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Which companies might prosper in an ad recession? October 13, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, Ecommerce, freemium, gaming, Lead gen, recession, subscription, virtual goods.
15 comments

I have previously posted on which online media companies will survive the ad recession. Clearly, all online media companies will feel the advertising recession, but some companies will hold up better than others.

But some companies might do more than survive – they might prosper. Companies that buy advertising (rather than selling it) will find that they can now buy advertising more cheaply than previously.

Ecommerce companies, subscription businesses, lead gen businesses and online game companies are all buyers of online advertising. In the last advertising slowdown, companies like Expedia, Zappos, Quin Street, Lending Tree, Lower My Bills, Netflix, Classmates.com and Ancestry.com were all able to grow to over $100M in revenue by taking advantage of cheap media.

Will history repeat itself in this recession? It is hard to know. Certainly lower CPMs can lead to lower customer acquisition costs if all else is equal. But the difference between this recession and the last one is consumer confidence, which is markedly lower today than in the 2000-2003 time period. As a result, there may simply be less buyers out there to acquire. Compete recently noted the marked drop in “in market auto buyers” over the last two years for example – down 37%:

Certainly, consumers are deferring “considered purchases” including homes, cars and other big ticket items. Etailers selling “necessities” that cannot be deferred, such as diapers or business cards, will do fine. The question is what will happen to the demand for small ticket consumer discretionary spending. Starbucks might be considered a proxy for this sort of spending. Unfortunately, the news for Starbucks isn’t good. Notes Seeking Alpha:

There was a time when getting a coffee at Starbucks Corp. (SBUX) – whether a basic “tall bold” or a souped-up venti concoction – was considered a relatively cheap treat, though those of us with a daily Starbucks habit might think otherwise.

However, a report from RBC Capital Markets analyst Larry Miller indicates that even that daily cup of store-bought java is one of the victims of the credit crunch. Mr. Miller lowered his 2009 earnings estimates – to $0.90 from $0.95, and said:

[The move] reflects our proprietary survey work, which suggests Starbucks sales continue to weaken as consumers are changing their habits and brewing more coffee at home.

This does not bode well for small ticket discretionary spending.

One potential brightspot may be gaming. The games industry has historically been considered counter cyclical. The argument has been that for $50s you can buy a game that will give you 50-100 hours of enjoyment, versus $10 for a 2 hour movie or $5 for a magazine that you’ll finish in an hour. Free to play games make this argument even more compelling. Free to play games may be able to take advantage of cheaper customer acquisition costs in an advertising recession.

For other forms of discretionary small ticket spending, the jury may still be out.

Google is making it harder for vertical search engines September 24, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, arbitrage, business models, google, Lead gen, Search.
8 comments

DavidZHawk asks, “What if Google Declared War on Comparison Shopping Engines and No One Noticed?” and points to an Inside Adwords blog post (my bolding):

The following types of websites are likely to merit low landing page quality scores and may be difficult to advertise affordably. In addition, it’s important for advertisers of these types of websites to adhere to our landing page quality guidelines regarding unique content.

* eBook sites that show frequent ads
* ‘Get rich quick’ sites
* Comparison shopping sites
* Travel aggregators

* Affiliates that don’t comply with our affiliate guidelines

Comparison shopping sites and travel aggregators are just two classes of the many flavors of vertical search engine, although they monetize better than most because of the high proportion of transactional search queries. As a result they have been able to afford to buy traffic through Seach Engine Marketing (SEM) where other vertical search engines have not been able to afford to due to lower monetization rates.

When you combine this move to send less traffic to vertical search engines with Google’s more aggressive inclusion of “One Box” search results from Froogle and their other owned vertical search efforts, you start to wonder if Google is looking to keep more of its traffic recirculating within its own properties. iGoogle and Gmail were the first signs that Google might aspire to keep control of more of the traffic that starts there.

Web 2.0 marks the decline of Ebay and Amazon March 26, 2007

Posted by ravimhatre in Consumer internet, Ecommerce, Internet, Lead gen, Search, start-up, web 2.0.
12 comments

Om Malik is on to an important trend in his recent post  regarding the marginalization of Ebay, Amazon and other legacy ecommerce marketplaces with the advent of e-commerce 2.0.  Given the emergence of new and better merchandising technologies, more intuitive and comprehensive product search services, and the proliferation of contextual and performance-based advertising channels,  small and mid-sized merchants are able to establish rapidly growing web outlets more easily than ever before. 

