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December 08 2011

17:00

The newsonomics of Google’s retail push

It looked like just more head-butting among the mammoths of our time: Google will match up with Amazon, said the Wall Street Journal last week: “The Web-search giant is in talks with major retailers and shippers about creating a service that would let consumers shop for goods online and receive their orders within a day for a low fee.”

Most of the stories played on that Goliath vs. Goliath theme, and of course that’s an increasingly familiar one as the businesses of Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple overlap, intersect, and collide. Who is a bookseller? Well, Amazon, and Apple, and Google, kind of. Who is selling and renting media — well, who isn’t or preparing to do so? Who is in the hardware biz — all except Facebook? Who’s reaching for the digital ad riches, now generating $80 billion worldwide; Google, the king, and Facebook, the fast-threatening prince.

Yes, the Google/Amazon match-up over delivering goods is a good and real storyline. As big brains butt, it could be thunderous and landscape-changing. That landscape includes the news business, and you can almost feel the rumbles underfoot just with the word of Google’s move.

Let’s look at the newsonomics of Google’s would-be one-day-shipping program — let’s call it Google Tomorrow™© — and its wider impacts and strategic rationale. First, we’re talking about a lot of potential money. U.S. retail e-commerce is forecast to hit almost $200 billion this year, with the global total adding up to $700 billion. So there are many companies trying to get in the middle of it.

The idea of website-facilitated buying — and shipping — from fairly local retailers isn’t a new one by a longshot. Storerunner plied this territory, too early, a decade ago. Webvan, the best funded of the grocery deliverers went from brilliance to punchline in about 30 seconds. Shoprunner is currently out there, pitching the same idea as Google Tomorrow. Newspaper companies have been more steadfast, more the tortoise in the race for perfection of our emerging online/offline commercial world.

Companies like the Gannett-owned ShopLocal and independent Travidia, with its FindnSave product used by McClatchy and other news chains, have been building the know-the-local-retail-inventory, compare-prices-and-buy terrain for years. Unlike what Google may do, they don’t deliver one-click buying and delivery. They offer product selection, availability and then click off to retailer’s own sites for buying and shipping or store pickup. The idea seems like a great one, a merger of the best of online and offline, yet it’s been slow to grow. Every time I’ve checked out the sites, I’ve found the promise smart, but the inventories too uneven or the hierarchy of results skewed to preferred shops — not my preferences. Consumers have clearly opted for Amazon over these kinds of sites.

The impact on the ShopLocals and FindnSaves is not what should concern newspapers, though. The big issue: retail advertising.

While the web has greatly damaged newspapers’ classifieds and national ad businesses, retail has been a relatively stronger area. Worth about $13 billion last year — or half of daily newspapers’ ad revenue — it’s a lifeline at this point in the tough print-to-digital transition. Retail is being challenged on several fronts, with the Sunday preprint business a big concern. In fact, both Google and newspapers are pursuing e-circulars to counter the inevitable print downturn in that area.

Wait a minute, you may say — that $13 billion is advertising money and Google, like Amazon, wants to make money facilitating actual commerce. But the division between advertising and selling is an old one, fast blurring. Think about where we’ve come from the era of impression-based (newspaper, TV, radio, magazine) ads into the era of pay-per-click, pay-per-lead, pay-per-acquisition, and more.

Retailers don’t want to advertise; they want to sell stuff.

Give them new routes to sell stuff, and deliver it more cheaply than they could before, and they’ll migrate their ad/marketing/lead generation dollars. So if Google can really make it easier to personalize, routinize and make more efficient the selling process, it will place itself between the seller and the buyer. As it does that, it replaces the newspaper as middleman, further reducing much of the revenue that is keeping newsrooms staffed, even if many of them are now half-staffed at best.

Is the replacement of newspaper as advertising-oriented middleman inevitable? Probably, but over a longer term. Since the dawn of the web, people have been chasing the perfection of commerce, and it’s been a tough slog with far more losers than winners. Amazon, of course, is the big winner, but with relatively small profits, a paltry $63 million in the last quarter on sales of $10.8 billion. While Amazon is perfecting commerce, it’s got a long way ago. Since it was born in 1994, four years before Google, it has built a one-of-a-kind business on customer obsession and brilliant analytics. Its recommendations engine is ready for the web hall of fame, and its latest foray with Prime membership (“The newsonomics of Amazon’s prime moves“) shows it knows how to build on its foundation.

Google lacks some of Amazon’s core strengths. It’s a mix-and-match technology company, famously trying lots of things and at times more quickly abandoning losers. In commerce, Google is moving forward with a spate of moves. Google OnePass is a restyled content buying system, with some prominent publishers signing on. Add in Google Latitude, Google Local, Google Local Shopping, Google Shopper, Google Tags, and Google Places, all relating to local commerce. Google Offers is gaining steam and is working with publishers on syndicating local daily deals.

