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What do fourth generation ad networks look like? February 25, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in ad networks, advertising.

There has been a proliferation of online ad networks over the last decade. There are three distinct generations of ad networks, and they have each excelled at a different part of the value chain:

First Generation: Controlling Inventory

The first generation of ad networks were built on their ability to aggregate and control inventory from a wide array of websites. They did a terrific job of building publisher relationships to be able to bundle together wide reach (even within a channel) and offer this as an efficient way for advertisers to buy ads. In some cases, this first generation of ad networks integrating themselves directly into their publisher sites by supplying their ad server or other elements of their advertising infrastructure. Most of the biggest ad networks are good at doing this.

Second Generation: More data

The next generation of ad networks came up with the innovation of third party cookies. They dropped pixels on their publishers pages in order to be able to track users across all of the sites in their network, and to start to target advertising based on recognizing a user when they showed up on different sites.

Third Generation: Better Targeting Algorithms

The third generation of ad networks pioneered behavioral targeting. Not only were they able to recognize a user across their network, but they could begin to predict which users had a greater propensity to click on a particular ad based on their past web surfing behavior.

Together, these three elements represent three of the four core competences of ad networks:

    Aggregating Inventory
    Aggregating Data

We’re starting to see a few changes in the market that are going to serious affect the relative importance of these factors. Firstly, the ad exchanges (Right media, doubleclick exchange etc) are rapidly commoditizing access to inventory. Networks with publisher relationships as a core competence may find that this is less of a competitive advantage going forward.

Secondly, a new generation of startups including Lookery, BlueKai and others are commoditizing data. Ad networks and advertisers can now buy fairly detailed demographic and behavioral data on users, and simply watch for those users to turn up on media that they control. They can even buy cheap impressions from the ad exchanges and enhance this with the data that they bought.

This places additional emphasis on the two other core competences of ad networks, targeting and sales.

Performance ad networks who have targeting as their core competence are going to be safe for a while. Performance advertisers don’t care how your “black box” targeting algorithm works, as long as you’re able to hit their CPA targets.

However, this is less true for brand advertisers. A “black box” approach to targeting brand advertising (unless there is a performance component to their campaign that they can measure) simply isn’t going to work. Advertisers won’t just trust your algorithm. As a result, the targeting that they are looking for is typically not algorithmically complex, but simply a repurposing of demographic or behavioral data (e.g. women 18-35, auto intenders). For brand ad networks, algorithms are not going to be a differentiator.

That leaves sales. It is somewhat obvious, but sales must always be the core competence of the fourth genearation of an ad networks.

Would love to hear readers thoughts.

Where is there upside in ecommerce in this recession? February 23, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in Ecommerce, recession.

Although Internet Retailer is reporting 20% ecommerce growth among the top 500 etailers in 2008 based on their preliminary survey returns, Comscore notes that there was actually a 3% decline in ecommerce sales in q4 2008. The later statistic seems to be more in line with most retailers experience. However, the prognosis is not equally bad across all categories. Comscore notes that some categories (sport and fitness, video games, consumer electronics and apparel) actually saw growth last quarter:


Comscore speculates that this supports more “nesting” behavior in the recession.

McKinsey (free registration required) looks at all consumer expenditure across the last two recessions (not just ecommerce) and also finds some areas that grow while others decline:


Which categories of ecommerce do you think will grow through this recession?

Applying game design principles to the real world – new Honda Insight February 20, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics.

Popular Science has an interesting article about the new Honda Insight and some of the ways that it helps drivers drive in a more fuel efficient manner. Two of the techniques show a very strong game design influence:


Kudos For Being Green
The Insight’s Eco Guide makes sensible driving as entertaining as playing a videogame. Starting with empty graphical “stalks” shown on the multi-information display, efficient drivers can earn “leaves” that fill out the five branches. Over the car’s lifetime, a thrifty pilot can accumulate a second tier of leaves, then a flower on each branch. When a driver grows all five plants, the screen displays a trophy.

Achievements for good driving

Achievements for good driving

Real Time Visual Feedback:

One of two driver-feedback systems on the Insight, Eco Assist displays a glowing arc above the digital speedometer. The arc’s color varies from blue (wasteful) to blue-green (somewhat efficient) to green (efficient), depending on how a driver accelerates or decelerates. A separate screen near the tachometer displays twin bar graphs that show drivers how their starting and stopping habits affect fuel consumption.

visual feedback

visual feedback

Interesting stuff!

Why do people buy virtual goods? February 8, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, virtual goods.

I have an opinion piece in the WSJ.com on why people buy virtual goods today.

What could Facebook do to increase its digital goods revenue – increase Motive. 3/3 February 5, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, facebook, gifts, virtual goods.

I’ve been posting on what Facebook could do to increase its sales of digital gifts, breaking down tactics into three categories, Means, Motives and Opportunity. We’ve covered Means and Opportunity, and today we’ll address Motive.