In the first generation of ecommerce,  marketplaces with recognizable consumer brands (like Ebay and Amazon)  could offer small and mid-sized merchants access to large pools of customers.   However, there was a significant premium charged for this access – usually 10 or more percent of the transaction price. Bear in mind that the typical merchant will have total gross margins of no more than 20-30 percent. 

Like many net-based ecosystems we’re now witnessing the emergence of an open environment to replace first generation “closed”  marketplaces or communities.  Instead of listing on Ebay or Amazon and relying on their brand to attract customers and their standardized merchandising and search to drive purchases, a merchant can now easily build a product website that will drive organic traffic from vertical and horizontal search engines picking up their unique product content and also utilize a variety of performance based advertising channels including comparision shopping lead-gen sites (the top 10 sites delivered over 100 Million shopping leads to merchants in January 2007)  as well as  search engine keyword marketing to acquire new customers.  These channels are less expensive and drive significantly more customers and purchases at higher margins than legacy marketplaces.  

From a VC perspective, we believe a key requirement to making this work is the emergence of next-generation product search services that tame the Internet’s infinite shelf-space and provide consumers with truly comprehensive product search results through an interface that is highly intuitive and digestable.  Several start-ups are intensely working to solve this problem such as TheFind (LSVP portfolio company) Become, and ShopWiki.  Let us know what you think of their services. 

Google CPA will crunch lead gen arbitrageurs margins further March 21, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, Consumer internet, Lead gen, Search, start-up, startups.
19 comments

Today’s release of Google’s Cost-Per-Action (CPA) beta has generated a lot of attention. Most are focusing on the impact on affiliate networks such as Commission Junction or Link Share as the test is currently confined to Adsense ads that show up on the Google Publisher Network.

I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. The next logical step is to have these CPA ads show up as Adwords next to Google’s search results.

This presents a direct and present threat to many lead gen businesses, especially those that rely on CPC to CPA arbitrage as their business. I posted on the future of lead gen in January, where I noted that, simplifying substantially, lead gen comprises three processes:

1. Acquiring traffic (e.g. from paid search, organic search, brand advertising, banner advertising, distribution deals etc).
2. Converting traffic to leads through a form-fill process
3. Finding the highest value for a lead among multiple buyers (ie having a network of advertisers and knowing who placed what value on each lead)

Google’s current beta will essentially eliminate the arbitrage opportunities in part one of this value chain. Companies driving the majority of their traffic from organic search and (long term) distribution deals will be less affected, as will those who add value to the process by qualifying users and directing them to the best matched vendors as leads. But those whose core competencies are in clever media buying will be pressured because a CPA model shifts the risk out of buying CPC and CPM media and converting to lead forms.

There are a large number of lead gen companies that have grown to over $100m in revenue. These have grown to their current size by being well managed, and building multiple sources of traffic and an efficient mechanism for matching leads to their highest value.

Smaller “mom and pop” lead gen shops that depending on buying traffic through banner advertising and CPC advertising to landing pages and selling these leads to a small network of buyers will find their margins under increasing pressure if their clients can disintermediate them through Google’s new products.

UPDATE: Some very insightful responses posted in comments that I will attempt to summarize as “you’re assuming more efficiency exists than actually does, thats why this will still create a lot of value”. Its a fair point. If you read this in RSS, its worth reading the comments.

Time Rich or Time Poor? March 19, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, Ecommerce, Internet, Lead gen, Search, social networks, start-up, startups, user generated content, VC, Venture Capital, video, web 2.0.
62 comments

Broadly speaking, there are two types of internet users, Time Rich (more time than money) and Time Poor (more money than time). I’d speculate that many of the readers of this blog fall into the Time Poor category, but the vast majority of internet users fall into the Time Rich category. If you’re starting a new internet company, its important to know who your audience is, and to make sure that you don’t let your own experience and that of other Time Poor people guide you wrong.

Time Poor

Time Poor people use the internet to get things done. They are very task focused, and their favorite websites help them use their precious time more efficiently. Great examples of websites built for the Time Poor include search engines, first gen comparison shopping engines (trying to find the lowest price as quickly as possible), ecommerce and lead gen sites where the purchase is more functional than emotional, and many of the “social news” websites that filter the news for you.

