Several weeks ago, I wrote an article on China’s digital advertising industry for Forbes.com The China Tracker. Now that China’s online advertising expenditure is growing, I’d like to talk more about challenges, and what I see as good opportunities in the field.
The past few years in China have seen some investment in China in combined lead-gen/traffic websites in China. I won’t name any names, but if you know this space, then I’m sure you know a few players. Basically, combined lead-gen/traffic is not viable on the long-term because there is an inherent conflict in combining lead-gen and traffic together. Either you are in lead-gen, in which you sell your leads to other sites which then try to monetize them, or you are in the traffic business, and you sell your traffic to firms which try to segment that traffic for their campaigns.
You don’t do both under one roof.
I see advertisers and publishers getting smart about this very soon, and figuring out the inherent conflict, which will cause problems for the companies which are doing this, and I expect them to change to either traffic only or lead-gen only very soon.
This will lead to healthier market development, and will help digital advertising expenditure to grow as a whole, as the industry will then grow more healthily.
Many of the advertising plays in China have been laggards, as games have always generated more revenue. Growth is now slowing among game publishers, and the number of new game players is also slowing; this is a reflection of China’s aging demographics. The growth has moved from MMORPG games to casual games, which don’t eat up time and attention the same way MMORPG games do. With the growth of mobile phones, especially the Android and iPhone platforms, you can expect more mobile casual game popularity. Some of the MMORPG game publishers will move to these platforms; others will not. I expect their success to be mixed.
Blizzard and the Chinese government have all been trying to push real-name registration, for their own set of reasons. I predict that this year more people will begin using their real names on the Internet, not out of government registration threats and rules, but because they are building a following, and are becoming well-known, and even generating income from Internet referrals. This already happens for some people, but as the society becomes more digital, it is being pushed down further into society.
This will create a bifurcation of those who use multiple identities and remain anonymous, and those who use real names. Some people will become famous as leaders in their fields and will use their real names; in this respect, they will become like experts on South Korea’s leading search engine Naver.com. In this respect, I expect the Internet in China to develop along and follow South Korean lines. On the one hand, this will make the Chinese government more comfortable with its development, and it will also increase the accountability of the information.
I see the next five years in China as a kind of cleaning-up period, where content quality and reputation need to be re-examined. Let’s be honest, there is an awful lot of content on the Chinese Internet, and a lot of it is crap. Much of the content is just copied from other sites with no value added. Brands are going to advertise in China because of the importance of the market, but it would be much friendlier if it was cleaned up. This needs to be done.
As for advertising sites in China, too many of the startup ideas are content- and front-end related. This is because most of the westerners and westernized Chinese in China are content people. But content is not enough; the Internet is really about data and sorting and filtering very large amounts of data to capture insights for advertisers.
This is where the next generation of online advertising startups in China will add value. This will require REAL technology, and will be filled with terms like Hadoop, MapReduce, etc. This will replace terms like branding, China strategy, market entry, etc. In other words, the emphasis will move from the front-end to the back-end, where the real technology always is.
Google is the world’s most successful advertising company, and it is a backend data-driven business. Its front-end services are just there to drive traffic to the backend, where it is processed into useful data which generate profits.
That is something most people just don’t get.
It’s about time they did.
I wonder who will be the new VCs in this space?
I welcome your comments.