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July 26 2012

14:00

The newsonomics of Amazon vs. Main Street

Order it on Amazon. Then run to your front door and have it handed to you. The news of Amazon’s same-day delivery blitzkrieg — first explained in depth in an excellent Financial Times piece — elicited a near-maniacal laugh among newspaper companies: What next?

Of course, the impact of Amazon’s move extends well beyond the further toll it may take on the ever-shrinking newspaper business — but that crater-creating possibility may well be the biggest news of a big news summer. Advertising — in Amazon-contested markets — will never be the same.

We’ve known that newspaper advertising revenues are in a deep, downward spiral — higher single digits this year, with early budget guesses showing the same for 2013. In the U.S., overall ad revenues are half what they were five years ago, down $25 billion a year from 2007.

Here’s what most hurts most about the new Amazon threat: It aims directly at the one category of newspaper advertising that has fared the best, retail.

Classifieds has decimated by interactive databases. National has migrated strongly digital. Retail, which made up of just 47 percent of newspaper ad revenues 10 years ago, is now up to 57 percent of newspaper totals. Now that advertising, albeit in just a few markets initially, will have to compete with Amazon-forced marketplace change.

Amazon, of course, isn’t targeting newspaper revenues. It’s targeting customers — selling more to current ones and engaging new ones. Further hits to newspaper revenue are just another unintended consequence of accelerating disruption of all business as usual.

The same-day push is built on strategies long in the making. Amazon knew its day of reckoning on its sales tax exemption would come. Like all big, smart companies with legions of lawyers and lobbyists, it delayed the inevitable, and with each delay, built market strength and cash.

Now the jig is finally up. Combine revenue-starved states and the late-arriving sense that Internet business no longer needs a societal jumpstart, and Amazon is being forced to charge sales taxes, though it negotiated their arrival with great agility. The exemption allowed Amazon an incredible price advantage, and many of us have been glad to take advantage of it. Not having to charge customers four to nine percent in sales in taxes (which land-based merchants couldn’t avoid) allowed it to provide lower prices.

Amazon knew this day would come. What the market didn’t know was that sales tax settlements would lead to Amazon quickly flipping its model. It had paid sales taxes in a few states, forced to do that in places it had warehouses. So it placed those warehouses close enough to customers (Nevada for Californians, for instance) to make two-day shipping a snap. Now, with the tax changes underway (it’s estimated that Amazon will be on the hook for sales taxes for half the U.S. population) , it no longer needs to selectively place vast warehouses in only a few states — it can place them everywhere and much closer to customers.

Today, if you’re in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, New York City, Philly, Seattle or D.C. , you can place an order and it the same day through Local Express Delivery. That becomes Amazon’s base program. It is now building out that simple concept with 7-Eleven distribution lockers and much more, city by dense city. Behind that new delivery service stands an array of back-end technologies, analytics, and logistics that far surpass what anyone else possesses. Even now, to get a sense, of what’s behind the evolving system, just check out the left-hand navigation on this page.

The program builds on the smarts of Amazon Prime, whereby 10 million Amazon customers pay $79 a year and get “free” two-day shipping. Same-day is just the next logical step, both for delivery of goods and deepening of customer relationships and selling opportunities — which, remember, increasingly include media (“The newsonomics of Amazon’s Prime/Subscription Moves”).

The unintended impacts of Amazon’s same-day push will be as intriguing as the ones we can foresee. Just for starters:

