said no, instead they chose Camelot who had no such altruism in mind.

Surely something’s afoot, why would the Purpose driven Lottery Commission choose greedy toes Camelot over goody two shoes Branson? Isn’t that Greed before Good?

Not that simple.

The Lottery Commission figured that without the benefit of a Profit Engine behind Lottery Ticket sales, they’d be worse off taking the $1bn contribution from the Virgin effort. That their interests would be misaligned and the overall donation pool would be smaller as a result. A decision that has since been vindicated several times over.

If the collective interests are balanced, doing good doesn’t have to be unprofitable.

Recently I co-founded a business called BeyondCover. On one hand BeyondCover is an Insurance reseller for Global Underwriter QBE, selling CTP (The mandatory Motor cover in Australia), General Motor and Travel Insurance, on the other hand it raises money for causes by rewarding Cause partners when they introduce a new Insurance Customer.

The key to having the right incentives in place lies within the nature of Philanthropists. People who regularly support Good Causes are good people, they take fewer risks, cause fewer accidents and pay their bills on time. They make pretty good Insurance customers too!

Is your business gearing up for in-car Internet?

ABI Research are forecasting a significant growth in Internet Enabled cars, with 50m vehicles sold by 2017 with native Internet connectivity.

In car connectivity is already broadly available with smartphone-dependent products like HondaLink available in most markets today. However like any new technology, the real breakthrough comes when new applications are developed by a broader ecosystem, which, as far as we can tell, is yet to happen.

It’s quite possible that 30 – 40% of new cars sold in Australia will be Internet Enabled with 5 years, yet few business have connected cars in their 3 year plan.

Is Privacy dead, or just too hard?

Lorrie Faith Cranor and Aleecia McDonald from Carnegie Mellon conducted a study recently which repositioned the lack of online privacy as a time issue.

They reported “To read every [online] privacy policy you encountered in a single year would take 76 work days……”

So we all want our time online to be a more private affair, but find it impossible to wade through the policies and figure out what’s what? Further, even if you had the time to read them, would anyone but a Privacy Specialist understand them, and worse, be willing to forgo the benefits brought by Facebook and Google in an effort to maintain some sort of online anonymity? I suspect not in each case.

It’s hard to see how to solve this issue.

At a minimum it would seem appropriate to provide a simplified privacy policy, which would at least encourage consumers to become familiar with the terms they are signing up to. Controlling what your cookies are used for may also be key, Personalisation, yes, targeted advertising, no.

Over time I worry that the role of government will be to reign in on the issue if left unsolved, which would be a bad outcome for all.