Goodbye Pennysaver: Is There Life Left in Shopper Publications?

Is there life left in local, broadsheet “shopper” publications that highlight home and trade businesses and things for sale? Not according to OpenGate, a $3 Billion LBO firm that abruptly laid off workers for Pennysaver USA, the industry’s largest company, which it purchased in 2013 from Harte Hanks for $22.5 Million. At that time, the company had annual revenues of nearly $200 million and had 800 employees in California.

Other shoppers remain in business, such as American Classifieds (Thrifty Nickel) and many locally or regionally-owned Pennysavers. The name “Pennysaver” goes back to the 18th Century, and is not exclusive.

Our guess is that OpenGate didn’t see a clear path to profitability and decided to simply pull the plug (apparently, without paying final wages.) Core advertisers and consumers have many alternative options on Craigslist and other sources, and OpenGate didn’t seem to have a plan that would have upgraded Pennysaver to a hyperlocal, searchable and mobile-oriented model. That’s where things need to go.

We look across the aisle, for instance, to Cox Target Media’s Valpak, a coupons and advertising business. It has thrived on a hyperlocal publishing strategy, and has developed a robust digital strategy. Valpak has just announced a great Apple Watch app. But PennySaver wasn’t going there.

Theoretically, we still find Shoppers an appealing alternative sales channel. They are generally 100 percent commission, and many products could theoretically be added to their bundle (Google, et al). WebVisible, at one time, teamed up with American Classifieds to pursue such a model. PennySaver, itself, teamed up with Antengo, a mobile classifieds service. But that was discontinued when OpenGate came on board.

BIA/Kelsey Now: The Local On Demand Economy Event , June 12

We all see that economic models for local services and commerce are changing quickly. Uber, AirBnB and others are providing inventory, feedback/validation and payment as a one stop service.

Does it spell the end of search and discovery, or simply a radical realignment? What segments are most impacted? And how should the local infrastructure adjust to this reality? How much time do we all have before we see permanent disruption?

These are the rich subjects of BIA/Kelsey Now, a new, one-day Local On Demand Economy event that my colleagues Mitch Ratcliffe and Mike Boland are putting on at the University of San Francisco on Friday, June 12.

I can send you a special, $100 off discount rate if you contact me at pkrasilovsky at biakelsey.com.

AOL’s Sale to Verizon: All Eyes on Mobile and Video

Verizon’s announcement today that it will buy AOL for $4.4 billion is a bid to get beyond dumb pipes and airwaves to get deeply into mobile and video. By doing so, Verizon, a $200 Billion company,  hopes to play on more of a level playing field with other major telecom players combining access to content and personalization services, especially Comcast (with NBC U) and  AT&T (with Direct TV.)

The all-cash deal provides a 150 percent return for shareholders in AOL from when CEO Tim Armstrong came on board in 2009. The price is 17 percent above the current stock price. And at the lower price – which may ultimately be even lower if some of the content properties are sold – a lot less is riding on it.

Have you seen this movie before in 2000, when AOL was disastrously sold to Time Warner for $165 Billion?  A lot of the same synergies are being discussed:  video on demand, personalized content and subscription revenue.

But this time, it is really all about mobile; video on mobile; and the prospect of converting (or selling) 2.1 million dialup subscribers that continue to be AOL’s biggest moneymaker. Indeed,  AOL has built or bought a powerful arsenal of mobile ad serving and video tech, especially LTE Multicast, which uses its cellular network to broadcast live video.

In our view, content is not likely to be an important factor here.  It would have been more important if AOL had merged with Yahoo, or with Microsoft.  The biggest “what if” probably involves MapQuest, which has technically lagged behind mapping leaders but retains a powerful, verb-like brand in that space.  Given Uber’s $3 Billion bid to buy Nokia’s HERE, it may ultimately emerge as an important factor in the deal – much more so than Huffington Post.  AOL’s sizable effort to make Huffington Post into a super content portal, including a major local dimension, failed dramatically last year. Similarly, Armstrong’s huge, multi-hundred million dollar effort with hyperlocal site Patch amounted to very little.

