It's that time of the year again, to look ahead at what the next year might bring. So here are 10 trends that I think will dominate 2008. Seasons Greetings to all and Happy New Year!
1. Playing Monopoly (With Real Money)
Now that the Federal Trade Commission has approved the Google-DoubleClick deal, it appears that the online ad industry is poised to enter a new phase in which one big company controls the bulk of advertising revenues. But anybody who thinks that this controversy is over is dreaming, as there are still big questions remaining (both about the propriety of the decision, given the FTC chairwoman's ties with a law firm lobbying on behalf of DoubleClick, and about whether the EU will march in line with the FTC, which seems unlikely). There's a lot at stake in this merger, and so many players at risk, that I'd expect the controversy over monopoly power in the online ad business to heat up to white-hot levels in the first months of 2008.
2. Recession Ho!
Projections for overall online ad spend for 2008 remain rosy, even as every leading macroeconomic indicator points to a recession ahead. Finance alone makes up 33% of the overall $275 billion online ad spending pie (according to eMarketer.com). You can't tell me that this sector can take a huge hit without having a big impact on both the search and display market. But online media remains so cheap that the bulk of any spending pullback will hit other channels harder, including offline and high CPM online media.
3. Media Meltdown!
It seems we've finally entered what Ad Age columnist Bob Garfield termed "the chaos scenario," in which a vicious cycle of declining media viewership, ad dollars, and programming quality kills off television as we've known it for the last 50 years. Accelerating this sad development is the Writers' Guild of America strike, which is now entering its second month. Add TV's woes to declining audience/revenue for all offline media and you've really got to wonder whether Old Media will live out the decade.
4. Uncle Sam Weighs In
Just as Old Media may be entering its terminal stage, New Media is about to exit its carefree adolescent period, in which its major properties had carte blanche to do whatever they pleased with the data they collected on users. I firmly believe we will soon reach a point wherein certain online properties (perhaps Google or maybe Facebook) will have the same status as public utilities and be subject to regulation to protect the public's fleeting privacy rights. I don't expect this to happen in '08 but you're going to hear more and more talk from lawmakers about what's wrong in this industry and how Uncle Sam can fix it. If the Democrats win the '08 election we might even see legislation being proposed in early '09.
5. The National Do-Not-Track Movement Gathers Steam
Industry lobbyists campaigned against the national Do-Not-Call Registry, and yet it's been a whopping success for consumers. The same lobbyists are now lobbying against a proposed law that makes even more sense in the online arena, because it would require users to explicitly opt-into any tracking schemes hatched by ISPs, online properties, or search engines. Lots of users don't understand how exactly the online ad industry "bugs" their Web use, but they do understand what "Do Not Track" means, and I'd expect this movement to gather steam in 2008, which will shake up a lot of plans hatched for behavioral targeting and other tracking-based ad schemes.
6. Revolt of the Contextual Partners
Google makes a lot of money from contextual advertising - about 40% of its revenue, and yet many of these partners are plainly unhappy with the cut they're getting from Google. 2008 may be the year that these Adsense partners demand a fairer share of Google's revenue, or at least more disclosure about the cut that Google is taking from them (it's widely rumored that Google gives a much bigger cut to its larger partners than the Mom and Pa sites). Unfortunately, many Adsense partners don't realize how much leverage they have, or they'd be more likely to stand up for a fairer revenue stake.
7. Microsoft Plans an Ambush
How can Microsoft, the world's most aggressive software company, tolerate a situation in which Google's search share continues to expand? Well, in my view there's method to Microsoft's passive stance. Even while Google continues to dominate desktop search, Microsoft is quietly laying the foundations for a triple play in which its Windows operating system will lock up all the components of tomorrow's "cloud-based" computing environment whose components include mobile, gaming, and desktop platforms. Want to play in the Microsoft cloud? You'll need permission from Steve Ballmer, and this is one guy who knows how to hold a grudge against Google and other usurpers of the throne. This is not to say that Microsoft won't continue to challenge Google by buying up ad inventory, as evidenced by this week's $500 million deal with Viacom.
8. Yahoo Gets Focused
2007 was a tumultuous year for Yahoo, but 2008 may be the year that it gets its mojo back. It's clear that its management has come to the realization that Yahoo can't be "all things to all people," and my hope is that it can agree on those core properties which make up the heart and soul of Yahoo and invest in them appropriately. Frankly, all Yahoo has to do is keep Google playing catch-up ball in a few key areas and it can win the battle. If anybody's "spread too thin like peanut butter" these days, it's Google, not Yahoo.
9. Online Ads Get Intrusive (Again)
In the last six months, online display ads seem to have reverted to their ugly circa-2000 selves, with pop-unders, pop-overs, takeovers and other intrusive behavior that would have been unthinkable a year ago. Now, we're told that "widgets" are soon going to be added to this smorgasbord of intrusive interactivity. So much for the "relevance revolution" of a few years back; instead, look for 2008 to become the "irrelevance renaissance" in adware.
10. The Carnage Continues
Lots of once-promising Web properties will expire in 2008, just like lots of them expired in 2007. So let's have a moment's silence in memory of a few departed 2007 properties, including WebJay.com, Threadwatch.org, BackFence.com, SunRocket.com, JustinTime.com, Dotcomedy.com, Brightspot.TV, and MingleNow.com. A certain level of carnage is normal on the Web; in fact, it's healthy. My bet is that we'll see further consolidation this year among low-traffic search engines, marginal video sites, and fourth-tier social networks.