If you’re building a website for the Time Poor, your focus should be to minimize their time and pages on site. As a result, business models around e-commerce, CPC and lead generation are good matches for these sort of site – it aligns both user and site around getting to a transaction as quicly as possible. Depending on what you do, you may even be able to charge a subscription as well.

Time Rich

Time Rich people use the internet to kill some time. They are bored. They are willing to be diverted and entertained. Great examples of websites built for the Time Rich include broad based social networks, targeted social networks, picture sharing sites, anything celebrity related, anything sports related, social shopping sites (recreational shopping), social discovery websites that suggest new sites to you, all video websites and causal games websites.

If you’re building a website for the Time Rich, your focus should be to give them options to explore. Links density is the name of the game – more links means more clicks. Suggest a next click at any natural pause point, and keep people clicking within your site. Stimulate communication and community – it keeps people engaged and coming back. Give people reasons to bookmark you and come back often with fresh content and evergreen favorites.

You’ll likely monetize through advertising – sponsorship and CPM as well as CPC. Subscriptions may work for you too if you have certain features held back. If the products you sell are bought spontaneously, then ecommerce may also work for you. But don’t fall into the trap of creating extra pageviews for your own benefit and not that of your user (e.g. by splitting articles across multiple pages, or creating extra steps in a process to edit a profile page) as your users will wise up to your game soon enough. Time Rich does not mean unsophisticated. Your users spend enough time on the internet, and on your competitors sites, to know what are the best practices.

Know your audience when you build your site, keep the target clear, and you’ll have a better chance of meeting their needs.

UPDATE: New visitors, if you liked this post try the second most popular post, Three Ways to Build an Online Media Business to $50m in revenue

More on building an online media company to $50m in revenues March 14, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, Consumer internet, Internet, Lead gen, start-up, startups, VC, Venture Capital, web 2.0.
15 comments

As my previous post indicated, it is not easy to build an online media company to $50m in revenue. Depending on whether you’re broad reach, demographically focused, or can support endemic advertisers, you need to get to top 10, top 25 or top 125 levels of US website traffic.

A couple of interesting studies have come out recently that underscore how difficult this can be.

At the Online Publishers Association’s Forum on the Future earlier this month, Marketspace (a consulting firm associated with Monitor) announced the results of their research which showed that 92% of 2006 gross online ad spend in the US went to only four companies; Google, Yahoo, MSN and AOL. Although some portion of that ad spend was subsequently distributed to independent sites through ad networks (e.g. AOL’s Advertising.com, Google’s Adsense, Yahoo’s Publisher Network etc), that is a big proportion of the total. Furthermore, that is an INCREASE from the 88% that went to those four companies in 2005.

Now According to the IAB and PwC, internet advertising revenues for 2006 were estimated to be $16.8 billion, a 34 percent increase over $12.5 billion in 2005. So doing the math, that suggests that the online advertising that didn’t go to the big four actually DECREASED from $1.5bn in 2005 to $1.34bn in 2006.

For companies in the broad reach/$1 RPM bucket, this probably doesn’t matter much. Ad networks owned by the big four sell a lot of their advertising anyway. But for companies that target endemic advertisers, this is sobering information. To be able to realize RPMs in the $20 range, companies will need to have their own sales force. And if these numbers are to be believed, this sales force is actually competing for a share of a slightly shrinking pie.

These numbers don’t quite match to the numbers in Avenue A/Razorfish’s 2007 Digital Outlook report, which is well summarized at Paidcontent, but they agree directionally. Avenue A says that portals have increased their share of online ad spend by 85% from 2005 to 2006, from 13% of overall ad spend to 24%. (This report breaks out search and ad networks separately – the big four would be a combination of these categories).

It would appear that advertisers are seeking consolidation in their spending patterns.

This isn’t entirely a doom and gloom story – online advertising revenue as a class is still growing at 34%, and $1.34bn of online ad spend among the independents is still plenty of revenue to go around. But it does underscore the need for websites to have a compelling story for advertisers, both about user targeting and about volume of traffic.

New forms of advertising are hard February 19, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in advertising, Consumer internet, Digital Media, Internet, Lead gen, Search, start-up, startups, web 2.0.
25 comments

I’ve seen a few startups recently that are relying on launching a new form of advertising as their business model. These can include product placements, sponsorships of various flavors, new forms of local advertising, interactive out-of-home advertising, and lots of variations of mobile advertising. This is a hard business. If successful, it can be very, very successful (e.g. Overture/Google with sponsored links in search) but entrepreneurs often underestimate how long it will take for revenues to ramp.