  • Will local advertising expand or retract? Retailing will be more intensely competitive, and anti-Amazon appeals need to be transmitted somehow, via smartphone, websites, print, community events, and more. Was SoLoMo just a dream, or is it now a counter-strategy? (Newspaper companies efforts to become regional ad agencies, ironically, may get a boost from the Amazon move.) Preprints, which may total as much as 40 percent of the $11 billion or so U.S. dailies take in as “retail,” will be a prime front here, one way or the other. While retail advertising impacts could be substantial, brand advertising may well become more important, as online buyers decide among brands in different ways.
  • Will newspapers be forced to accept still another death blow to their fortunes, as retail ads are further disrupted? The impact on print is up in the air. Further, Find ‘n Save, a fledgling newspaper-consortium-owned Amazon competitor finds itself even more outmatched as same-day delivery further trumps one of its key differentiations.
  • Will Google, with all its eggs in the ad basket, find unexpected competition, as Amazon further disintermediates advertising itself, becoming the first and only stop between “I want this” and delivery of the good? Will advertising itself be replaced to larger degree as manufacturers are forced to differentiate themselves within Amazon, maybe moving marketing spend there?
  • What will cityscapes and shopping centers of all kinds look like if Amazon’s plans succeed? Imagine a cityscape without big box stores, Walmart, Best Buy, and Bed Bath & Beyond? Impossible, you say? How about one without Borders, Tower Records, and Blockbuster Video, all of which have left hulking holes in the American suburban landscape. Nothing is safe from digital disruption; nothing, holy or commercial, is sacred. Optimistically, a couple of dozen communities are creating next-generation uses for these eyesores, as the big box reuse movement (good rundown and reuse wiki via Slate) has been unexpectedly spawned. Will big boxes, the spirit-sapping, wallet-supporting icons of our age of disenchantment, take the brunt of Amazon’s assault, or will it be smaller stores?
  • What might it do to employment? Will CVS checkers be replaced by more truck drivers and order fillers? Or is the future simply more robotic, as Amazon’s purchase of warehouse-product-picking Kiva Systems changes the supply chain? No, it’s not sci-fi, though it appears to be the year of the “robots,” as computers do everything from local “reporting” (Journatic) to filling our orders for toothpaste and printer ink.

Let’s take a first look at the competition, as we look at the newsonomics of Amazon vs. Main Street.

In one corner, there’s Amazon. Its strengths:

  • Quick findability, in your living room.
  • Delivery to your door, or near it, now “same day.”
  • Wide selection, often more than is available locally (but sometimes less).
  • Wide-ranging and increasingly deep user reviews.
  • Guaranteed satisfaction or easy return.

In the other corner, it’s Main Street. Its appeals:

  • Buy it now. Pick it up. See, buy, use. Ad veteran Randy Novak says that more than 80 percent of retail sales now come from areas within 15 minutes of a stores’ location.
  • The visual and tactile shopping experience; NAA’s Randy Bennett points to retailers’ role as “showcasers.” Then, there’s shopping as entertainment, plainly as much heaven for some as hell for others.
  • Habit.
  • Getting out of the house once in a while.
  • Support of the local guy.

Proximity here is fascinating. The local edge has long been proximity, that 15-minutes-away appeal. Now, Amazon counters that with 12 inches away (your nearest screen) and some number of hours, as Americans do their new arithmetic on buying.

Beyond proximity, there’s price. Yes, Amazon is acknowledging that the 20-year-long sales tax furlough it got is finally ending. It knows it will have to add that 4-9 percent of sales tax to its prices across the country within several years. So where will that tacked-on pricing put it?

Let’s remember that its world-class algorithms track competitors’ pricing in real time. After all, that’s been — often to Amazon investors’ chagrin — CEO Jeff Bezos’ strategy from the beginning: sacrifice profit margin for market share and growth. Its last quarterly report showed 1 percent net profit — on $13 billion of sales. Expect it to match or beat on many items, absorbing low margins, and maybe loss leaders to win market share from Main Street.

How much room, with tight margins, will Amazon have to maneuver? That could tell the tale here. Squeezing margins — lowering prices — will have one at least near-term consumer impact. If you’re selling the same vitamins, shoes, or dog food as Amazon, you’ll have to lower some prices to compete. The cautionary tales of bookstores and music stores, and now Best Buy, show that consumers don’t find a lot of sense in paying more locally than through the web.

As we consider price, the shipping fee comes clearly into view. With Prime, the innovation that paved this road, members don’t worry about each shipping cost. Pay once — that $79 annual fee that’s been remarkably stable — you get shipping “free.” Look for Amazon to embed free same-day shipping into another similar program, Prime Same-Day, for $99 or $139, or include it for anyone spending more than $500 a year, for example; we believe that Prime members may average $1,500 in annual purchases already. As with Prime and with Amazon overall, again, build market share for the long term, even at the risks of low profitability or even loss.