Let us start by understanding the motives of gift givers. Gifting serves the same purposes on Facebook as it does in the real world. Firstly, it serves to strengthen social ties. Secondly, it serves to draw the receivers attention to the gift giver. Facebook can increase motivation for gift giving by playing into these two familiar behaviors, looking to the real world for conventions that can easily be borrowed.

Strengthening Social Ties

One of the strongest conventions of gift giving is reciprocity. It is awkward to receive a holiday card from someone that you did not send a card to. So too with virtual gifts. But right now it is difficult to know who has given you a Facebook gift. Since virtual gifts are given with the context of the wall, the wall is the best place to highlight gift giving. If each time I visited a friends wall I could prominently see what gifts that friend had given me, that would increase the pressure for me to buy a virtual gift for my friend to accompany my wall posting, especially so if it was a gift giving occassion (such as a birthday, holiday etc). Of course the opposite is also true – if a friend had not given me any virtual gifts you would not want to highlight that at the point at which I was considering whether to give a gift myself.

Gift giving is strongly influenced by immediate social norms. If I were to show up a dinner party empty handed when all the other guest had brought a bottle of wine, I would also feel awkward. People look to the behavior of others to see what is appropriate for their own behavior. Once again, the wall is the right place to highlight this. Right now the wall displays all postings in reverse chronological order. Since a new wall posting appears on the top of the wall, you will only see the most recent postings on your friends wall, many of which may not have digital gifts attached. What if the top postings on the wall were those with virtual gifts attached, and then reverse chronological order after that? (Perhaps with some time limitation, so that top posts would be virtual gifts received say in the last week). This would create a sense of social pressure to a visitor to the wall who would see virtual gift giving as a social norm. This will be especially effective around traditional gifting occasions as before. By highlighting desired behavior, you can influence social norms in the direction that you want.

Drawing Attention to the Gift Giver.

Facebook can be a noisy environment. On your birthday you can receive 10s and even 100s of birthday well wishes. That is a lot of messages to sort through, and often these wishes are not responded to individually due to the volume. How can I make my well wishes stand out from the rest? How can I show how good a friend I am or how much I care? One way is to attach a virtual gift. Because the gift is not free, the very act of attaching a gift serves to differentiate my message from the rest. This is visible not just to the recipient, but also to all other visitors to the profile. Facebook could makes product changes to make this differentiation more prominent. One way would be to “pin” gifts to the top of the wall for some period, as noted in the preceding paragraph. Another would be to similarly “pin” gifts received to the top of the News Feed page for some period, ensuring that the gift is noticed and emphasized to the recipient. Finally, having a small profile picture accompany the gift, instead of just the name of the giver on the News Feed would serve to further draw attention to the gift giver.

Building from this approach, gift giving draws attention but it currently cannot draw gradations of attention. The absence or presence of a gift is the only distinction because all gifts currently cost the same (with the exception of free sponsored gifts). If Facebook were to provide gifts of different prices and levels, this would enable a gift giver to express their interest in a more nuanced way. One problem with implementing this approach on Facebook is the sheer volume of available gifts. There are over 300 Facebook gifts available today. It will be hard, if not impossible, for a gift recipient to tell what is a more valuable gift versus a less valuable gift just by looking at the gift. HotOrNot’s Meet Me solved this problem by starting with a small range of gifts with value tied to a conventional scale; flowers, ranging from the least valuable daisies to the most valuable red roses. Given the profusion of gifts available on Facebook today, Facebook would need to find some other way of demonstrating value to a recipient than relying on the image itself. Perhaps it could show the point value of each gift when the gift displays. But that is a bit crass – it is like leaving the price tag on a gift.  It may need more creativity to make this obvious. Facebook could change the background color of the gifts according to a scale of value that is well enough understood: perhaps white – bronze – silver – gold? This would allow for the current large range of gifts but make it easy to tell at a glance the gradations of value.

Obviously, allowing gifts to have a range of prices will increase the average sales price of gifts, hence increasing revenue from digital gifts sales.

Motivation for Gift Receivers

Looking at gift givers motivations is only half the story. The other half of the story is the gift recipient. What are their motivations?

One simple dynamic to increase gift recipients’ motivation to receive gifts is to make gift getting competitive. Keep track of how many gifts have been received and display this prominently. This could be done on the profile page; in the same way that number of friends is tracked and thumbnails of friends shown, number of gifts receieved and thumbnails of gifts received could also be shown. Or it could be made even more explicit with leaderboards for the people who have received the most gifts. The power of displaying metrics to drive behavior is well documented by game designers. (If you haven’t read Amy Jo Kim’s work on game design for social environments, you should). Once people want to receive more gifts, they will start acting in ways that encourage gift giving, whatever that might be.

Game design provides a second possible mechanic to induce gift recipients to want more gifts; collecting. Gifts are all treated the same right now. If Facebook were to offer awards and achievements for getting “sets” of gifts, you would most likely see some users work very hard to collect gifts to complete those sets. PackRat has shown just how powerful and addictive collecting behavior can be on Facebook. Facebook could for example offer a free [birthday cupcake] to give to someone else if you were given five [birthday cupcakes], or put a custom Christmas skin on your wall if you received 10 Christmas themed gifts.

