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Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Virtual Worlds dying - but slowly

Out of curiosity I have done some online search about virtual worlds. I have also visited INSEAD's Second Life (SL) location and while there, I was wondering around SL's mainland, something I have not done for 3 years now (!). To my astonishment there was more life on Second Life than I expected. I had a particularly interesting time in a rock club where the music was exceptionally good and the DJ had a great line.... The club had a good dozen people dancing, quite some turnover and good looking avatars and all of this at around 9 am EST on a Tuesday. The SL mainland was certainly more active than 3-4 years ago when the virtual world fell off the Internet publicity cliff and sunk into the unknown.

Today, virtual worlds are dwarfed by more successful social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook and other sites having hundreds of millions of users. The odd article that you find about some of the early players that haven't shut down, like the one below on IMVU are misleading (and this can be gauged by one of the - only 3 - comments to the article):

But, despite this lost popularity to the masses virtual worlds are still alive and attract a small but devoted community. Who these people are is hard to figure out but my hypothesis is that they tend to be 'introverts' who appreciate the anonymity of virtual worlds and the idea that they can create their own realities. This group has always been the core of the user base - even when SL was on the top of the hype. Note that there still is tremendous creativity one can observe on SL: people create incredible things there. I vividly recommend an informal tour - if you have some time.....

Because the user group is small, I guess revenues are small too (the above article mentions $50 million for IMVU, which is insignificant compared to the billions that - say - Facebook gets). As a result the infrastructure is clunky, which in today's world means that only the real fans will join. This closes the loop: the community remains small and appeals to people who like small communities who don't mind the clunky infrastructure that much (in fact, they appreciate the tech barrier that keeps the crowds out). Revenues and resources are thin so massive improvements are difficult to pull off (SL, for example, hasn't really changed its UI in the last 4-5 years).

What is interesting though is that virtual worlds do not disappear. They survive. We don't hear about them, we have few friends who even know about them. Yet they generate enough revenue not to shut down. Can this lead to a renaissance? Not if the above loop is closed. But is it? One of the clear barrier to the masses is technology. It doesn't work well enough. However, MORPEG technology is improving fast in a related and extremely successful industry: gaming. Billions are being invested in high-bandwidth 3D interactivity by the gaming industry. While virtual worlds are experimenting with the concept their underlying infrastructure technology is rapidly improved by a neighboring industry, exploiting the latest innovations in software, hardware and networking gear. Bottom line: the loop might not be entirely closed and a renaissance is possible. After all, the history of the World Wide Web is very similar (obscure for decades, only used by scientists and suddenly, with Netscape, breaking into the mainstream).....

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Bogus viewership ratings

A few weeks ago, New Delhi Television Limited, India's oldest and largest news network has sued Nielsen, one of the largest and most prestigious international media research agencies for intentionally manipulating viewership ratings in return for bribes. Details of the news can be read here:
The lawsuit represents billions of dollars of potential losses for Nielsen, not even mentioning the loss of reputation, its core competitive advantage.

In all these cases, it is hard to make a judgment on who is wrong or right. The Indian business environment is known to be corrupt as many recent cases have shown, so it is conceivable that Nielsen executives fell into the trap of some local business practices. Courts will decide... 

However, it is important to keep in mind that the lawsuit does not (yet) cast doubt on the rating methodologies that have been used for decades by Nielsen, although their implementation in the Indian market is being questioned. This is important because the advertising industry is undergoing a major shift in terms of budget allocation. Large sums are moving, in particular, from traditional media to online media. The speed of this fundamental shift is based on consumers' presence in the competing (or complementary) media outlets, which in turn, is measured by media analysts like Nielsen. 

Marketing managers in all - especially large - companies are struggling to figure out what proportion of their budgets should be moved across media types. TV has been largely sheltered so far while print media had to face a harsher adjustment, although even here there are large differences. Mistakes can go in both directions: most companies tend to be too conservative although some others have been too bold. A recent example of boldness is Pepsi's shift of advertising budget from the Superbowl to sponsorship on social media in the "Refresh Everything" campaign. Sound media metrics are critical to make these decisions. Hopefully, Nielsen will be able to restore the trust of the advertising industry in its ratings. 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Facebook's stock price

Today's 8pm News on French TV reviewed the evolution of Facebook's stock price - an interesting move from a rather 'business unfriendly' medium. Or was it, maybe, jealousy the motivating factor? "See those 20-year billionaires in the US; their success is all bogus...."

Putting media bias aside, it is hard not to wonder about the steadily declining stock price of Facebook. The obvious answer is that the site has done badly in monetizing its huge user base. Advertising alongside Facebook pages doesn't really work and the company hasn't revealed plans on developing alternative sources of revenue. But this can barely be the cause of the recent slide for the simple reason that people knew this before Facebook's introduction to Wall Street. Also, let us remember that the user base is still very active - a lot of corporations and brands have most of their online presence materialize via their Facebook page. There doesn't seem to be an alternative website or medium emerging either, one to which people flee in mass.

My hypothesis is that what we see is simply the cash-out of insiders. They were patiently waiting for their shares and now they are ready to sell them and leave. In fact, the News mentioned that three of the top executives are leaving the company. All this of course worries uninformed investors in a pretty bearish economic climate which can reinforce the sell off.

Bottom line: let's not burry Facebook yet. After all, even at the current price the company is still worth - what? - 50 billion dollars?

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Olympics on new and traditional media

There is an interesting conflict between new and traditional media when it comes to global sport events, the biggest of which being the summer Olympic games. Old media buys broadcasting rights and airs events punctuated by advertising. As long as events are aired in real time there is no problem. However, if the audience happens to be in a different time zone media want to air the most important events in prime time (for best advertising returns). However, the experience might be spoiled by social media that operates in real time and may reveal results and key content by the time mainstream media broadcasts events. If you want your audience to watch Usain Bolt win the 100m sprint there is a problem: chances are people will check the event at work using their iPhones or YouTube on their desktops at work.

Data seems to indicate that for now this is still a contained problem: only a few percent of the (mostly young) audience abandons the core sport channels because of the time difference but with social media becoming mainstream this should change fast. For the next Olimpics, traditional media will need, not only be present online, but also, develop a smart bundle for its customers so they can benefit from the thrill of sports news as well as the benefits of picture quality, coverage, commentary, all in one's home comfort. How to price such a bundle and how to extract advertising revenues from it is a fascinating problem.