There’s a lot of nuance we’ll miss in the first passes on the topic, of which Farhad Manjoo had the best. This commercial initiative is aimed of course at goods, not services. It’s the goods-selling competitive and geographic landscape — think Amazon categories like drugs, clothes, toys, and electronics — that could be transformed. Services, like those that we use today — health care, restaurants, fitness centers, and, of course, coffee shops — would be unaffected. In an ideal world, we may have less time for mundane shopping and more for more fruitful activity. Or we may have big empty buildings, fewer community jobs, and less socializing. And, maybe people will have more time to read. We’ll probably see all these things happening at once.

Amazon, of course, just wants to make money. Yet, it has already, in part, disintermediated shopping itself. Expect it to be extend its Subscribe (interesting choice of words, right?) and Save program, wherein you get small discounts for getting regular deliveries of goods, like detergent, that you reorder over and over again. Expect it to try to change our mindsets from shopping to deciding and then letting it go, and getting it delivered without a second thought — changing the very notion of shopping.

With price differentiation now driven by algorithm, with ad offers driven by those with the biggest data, and now with delivery of our daily goods newly rationalized, it looks like those that prize news creation best continue to look elsewhere for revenue. That’s one of the reasons I’ve become increasingly enthusiastic about reader revenue. Yes, newspapers could repurpose their daily delivery systems here, to actually aid Amazon, but that seems like a real longshot. The technocrats of commerce, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, are the biggest game in town — and increasingly, they want to be the only one.

Photo by Stephen Woods used under a Creative Commons license.

May 05 2011

14:30

The newsonomics of the new ABCs of journalism

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

This week brought us the long-worked-on new counting metrics for American daily newspaper journalism.

ABC, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, has long provided The Number.

The Number — really The Numbers, a daily number and a Sunday number — have been the reader numbers dailies measured themselves by, twice a year, spring and fall. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s number one — it’s really a horse-race number, simple to report by the publishers and simple to report by those covering the industry. Of course, The Number has been in horrific decline. Take a look at the State of the News Media circulation chart (a third of the way down a long page) and you can see 15 straight reporting periods in single-digit decline, tracked since 2003. Clearly, circulation is still dropping, though it will take the next six-month comparisons, using these new metrics, to establish new benchmarking.

That’s one of the reasons The Number is gone — optics do count — but more importantly the nature of ad buying has changed dramatically in that same period. Newspaper ad revenues have been halved while online ad revenues will approximate newspaper ad revenues this year or next. While halved to $25 billion annually or so, newspapers, with the new ABCs, have made a directional shift to satisfying those advertisers; recall that even the New York Times, the digital leader with 25 percent of its ad revenues being digital, still depends on the print for three-quarters of its dollars.

So The Number is all but gone. Sure, there’s still “Total Circulation,” and that’s led some to do apples-to-apples comparison to the last set of numbers from last fall. It’s not a fruitful exercise, given the magnitude of the changes.

“ABC and the industry never intended that ‘total circulation’ to be a metric of success,” John Murray, the Newspaper Association of America’s vice president of audience development told me this week.

That’s because there is a now a whole raft of numbers, a new set collected by publishers, verified by ABC and used, over time, quite differently by advertisers. Trying to understand the difference between the old report and the new report is best done either dead sober or after a six-pack; anywhere in between may leave you wanting. I appreciate Poynter’s Rick Edmonds thorough picking through the changes, the new lexicon and taxonomy, and I won’t repeat his observations.

What’s significant to me about the changes are two big things, one theoretical and one practical, and therein, I think, lie the newsonomics of the new ABC report.

The big picture recognition here, as publishers and major advertisers have wrestled the new system to the ground, is that the age of simple mass is gone. Counting is increasingly about niche. How many of the readers are paid readers of print? How many read e-editions, and, of those, how many read replicas and how many read dynamic products? How many readers get free, but requested, packets of news and ads, and how many readers get the packets because they’ve been targeted (affluent households) just because of where they live? And there’s more nuance than that.