To understand how new forms of advertising get adopted, you need to understand how advertising is bought today. In most instances, ad agencies control the ad budgets for the largest advertisers in the world. Within those ad agencies, one of the functions is media buying. A media buyer’s role is to optimize reach (and sometimes quality of audience) for their client across all possible advertising channels. The problem with new forms of advertising is that they are often not represented in the media buyers’ spreadsheets and models. And if it’s not in the model, it doesn’t get allocated any ad spend.

Startups sometimes get traction with a new form of advertising because there are always some forward thinking advertiers who are willing to experiment. This early traction is often a customized program negotiated with an advertiser that is friendly with the startup through personal relationships. However, crossing over from a “business development” focused model (where each new deal is custom crafted) to an “ad sales” focused model (where standardized products are sold off of a rate card) is the key to massive scalability of revenues. To do this you need to get into the media buying model; you need to sell a standardized product.

For internet companies, that usually means that you need to get the IAB (Internet Advertising Bureau) to issue a new “Standard” ad unit, in much the same way that the IAB issued its first set of “voluntary guidelines” that set up 8 standard banner ad units in 1996, a massive reduction from the over 150 ad sizes that were in use at the time. This standardization greatly eases logistical complexity for both advertiers and media companies.

The process of creating a new standard can be quite a lengthy one. It usually involves a coalition of both media companies and advertisers coming together and negotiating the key elements of the standard. The composition of the IAB board is usually dominated by larger online media companies and it can be hard for a startup to have much influence on this decision making process. It can often be easier to align youself with the interests of a larger media company and let them carry the water up the hill, rather than trying to do it independantly as a startup. If you’re Dogster, you’ll have less success pushing a new standard for “sponsored profiles” than MySpace/FIM or AIMpages/AOL. So making sure that your sponsored profiles packages contain the same elements as those of the big guys will make your life easier as they take this new ad unit through the standardization process

The alternative approach is to make sure that your new form of advertising so closely parallels an existing standard ad unit that it can be considered within the existing bucket. 30 second online video ads (same format as TV),online leads (similar to phone leads) and new variations of CPC advertising (similar to search) have all been “close enough” to an existing ad unit that they have been able to tap existing ad budgets and grow quickly.

In either case, when building business plans on the assumption of the adoption of new ad units, make sure you give yourself enough time in your plans for the market to be created before it can grow to scale.

A play about success in consumer technology, in three acts February 6, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, Ecommerce, Lead gen, Search, social networks, startups, user generated content, viral, viral marketing, web 2.0, widgets.
11 comments

I’ve previously posted on the importance of distribution during the initial phase of a startups life. To be more accurate, I think that distribution is the most important factor for a consumer facing company competing in a new category.

However, I think that this is just the first act of a three act play, with a different factor being critical to success in each act.

ACT ONE: DISTRIBUTION

To summarize the earlier post; early in a category’s lifecycle, users don’t recognize that they have a particular need/problem. They don’t recognize that a category exists and so there is no demand pull. If even your own mother doesn’t know what it is you do; ESPECIALLY if your own mother doesn’t know what it is you do, then you likely face this problem!

Having the best product is neither necessary nor sufficient. Having a decent product is good enough.

You need to get to users as they won’t get to you. Hence the importance of distribution. Read the original post for flavors of distribution and how to get them, plus examples.

ACT TWO: PRODUCT

Over time, categories become established in the minds of consumers. In the case of online travel agencies it took about 3-5 years. In the case of user generated video, it took only 12-18 months. Consumers start to understand who the competitors are in an industry. If switching costs are low (as they are in both online travel agencies and user generated video), users often sample the offerings from multiple competitors. At this stage, assuming that you have done enough to get into the consideration set, product and user experience matters a lot. Distribution has become the ante, and the companies that win will win on the best product.

Having the best product means much more than having the most checks in a feature comparison matrix. It goes far beyond the technology. It can mean having the best prices, the best selection/range, the best customer service or the best community. In the early days of online travel Travelocity won on distribution through its deals with AOL and Yahoo! But once the category became established in people’s minds, Expedia slowly took market share from Travelocity on the back of a better overall user experience, one important factor being better pricing (mostly hotel pricing). [Update: Note comments below from Rich Barton, founding CEO of Expedia, on his view of why Expedia overtook Travelocity.]

