Failure to understand how users and money flow through the Internet costs media and etailers a lot of money every day. There are huge misconceptions about where the “value” actually lives for user data, advertising performance and profit margins on all this high tech.
The following figures attempt to disambiguate some of the confusion. The summarized conclusions come from a variety of data sources and real life experiences analyzing financial statements, traffic reports, advertiser analysis and experimentation. Specifically one could get someone exact figures by combining comScore, Quantcast, Compete, Google Analytics, TNS, @Plan, SEC Filings, internal reports, revenue statements and DART forecasting as I have done several times.
This post is meant to be a demonstration of the core concepts, not a statistical treatise on the topic.
If you hate reading too much, skip to the end for a somewhat realistic example of how traffic flows.
Traffic on the Internet roughly splits 7 segments. (as shown in the figures below). These segments are defined by where the sit in the user experience by amount of consumptive behavior (clicks, reading, sharing, watching). How the user gets from segment to segment is not completely linear in actuality, but when you coagulate a users behavior you’ll roughly see a funnel in terms of time spent, pageviews and ad impressions.
The segments can be characterized also by their ad performance, ad targeting (how specific is the user in their activity), and their audience coverage (how much of the particular audience segment does a type of site/service reach)
Each segment has a different cost profile. Here I look at labor costs to maintain and capital expenses to build and power.
As you can guess, each traffic segment has a different profit profile too. This is largely the result of combining the advertising/revenue performance with the cost profile. Certain Internet services simply do not have a strong profit opportunity because they borrow old models and/or cost more than the market is willing to pay. (Perhaps that will stabilize one day, but I think software tools and low cost hardware disrupt the demand curve A LOT because users can often supply their own demands once the cost gets too high, hence why TOOLS are the most profitable segment.)
Make no mistake about what I’m presenting here. The profit online is all in retailing, portals/search and tools/utilities. The stuff in the middle of the funnel is highly susceptible to competitive displacement and has very little intellectual property protection. You can verify this conclusion by reviewing revenue statements and SEC filings for the big tech and internet companies.
The advent of citizen journalism and self publishing flattened the media market. Owning a printing press was once “high tech” and a capital investment barrier. Owning the right location on the main street was once a logistical barrier. High speed computers and difficult programming languages was once a technical barrier. Those 3 feature are gone. Media is now, well, almost purely a creative barrier. There’s a huge pool of creative talent constantly struggling against each other. Creativity is worth a lot once it rises above everything else. That happens so rarely to make it a bad investment. Every minute more and more people enter the creative market (how many blog posts per hour? how many videos go up each day?… a lot.)
organizing, sifting, filtering, distributing, aggregating… that’s the sweet spot. There is a technical hurdle, but the investment is worth it as there will never be less of a need to filter, sift, find, distribute.
This week we had a beautiful illustration of these concepts with the Presdential Inauguration.
Most of the US users watched the Inauguration, most on TV, a lot with online video streams and 2 million in person. During and Immediately following the inauguration the Internet lit up with content creation and massive usage. The portals and search engines featured as many new links and breaking stories to the news coverage.
The social networks shot pictures, tweets and status updates around, occassionally referencing links to the confirmation gaff, benediction speech text, and satelite pictures from DC.
Micro bloggers summarized everything as fast as they could, while the search engines and utilities sucked in that content. The original content creators probably released a previously composed story and put that live.
Mainstream users shut down their video streams and took to the portals and search engine, seeking more info on what just happened or insight into a specific moment. Most times they ended up at CNN or NYTimes. Many times, but less frequently, they hit a blog that had some recent content. Most users probably ran into a wikipedia reference link or youtube video.
Some users ended up on amazon to buy Obama’s books or some inauguration swag. Finally as the day concluded and original content creators finally had enough time to craft something, users might find themselves falling asleep to a good OpEd on the history of the day or an interview with the Michelle Obama dress designers.
By 3 days later the amount of content available on the inauguration is 1000x greater than within the first 10 minutes. Original content creators are hopelessly buried amongst the blog posts, tweets, continuosly AP feed CNN articles and YouTube embeds. The bloggers are buried by other bloggers. The news stories give way to other news stories.
The utilities that sort, sift, filter and monetize on it all just got a 1000x better experience and continue to catch the huge volume of user investigation and digging. The own the head, the trunk and that dreaded long tail and collect user targeting data all along the way.