There’s an irony to such publisher partnerships, of course. On the one hand, Google is a “partner,” magnifying publisher businesses through its ad and search products. On the other, initiatives such as Google Tomorrow are a potential dagger to newspapers’ jugular. That’s the way of the web world. For Google, or Amazon, or Apple, or Facebook, any new initiative it takes on has its own internal logic. Should another industry — say newspapers — be wounded in the process, it’s just collateral damage. Given the size of these digital behemoths, as they decimate legacy industries, you can almost hear them say, “Sorry, did I sideswipe you? I didn’t feel anything.”

If everyone is a frenemy these days, and Google is taking on Amazon, media companies have to ask: Who is the frenemy of my frenemy?

One last point to ponder about Google Tomorrow. Consider it, in part, a defensive move.

If, in fact, selling and advertising are blurring, Google has to move more in the selling direction. Right now, it’s an ad company, pure and simple. About 97 percent of its revenue comes from advertising (and you thought newspapers relied too much on that revenue source). It has brilliantly moved to expand its digital ad dominance (now taking in about 40 percent of the dollars in the U.S.) by merging its paid search foundation with big acquisitions in display advertising and mobile. Just last week, the feds let it buy AdMeld, an ad optimizer — and Google’s 57th acquisition so far this year. Now, the Doubleclick ad management system offers a singular approach, incorporating in one place display, search and mobile, to the delight — and terror — of publishers and others in and around the ad industry.

The dominance is a sight to behold. Yet as digital innovation continues to disrupt everything in its path, the ad business is vulnerable, with companies, led by Amazon trying to eliminate the cost and friction of finding buyers. So let’s look at the Google Tomorrow battle plan as one aimed at Amazon surely, but with ammo that may hit newspapers as well — and one that may allow Google to find that big, elusive second revenue stream.

Photo of Amazon warehouse by Chris Watt/Scottish Government used under a Creative Commons license.

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.

February 24 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of the digital mercado

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.

It’s as old as organized humanity itself: the mercado, the bazaar, the marketplace. We love to visit Old World marketplaces as we travel abroad. At home, our own shopping is now a mish-mash of malls, big box stores, neighborhood shops, and online commerce. Amazon, itself, is now a $34 billion business, and its Prime delivery program can deliver just about anything (my favorite buy: an electric mower) right to your door, seeming so local.

We can research almost any purchase. We can compare prices. We can get advice and reviews from hordes we’ll never meet.

Yet it’s far from nirvana. Navigating the byways of web commerce, other than great walled gardens like Amazon, can be frustrating. Numerous culs-de-sac interrupt us. Price-comparison sites like Price Grabber, Google Product Search, Shopzilla, and UK’s Kelkoo only seem to give us a partial view of what’s available. It’s tough to know when reviews may be gamed. Sites like preprint-digitizer Shop Local (“Your Local Weekly Ads, All in One Place”), owned by Gannett, seems curiously backwards, like replica E-Edition newspaper products for reading. Trying to compare model numbers, on sites like CNET or Best Buy, can give us digital nervous breakdowns.

Within the infinity of shopping choice, a lot of us would like some order.

That’s what the new Find n Save product aims to provide, and for the benefit of newspaper companies. Find n Save is the latest effort from newspaper companies to reclaim what they consider to be their birthright, maybe a third generation of such marketplaces following the ShopLocals and the earlier Storerunners.

Find ‘n Save focuses us on a decade-old-plus newspaper company problem.

While the daily newspaper — with its display and classified ads, its Sunday circulars, and its Wednesday food coupon – used to be the leading local marketplace, it now is just part of the pack. One number — print ad revenue halved in 10 years to $24.8 billion in 2009 (no final tally is yet in for 2010, which was still lower in single-digit decline) in the U.S. — gives real meaning to this splintering of commerce.

Digital media, with its search-led research/price comparison abilities and, now, with the new couponing craze, has wrought havoc with the newspaper business model.  All of that digital commerce has been disruptive and disintermediating. Yet there’s been more disintermediation (of traditional publisher/merchant relationships) than remediation.

We turn to lots of digital media to research and shop, but we have few go-to places of habit, again with Amazon making the greatest inroads into our shopping lives so far.

From a customer-centric perspective, it’s never been more confusing to find good deals. Yes, they seem to come from every quarter — print circulars, the web overall, direct mail, eBay alerts, Amazon “notifications” — but they’re disordered.

A recent study by the BIA/Kelsey group puts a number on the proliferation of marketplace choice. The annual study points to consumers using an average of 7.9 different media to make buying decisions in 2010, compared to only 5.6 in 2007. Buying’s gotten more complex.

The flipside, of course, is that merchants’ own choices about how to market have gotten more complex (“The Newsonomics of  Eight Per Cent Reach“), with small- and medium-sized businesses using 4.6 media to reach customers in 2010, as compared to 3 in 2007.

So taking a look at Find n Save, let’s look at the Newsonomics of the would-be new mercado, and what it will take to make these new marketplaces bigger business for local media.

McClatchy’s newspapers are the first big clients for Find n Save, a product of Travidia, a long-time player in the print-to-digital ad conversion business. Find n Save replaces Marketplace 360, the company’s former regional marketplace product.