Similarly, many user generated video sites claim better features than Youtube, yet Youtube never lost its lead because it had the biggest range of content (and the biggest audience for people looking to upload videos). As technologists we can fall into the trap of defining “best product” too narrowly, but our customers are not technologists and they look at the whole experience.

ACT THREE: BRANDING

As a category continues to mature, it becomes harder to maintain product differentiation. There are some exceptions; when there are positive network effects an early leader like Ebay or Youtube can often hold their leads. But if the advantages built in Act Two stem from technology, process or supply advantages, these often get whittled away as competitors copy, innovate and partner to make up lost ground. At this stage of a category’s evolution, branding is the most important factor and product has become the ante once again. (Note that I distinguish here between branding and marketing. Online marketing that is more direct response (CPC or CPA) in nature is really more a form of distribution.)

Google is sometimes presented as the canonical example of the best technology winning over time. However, as I mention in the post on distribution, Google‘s traffic only really started to climb after its distribution deals with Y! and AOL. It really did pull away from the other search engines on the basis of its better product during Act Two. But today, its not at all clear that its search results are that much better than anyone elses.

When I was at AOL a couple of years ago, we used to test search relevance from multiple engines by taking the results from all the major search engines, stripping all branding and UI, and showing the lists to users who scored the quality of the search returns. The results were surprising – all the search engines were very close to each other in relevance, with variations as to who was “best” from month to month and search term to search term. Interestingly enough, when you put the branding and UI back in, the users always rated
Google as having the best search results.

Google‘s dominant brand is now what enables it to hold and grow its search market share. And in mature categories such as online travel, you see the big players compete purely on branding ads.

In some categories, branding never matters and we never reach Act three. If your users are unlikely to transaction with you more than once (say you sell rowing machines or curio cabinets) then your category will likely never develop beyond Act One. But if you’re in a category with repeat users, whether books, DVD rentals, online auctions, or shoes, branding matters.

CONCLUSION

Distribution, product and branding, all are critical but at different times. Making sure you focus on the right factor at the right stage in the evolution of your category can help you make sure you’re fighting the next war, not the last one.

Viral Marketing = Free Customers January 16, 2007

Posted by ravimhatre in Consumer internet, Lead gen, viral, viral marketing, web 2.0.
28 comments

For websites with social networking or community features “going viral” or acheiving a viral coefficient greater than 1.0 represents the holy grail of traffic acquisition. What’s behind this? Going viral means that new user acquisition costs have essentially been driven to ZERO. This is a significant departure from the current state-of-the-art.

The friction of the “real world” means traditional businesses need to invest in sales and marketing to acquire and retain customers. Whether selling to enterprises or consumers and whether the sales process is direct, “high touch” or indirect via telesales, direct mail, etc, the process of bringing in customers requires money proportional to the number of new users. Internet 1.0 businesses have fared slightly better through expanded online reach but still need to invest in keyword marketing, affiliate revenue sharing and other acquisition and distribution vehicles to acquire incremental customers.

Viral marketing has emerged as a mainstream Web 2.0 phenomena whereby existing users do the work and bear the time and expense of delivering additional new users. While not univerasally applicable (yet), we think the power of viral marketing as a zero or exceptionally low cost agent for acquiring customers will expand to be applied across lots of new categories. To date we’ve observed several early variants on the model:

1) Peer to Peer Communication and Messaging: Applications like Skype or Hotmail where inherent use of the application requires a user to forward the application to other users and have them register in order to particiapte. CPM (Yahoo!Mail) and contextual (gmail) advertising and pre-paid subscription (Skype) business models have all been used to monetize these viral ecosystems.

2) Online Self Expression and Social Networking: Sites like MySpace , Flickr, and YouTube and new distributed social self expression sites or widgets like RockYou (LSVP portfolio company), Widgetbox and others enable users to invite friends to view personalized digital content. These new viewers are required to become registrants on the social networking site or can make the decision to adopt a widget in order to broadcast their own content inducing a viral growth cycle as these new users then invite additional viewers into the system. Thus far, monetization has occured primarly through online advertising although early experiments with the sale of digital goods (HotorNot) foreshadow a more transaction-based monetization model.

3) Viral email marketing: This usually takes place by way of online offers which are proposed to an initial set of consumers. Embedded in the offer is an earnable incentive or reward for successfully forwarding the identical offer to additional consumers. Campaigns can yield large numbers of responses even for offers sent to a small initial set of customers.