I believe that through increasing the motivations of gift givers and gift receivers, Facebook could see a more than doubling of their virtual gifts revenue.

What do readers think?

What could Facebook do to increase its digital goods revenue – increase Means. 2/3 February 4, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, facebook, gifts, virtual goods.

We are looking at how Facebook could increase its digital goods revenue by improving the Means, Motive and Opportunity for users to buy digital gifts. Yesterday we looked at Opportunity. Today we’ll look at Means.


Last year Facebook switched from denominating gifts in dollars to gift credits. This was a good first step as users tend to be more willing to spend virtual currencies than real money, even when they are readily interchangeable.

Currently there is only one way to buy Facebook gift credits, and that is via a credit card. But a lot of Facebook users don’t have or don’t use credit cards. They may want to be able to buy and give gifts, but they can’t do so. This is a common problem for a lot of game developers, including many game developers on Facebook. The techniques that worked for them can work for Facebook too.

As a start, Facebook could enable additional payment mechanisms, including Paypal, cell phone billing (including premium SMS) and direct debit from checking accounts. With such an international audience, additional payments mechanisms would allow many of Facebook’s international users to more easily buy gift credits.

Some Facebook users, especially those younger than 18, may not have access to any payment mechanisms other than cash. Accepting cash in envelopes for Facebook points would not scale very well. However, many game companies have been successful in getting their branded prepaid cards distributed at retail. This is one way of turning user’s cash into a payment mechanism that can be used online. Facebook has the brand awareness to do the same thing by striking deals directly with the two biggest distributors of prepaid cards, Incomm and Blackhawk. Alternatively, if they did not want to deal with retailers directly, a company like GMG Entertainment could handle it for them.

However, some users don’t have any money at all to spend on gift credits. $uperRewards and MyOfferPal have found one way to reach this market, through incentive offers. These companies allow users to trade their attention (through filling out market research surveys, applying for credit cards, getting a free trial of a service, signing up for email newsletters or other activities) for virtual currency. They take the bounty paid by the company acquiring the user, and use some of that to buy the user their virtual currency. Facebook could enable users to buy gift credits with incentive offers.

The combination of these tactics to increase Means to buy digital goods could provide an additional lift of 50-100% in digital gifts revenue.

What other ideas do readers have

Tomorrow we’ll discuss the last, and arguably most important factor, Motive.

What could Facebook do to increase its digital goods revenue – increase Opportunity. 1/3 February 3, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in digital goods, facebook, gifts, virtual goods.

Last September I estimated that Facebook is doing around $35m in digital goods sales. In November anonymous insiders suggested that it was closer to $50-60m in digital goods sales. That’s a healthy run rate, but I think Facebook could make a few product changes to do even better.

I’ll split my suggestions into three categories: Means, Motive and Opportunity.


Facebook has made some smart changes to its digital goods/gifts product recently, highlighting upcoming friends birthdays on the home page, prompting gifts on birthdays and allowing users to buy birthday gifts in advance. As birthday gifting is the most common usecase for Facebook digital goods, these are changes that increase a users opportunity to buy virtual goods.

Facebook could increase gifting opportunities by prompting gift giving on other calendar events as well. Some are natural gift giving holidays, such as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Valentines day etc. It already provides a selection of holiday specific gifts for each of these occasions. Facebook could generalize the “birthday” section on the homepage into a “calendar” and note upcoming events that are gift worthy, and perhaps even suggest recipients. For example, if you are “in a relationship” with someone on Facebook, then they would be a natural person to prompt for a Valentines day gift.

Chinese New Year themed Facebook gifts

Chinese New Year themed Facebook gifts

Facebook could also prompt gift giving on certain notifications in the feed that might be “gift worthy”. Especially notable are changes in relationship status (e.g. moving from “in a relationship” to “married” or to “single” for example), but others might include changing address (housewarming gift?), changing educational or job status (graduation gift, or new job gift etc).

Finally, Facebook could prompt for gifting more generally through more, and more direct, calls to action. “Give a gift” is the fourth option for writing on someones wall, and moving it to first would likely increase gifting immediately. So would prompting for gift giving (not just comments) on Status Updates on a profile and in the news feed. Simply putting a link to “gifts” as the default first application in the application box in the right rail would help.

I suspect that increasing opportunity could increase gift giving by 50-100%.

What other ideas do readers have?

Tomorrow, we’ll cover means.

Game design tips from top game designers February 2, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in game design, game mechanics, games.
1 comment so far

Two good recent posts give some useful game design tips.

Raph Koster talks about ways to make your virtual space more social, including specific design suggestions to prompt downtime and an opportunity for players to interact with one another.

Soren Johnson gives some success and failure examples for balancing an in-game economy.

Both are worth reading