Just as the digital marketing world has increasingly provided agencies and advertisers with a trove of audience data, the print world is slowly responding. While advertisers can only track these differing print niches with differing coupon codes, or a spectrum of differing 1-800 call-in numbers, print at least can be niched in some ways, even though it doesn’t offer the intensive harvesting of data that digital does. Of course, the various e-alternatives, from “online” to tablet to smartphone, are offering advertisers the ability to say “I’ll take this, but not that” and to mix and match print and digital buying as never before. While advertisers could do some picking and choosing before, they were often flying blind and these new categories of circulation counting — verified circulation and branded editions to “requested” or “targeted” delivery — give them better data on which to make those choices. Consider the data advertisers get with this first report just the beginning of new sets of metrics to come.

On a practical level, we can see a couple of fundamental ways the new ABCs will impact the marketplace:

  • Sunday and preprints: Sunday Select is the flavor of the age, as companies from Gannett to McClatchy to Belo eagerly make up for declining paid Sunday circulation with packets of news and ads delivered to non-payers. “Paid is no longer the determinant of value,” says Murray — and that’s a huge change for an industry that long differentiated its ad appeal on the basis of paying customers. If readers opt in (“requested”), that’s a big plus for advertisers. Why? That shows “engagement,” that magic word all online publishers seek. Opt-out (or “targeted”) denotes a little lesser value, but since those being targeted are higher-demographic households, advertisers still like to reach them. In the new stats, though, they’ll be able to see how many paid, how many requested and how many targeted editions got distributed on Sunday. Some will try to differentiate results among the three. I asked John Murray where advertisers are at in tracking the differing results among paid, requested, and targeted, on a scale from one to ten. “I’d put them at 2s and 9s,” he told me, explaining with a couple of numbers how much in transition we are. Some — think Best Buy, for instance — are 9s, trying to track and compare everything, including differing print deliveries. Others are 2s, still essentially buying mass, but planning on doing more tracking over time.

Sunday is huge for newspapers, as a third or more of their revenue is driven by that one day. And preprints, or the Sunday circulars — all those glossy colorful ad inserts from the big box stores — are now make or break for that Sunday take. “Media [reading] habits are changing faster than ad habits,” says Randy Novak, a Gatehouse veteran and now vice president of industry research and relations for Geomentum, a local focused ad agency. “People like to touch those preprints.”

Let’s complete the value circle here. Who loves those preprints? Twenty-five to 44-year-old women, says Murray, and they are coveted consumers. Consider Sunday and its preprints to be the biggest raison d’etre of the new ABCs.

Further, add in a Wednesday or a Thursday midweek market day, says Novak, and you’ve got a newer, winning formula. We begin to see further definition of a strategy that is emerging at daily newspaper companies. That strategy: Sunday print/daily digital, especially tablet, as a coming subscription/ad satisfying program coming to a city near you by 2013-14 (“The newsonomics of Sunday paper/daily tablet subscriptions“). Or Sunday/Wednesday print, and the rest digital. We’re headed there, I believe, as the economics of advertising and the emerging reading habits of news readers merge to forge new revenue and cost-saving plans. (One thing to watch closely in the next sets of ABC reports: How well Sunday print paid is doing.)

  • Proving — and disproving — e-edition value: E-replica editions have been used by some papers to artificially pump up those sagging circulation numbers (“How much can we trust e-edition numbers?“). Publishers have told me privately that while they packaged — and counted — those replica products, only a small percentage of readers actively used them. Starting with the ABC fall report, there will be some effort to count usage — a nod to advertisers who figured out the scheme. In addition, we’re already seeing “replica” and “non-replica” parsed out, which should help separate out the e-chaff. More interestingly, as we see increasingly nuanced reporting of specific tablet and smartphone usage, we’ll be getting an emerging picture both of how news is really being read and how marketers can effectively read readers via these new platforms.

Just as we’re moving away from the One Number for print, we’re emerging from a time of counting those rudimentary uniques and pageviews online, with time spent digitally the big issue of the day for all publishers, but especially for those trying to sell those digital subscriptions. Where we may be headed: Time on Brand, as the biggest — and/or best — news brands try to satisfy readers, and bring along marketers to serve them — on a changing-through-day array of devices.

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