Two big McClatchy papers — its hometown Sacramento Bee and the Kansas City Star — launched Find n Save in November. The company’s other big sites, from the Miami Herald to its North Carolina properties (Charlotte and Raleigh) and the Fort Worth Star Telegram, should feature it by July 1, with the rest of the company’s 30 markets putting Find n Save in place by year’s end. MediaNews’ flagship Denver Post will also launch it soon.

It’s not the only new effort at a regional marketplace.

Find n Save will soon by joined by another regional commerce portal. FYI Philly will launch this spring, in the greater Philadelphia region, two of its principals tell me. It’s conceived as a commerce portal, details to come. Significantly, it’s the result of unprecedented cooperation among four newspaper competitors in that region: Philadelphia Media Network (the new parent of the Inquirer and Daily News), the Journal Register company, Gannett, and Calkins Newspapers.

For Chris Hendricks, McClatchy’s VP/interactive, the Find n Save push is about a grand goal: reclaiming retail advertising. While the destruction of print classifieds has been well chronicled, the steady decline of local retail has been less so. You can figure that retail advertising has declined about $7 billion annually since its 2001 height. Yes, online display advertising has yielded some retail revenue, but doesn’t come close to recreating the lost revenue — or the lost sense of marketplace. 

So Hendricks talks about “blowing up retail” — and reordering it with Find n Save. “People are searching more and more for local services and products,” he says. “And they’re getting more and more confused.”

Find n Save aims to bring some simplicity to that confusion. Take a look at it, and you can see it’s a work in progress. What we notice about it — very prominently — is the deal of the day. Yes, Find n Save aims to take advantage of the Groupon revolution. Some Find n Save sites are partnered with Groupon, while others offer their own deals of the day. The idea is that the deal of the day isn’t just a new ad play, a new revenue source, for news sites; it’s also a new gateway to local commerce. The rest of Find n Save shows its ambitions:

  • It gives prominence to other local couponing, deals without the social must-buy incentives of the daily deal. Subway sandwiches, vacuum cleaners, lots of restaurants, and car care — but all in one place.
  • It incorporates product search, as have previous versions of the product. Consumers can search by product, brand, and store, among other attributes, narrowing or expanding search as they wish, and see where that product is available locally. The big allure, here, is the ability to check whether a product is in stock, at multiple, close-by locations. Search for lamps or shoes or spas, and you’ll find a motley assortment of offers.

So far, the November-launched sites have seen their marketplace traffic “quintuple,” says James Green, chief marketing officer of Travidia and an alum of Raleigh’s pioneering Nando Media. He says that’s due mainly due to “product-centric search engine optimization,” providing a new level of prominence in Google search results. If that base can keep growing, Chris Hendricks sees the sites becoming commercial magnets. Possible new, related streams can include display ads, offering prominence and placement, charging local retailers for ingestion of their inventories and conversion of their print material generally and topical directories, he says.

“Deals are the content,” says Hendricks. He notes, for instance, that news sites’ attempts to connect up editorial content with restaurant directories — using newspapers’ unique and core strengths — hasn’t produced the dividends many of us thought they would. Forget the packaging of feature content with ads; just focus on the ads.

So what can we make of this step forward?

Well, it’s a step, but probably many more are needed. Fronting a site with coupons makes some sense, and will pull in additional audience. Yet the overall research and shopping experience will have to be fuller if these are to become go-to sites with masses of local buyers.

It’s hard to know how many years we are away from the perfection of commerce — you know, getting each of us the kinds of timely and meaningful shopping offers that bring order out of the digital shopping chaos. Certainly, though, here is some of what will be needed:

  • Broader, deeper databases of products: That’s simple to say, and hard to achieve. I asked James Green whether Find n Save is a breakthrough product. Not yet, he said, saying that there’s not yet “enough conversion.” That translates as product search being too spotty; provision of retailers’ real-time inventories is still a work-in-progress. If we as consumers run into more dead-ends than usable deals, we’ll stop coming back.
  • Reviews and recommendations: Find n Save contains none. In a world of imperfect knowledge, we love seeing what dozens of others think of products and services, just like in the early mercados. What’s new, good, and fresh? Throw out the reviews that are outliers, and we’ve got a better-than-even shot of making a better buying decision. Sites without them lack the critical component found in sites from Amazon to Best Buy to Yelp.
  • Preferences and customer knowledge: While some of us are highly concerned about privacy, many others say, ‘Just use your tracking to give me what I want — including deals — and stop spamming me with useless ads.’ So the ability to state preferences and to have my digital behavior intelligently watched — for my benefit — will be a big differentiator.
  • A great tablet product. James Green says Find n Save’s mobile app will be ready soon. Apps are, of course, becoming a price of admission for mobile customers. More importantly, the winning local marketplace will figure out how to combine deep, broad shopping info, social reviews, deals — and to fully embrace the interactive and visual capabilities of the tablet. Just as the iPad — and its newer cousins — are the big do-over opportunity for news companies’ reader business models, they’re also literally a blank slate for the new mercado.

Who will build it? It could be a Travidia, or an Amazon or a Google or a Facebook or a Flipboard-for-commerce so far unborn. There are billions of dollars baiting the hook.

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