To some degree, we also see Verizon’s acquisition of AOL as an acqui-hire. Verizon has  stumbled around advertising for several years but not had an impact. It also has made some small investments in content and classified properties, but hasn’t been confident enough to really spend. Its biggest effort was a promotional program with the NFL to broadcast games for free.

We like the statement issued in the name of Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, who we note, has long had his eye on geotargeted advertising. “Verizon’s vision is to provide customers with a premium digital experience based on a global multi-screen network platform. This acquisition supports our strategy to provide a cross-screen connection for consumers, creators and advertisers to deliver that premium customer experience.”

Uber’s $3 Billion Bid for Nokia’s HERE: Too Much, Too Soon

As my colleague Mitch Ratcliffe points out, Uber is apparently bidding $3 billion to buy Nokia’s HERE mapping service (which was formerly NAVTEQ.) It is a huge bid that comes out of left field. But does it make sense?

A case could be made for it. Uber seems especially eager to juice its valuation before the IPO. It wants to reposition itself as an ecommerce leaders and move away from its current reality as a collection of freelance drivers. Moreover, the number of mapping competitors that it could partner with is definitely shrinking. It comes down to Google, Microsoft and perhaps, MapQuest.

If successful, Uber would control a highly customizizable mapping service that would provide shortcuts and accuracy for its deliveries of people and it hopes, commerce. HERE’s international orientation is appealing for Uber, which is a true worldwide play.

Owning HERE would especially be helpful in the next age of driver-less, autonomous vehicles (AVs), which would be highly dependent on accurate, strategically efficient information. Deep mapping is also an area that Google and Microsoft have ID’d as their competitive advantage. Watching Yelp keep its advantage against Google while depending on its search engine is enough proof to realize that depending on Google as a common carrier isn’t an ideal strategy.

But this age of AVs isn’t likely to occur for 10 years or longer. And only small items like toothbrushes and shaving cream are being delivered by existing Uber drivers. While it has aspirations and vision aplenty, it isn’t yet an ecommerce company. When/if it becomes one, a whole new set of competitors come into play (Fedex, UPS, USPS, Amazon, WalMart , Safeway).

We applaud the vision, and don’t count Uber out at all. The competitors listed above could as easily become major partners. In fact, this could be the biggest play of all. But the idea that Uber should spend $3 billion — which would only be a down payment on the high maintenance mapping industry — seems like it is too much, too soon. Google is likely to be a perfectly good and safe partner for a number of years.

UT San Diego Sale: Online Isn’t Adding Value to Traditional Media Sale Prices

Today’s announcement that UT San Diego and its eight regional publications will be acquired by Tribune Publishing’s Los Angeles Times for a slightly better-than-fire sale price of $85 million (plus $100 million in pension liabilities) points to several things.

1. The price is probably a flat fee for the brand and expectations of selling regional advertising throughout southern California.
2. Individual components such as subscriber counts include a certain number of online subscribers. But there aren’t many online-only subs in this case.
3. UT San Diego’s various online and mobile services really aren’t factored in.

The U-T reported Sunday circulation of 271,564 for 1Q, 2015. On other days, circulation ranged between 169,484-222,479. The LA Times reported Sunday circulation of 965,598 and average weekday circulation of 650,718 for the six months that ended Sept. 30.

The LA Times will be able to save some costs with the acquisition by cutting circulation, printing, sales and perhaps, content costs. It will also more effectively sell regional accounts to large advertisers, specifically retailers, auto makers and auto dealers and medical. But in the end, online (or mobile) won’t be much of a factor.

That’s a shame. Back in 2002-2004, a former colleague of mine developed a general hypothesis that if a traditional media property could show recurring value in online properties, it would be able to boost its sale price by X percent – probably 20 percent or more. It was a major reason to double down on digital growth. But this clearly hasn’t happened.

I was chatting about this with BIA/Kelsey Chief Economist Mark Fratrik. He notes that online revenues accounted for 16.4 percent of newspaper revenue in 2014, and will be 17.9 percent in 2015. The forecast is for online revenues to grow slightly to 22.9 percent by 2019. This reflects some additional online revenue, but as he points out, it also reflects BIA/Kelsey’s expectations that print revenues will decline.

It is true that online could add value to traditional value property in some cases, says Fratrik. But San Diego is full of online competition from TV station sites, alternative sites and news start-ups.