4) Vertical community sites. Like more horizontal social networking sites, these portals enable like-minded consumers with a particular interest to invite new users to participate in a shared affinity group. The more people who are part of the community, the faster the rate of the communities viral growth due to exponential increases in the richness of content and number of invitations sent out to new members. Viral community sites enable sharing of interests across topics ranging from finding sales leads (Jigsaw) or finding a new career (LinkedIn) to finding the trendiest new clothing styles (Stylehive – LSVP portfolio company) or getting the latest tips on new movies (Flixster – LSVP portfolio company). Today much of the monetization occurs through impression based advertising although future monetization could emerge via subscriptions, lead generation, and transactional commerce services aimed at vendors interested in accessing highly targetted channels of distribution.

We think the principals of viral marketing and viral user acquisition will be applied well beyond current initial use cases as Web 2.0 continues to evolve. It should yield some exciting new investment opportunities which we’re looking forward to hearing about and getting involved in.

Lead gen is dead. Long live lead gen January 8, 2007

Posted by jeremyliew in Consumer internet, Ecommerce, Lead gen, Search, startups.
13 comments

There has been some vigorous comment discussion on the post of 2007 consumer internet predictions, mostly about the lead gen prediction. Firstly, its wonderful to get comments – thank you. When you first start blogging it feels like shouting out a window into the darkness; you’re not really sure if anyone is out there, listening. It’s good to know that I’m not just talking to myself!

On to lead gen. There were two broad schools of thought on the state of lead gen. One is epitomized by a Jason Calacanis’ comment which, while lacking in detail, none the less crisply conveys his opinion of the industry and those who work in it.

Lead generation is dead. Companies would really be foolish to start a new leadgen company – especially NOW. Geesh.

Others shared more detail, and see a troubling situation as the arbitrage opportunities between buying CPC advertising and selling leads dry up. The markets, both in paid search and in remnant banner advertising, have become more efficient, squeezing margins for lead gen companies.

Yet others are more optimistic. Langley Steinert (co-founder of TripAdvisor, now CEO of Cargurus.com, and one of the pioneers of lead generation) believes that advertisers would much prefer to pay for leads, and others agree, although sometimes with reservations about if this is in the long term interest of the lead buyers

How can we reconcile some of these positions?

Simplifying substantially, lead gen comprises three processes:

1. Acquiring traffic (e.g. from paid search, organic search, brand advertising, banner advertising, distribution deals etc).
2. Converting traffic to leads through a form-fill process
3. Finding the highest value for a lead among multiple buyers (ie having a network of advertisers and knowing who placed what value on each lead)

Historically, most lead gen companies have been vertically integrated, doing all three processes. Also, historically, lead gen has been focused on a small number of industries, including mortgage lending (including refi, and home equity), consumer credit (including credit cards, educational lending, auto loans), new auto sales and online education.

In these industries, I think it’s fair to say that margins are shrinking and that competition is growing fiercer. The market, while not perfect, is becoming a lot more efficient. Some companies have established a competitive advantage in process #1 by locking in traffic either from organic search, from long term distribution deals, or by having established branded destinations (e.g. Lending Tree). Others have established a competitive advantage in process #3 through the breadth of their buyer network (e.g. Autobytel). Entering these markets today is going to be a tough road to hoe.

As I said in my prior post, I think we’ll see similar principles applied in other categories that also have high customer value, can sustain a sales person’s costs, are infrequent purchases by consumers and have complexity in the decision making process. Possibilities include wedding photography, plastic surgery, LASIK, cosmetic dentistry, eldercare, even business purchases. These categories still allow arbitrage opportunities between CPC advertising and lead gen as they are still inefficient. However, they will also become efficient over time, and long term winners will need to establish competitive advantage in processes #1 and #2 as outlined above.

Interestingly enough, some companies, notably Leadpoint and Root Exchange, are trying to commoditize process #3 by establishing a “marketplace” for buyers and sellers of leads to efficiently find each other (taking a cut of the transaction in the process). If they are successful in doing this in the newer lead gen markets, they will serve to accelerate the margin compression and force successful lead gen companies to focus on the three elements of traffic acquisition that can sustain arbitrage: organic search traffic, branded destination traffic and long term distribution relationships.

It will be interesting to see how this industry plays out. Comments and thoughts, especially from industry practitioners, most welcome.

UPDATE: Some very interesting comments posted – worth reading if you are only getting a feed

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