Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Online Economy Booms Through Looming Woes

Yahoo joined the list of online companies reporting rosy quarterly earnings, with earnings stronger than anticipated and profits nearly tripling based in part on earnings from new Chinese acquisitions. In the meantime Valleywag notes that Amazon's 1Q sales were up 37 percent over last year's 1Q results and earnings up 29 percent. Meanwhile Google reported revenues up 42 percent over last year's 1Q and net income was up 31 pcercent, powered in large part by continuing strength in U.S. markets and rising strength in overseas operations.

For those who invested in the future of publishing and ecommerce, the payoff has been handsome indeed. For some the growth of Web services in overseas markets in which they invested heavily is a key factor but in the instance of Amazon it's a combination of people who have time and money to shop online and less of a motive given high gasoline prices to sally forth to the mall. In both of these instances there's the continuing emergence of self-service for goods and content. the tendency for people to what what they want where they want it and to favor those who are best at doing this. "Find a need and fill it" was the succinct definition of marketing given to me years ago, one that online services have done well indeed.

In the meantime over at the Web 2.0 conference there are the usual nods of the head towards Tim O'Reilly and other gurus of social media, but at least according to one report the conference is as revealing for its emerging political correctness as it is for a meaningful exchange of ideas. As now-traditional online properties come up rosy in earnings, is Silicon Valley getting bored with social media's long-term promise but short-term question marks? Perhaps so, given a toughening economy and a lack of fully effective monetization tools: just as the dot-com crash came before contextual ads made monetizing search and non-mainstream media profitable, we're sure to see a short-term fall-off in new social media investments as quick exits begin to seem less likely and the over-saturation of the market with publishing tools fragments opportunities for both marketers and publishers alike to reach scale effectively. This, too, is reminiscent of earlier dot-com days, when many publishers adopted a "wait and see" attitude - and eventually lost major market share and brand value.

What's likely to light up the charts over the next few months for new investments is "social knowledge," a loose label that combines the ability of analytics software and aggregation services to divine patterns from social media and online expert services such as WikiAnswers that build repositories of how-tos from topic experts. Whatever the particular play, being able to get more definitive insights from social media seems to be where the money is being spent.

Missing in this mix so far is a huge push by traditional publishers to counter these trends. Most social media investments by major publishers are still largely incremental, moving at a pace that's not likely to lead to strong offsetting revenues any time soon. For enterprise-oriented publishers this is probably not a major concern right away, as traditional publishing methods for scientific papers, while under great scrutiny, are not likely to hit a breaking point this year due to social media. But we're starting to see more signs of services such as content federation and software as a service creating new competitors for enterprise publishers that are going to be worrisome as service renewals begin to come up against budgets in any long-term economic slowdown. Toss in a slow start to developing social media services and we could be in a relatively brief period in which traditional database services have an opportunity to catch a new uptick in their value proposition.

This all adds up to a pattern that is clear and unmistakable: good content will find good markets, but building good brands for good content requires more new contexts than ever before. The biggest mistake that dot-com naysayers made was disputing the value of those "eyeballs" in the long run. Those fettered to quarterly returns may have felt differently about that in the short run, but once effective monetization and contextualization tools took off, the revenues and the profits followed surely. Monetizing contexts will continue to be a hot spot, and those with the tools to monetize them - not necessarily synonymous with those who own the content being contextualized - are going to do just fine for years to come. More to the point, social media is drawing us to a time when microcontexualization will increase the value of these types of venues for monetization, enabling higher-value transactions to be monetized more effectively than ever before.

So yes, it's a gloomy time for the global economy as a whole, especially for those services that depend on people walking through a doorway that might cost a fiver or so just to get there. Great for the carriage trade, but not so good for mass market sales. This will put more pressure on social media services to provide not just interesting chats but interesting opportunities to survive and thrive - as I am outlining in Content Nation. It may turn out that the greatest motivating factor for social media will be not Silicon Valley greed but worldwide need to build a more effective economy. Anyhow, congratulations around to all those who enjoyed glowing earnings reports, let's not forget that it was less then a decade ago when your revenues were mere blips on the corporate charts.
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