The Times of San Diego, for instance, now reaches 150,000 unique users a month. Publisher Chris Jennewein – a former leader of UT San Diego’s digital operations – notes that 26 percent of his readers are aged 25-34 and seventy-five percent are under 55. “Our readers probably didn’t read either of the two newspapers to begin with,” he told me this morning via email.

For me, it is a sad situation. I lived in San Diego for 11 years, and occasionally did consulting projects for the newspaper. UT San Diego always had innovative online projects going on, and several strong leaders at the digital helm. It got deeply involved in email marketing services, online directories, Spanish language media, hyperlocal editions, premium iPad editions, video services, mobile headlines, entertainment publications, prepaid deals and loyalty services. But in the end, none of it seemed to matter very much.

Bookshelf: ‘The Internet of Things’


Last year, like millions of others, I bought a Nest thermostat. It is connected to my WiFi, and I can use its iPhone app to turn off the heat from the Airport. It also knows if we aren’t home, and shuts down to 58 degrees when we don’t walk by it every two hours.

A few weeks ago, I went a little further, and bought a Rachio, a lawn sprinkling system that integrates with the Nest. It tracks the weather via the Web, and adjusts my backyard watering stations based on precipitation and heat. And then I jiggered it, so that I can use its iPhone app to turn on the lights on my stairway when I am arriving home after dark.

I don’t have a self-driving car yet, or keyless home entry. And I don’t get too close to the military’s drone program. But those are all in the family, too. As are the Apple Watch and Google Glasses.

The Family, of course, is known as “The Internet of Things.” What it consists of are devices that combine tools with automation and radio sensors and data from the Cloud and the Web.

The Nest story became especially interesting to us in business when Google bought it for $3.2 Billion last February, and its leaders became the head of Google’s new Internet of Things division. At the time, it seemed like a stretch. But the Nest division keeps growing (Carbon Monoxide detectors, etc.) IoT might just be driving the next generation of efficiencies. Intel and other tech giants have similarly- named divisions.

Samuel Greengard, a writer for CMO.com and other thought-leader publications, has penned a handy new book for MIT Press called “The Internet of Things.” It nicely covers the history of IoT’s development from the Industrial Internet to the Internet of Humans to the Internet of Everything. The book connects the dots on where IoT can go, and also provides fair warning on the things that can go wrong (and we aren’t just talking about Google car crashes in San Francisco).

The 210 page paperback ($12.93 on Amazon) has a good glossary, a nice bibliography and is a fast read. And you’ll see why BIA/Kelsey conference speakers in coming years are perhaps as likely to come from Honeywell and Rain Bird as they are from NBC-U, Comcast, Google, Facebook,Intel and Microsoft.

(Here’s a question: If you worked for Google, would you rather work for Nest, or AdWords?)

Facebook Focuses Hard(er) on Small Business

Facebook is felt by some to have the potential to dominate SMB online advertising because of its incredibly high organic usage. But the challenge to drive even more SMB advertisers remains. The company currently reports that it has 40 million SMBs with Facebook pages around the world. Two million SMBs are paid advertisers, or five percent of its SMB page holders.

Today, Facebook unveiled several new small business support programs that it hopes will boost its SMB conversion rates. These include a series of local SMB events, the launch of self serve tools and chat and email support.

We got a hint of what was to come during the March 25 keynote by Facebook Director of Small Business Jon Czaja at BIA/Kelsey National in Dallas. During his keynote, Czaja emphasized that Facebook can lift sales results for SMBs by a high percentage if it is added to traditional media ad campaigns.

He also asserted that Facebook does well on its own. He noted that Facebook’s accuracy for narrowly targeted online campaigns is 89 percent, or more than twice as high as the industry’s 38 percent average. Advertising on Facebook provides $8 back for every dollar invested, and a 12x boost in conversion, Czaja suggested.

While Facebook heavily emphasizes self serve for SMBs because they demand it, it is also eager to partner with agencies and others, adds Czaja. “Facebook can’t build everything itself. If there are other partners out there to build on our platform and encourage better performance, then advertisers will be able to choose to go to Facebook or an agency. It’s an ‘All-of-the-Above’ strategy.”