Category Archives: Money

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.”

Signpost Raises $20.5 Million to Provide CRM-Based SMB Services


Signpost announced today it has raised a new $20.5 Million round, which will let it build out an evolved, CRM-based “close the loop” strategy of tracking SMB digital sources via transactions, social media, websites and email.

The current round has been led by led by Georgian Partners along with Spark Capital, OpenView Venture Partners, Scout Ventures and Jason Calacanis’ Launch Fund. The company has raised $36.5 Million since its founding in mid-2010. Earlier funders included Google Ventures.

Signpost’s evolution has been a dramatic one, fully reflecting the changes in local online marketing. The company launched as a provider of sales agents for local SMB deals, then evolved into an SMB-oriented SAAS company with offices in New York, Austin and Denver. In its case, deals gave way to a broad range of marketing services, including analytics, marketing automation, loyalty marketing, referrals and review acquistion.

The company now serves over 10,000 customers, and says it is eyeing a large customer set of six million very small businesses with 2-10 employees. Most of these have not previously had access to CRM and are unlikely to subscribe to pricey CRM tools such as Salesforce.

The inclusion of financial transaction information provided by a third party is something that is increasingly being added to marketing services. Google, ForwardLine and others similarly incorporate financial transaction information.


BIA/Kelsey Managing Director Rick Ducey, Signpost’s Ryan Sommer and Peter Krasilovsky play “Chinese style.”

MyTime to Compete for Scheduling, SMB Services

We’ve long seen scheduling as a possible anchor for SMB marketing services (coupons, leads, promotions, analytics, upsells et al). Obviously, we are not alone. More than 75 players are positioning themselves to lead the way in scheduling, including MindBody, Booker, Intuit, ReachLocal, Yodle, Square, GenBook, Agendize, Schedulicity, Moon Valley Software, MaxiPage, Hakema and others.

An alternative approach to the space has been taken by PingUp, a new player that just launched this week, and three- year- old MyTime. Both players have focused primarily on searching, aggregating and confirming online appointments from scheduling providers, while adding in marketing services as an additional layer.

From its inception, however, MyTime has also positioned itself up as an intermediary and a media and commerce channel in its own right. Now, MyTime has crossed the line, armed with a new round of $9.25 Million from Khosla, Upfront Ventures, shopping mall giant Westfield and others — on top of $3 Million raised in 2012.

While it will continue to aggregate and work with other scheduling providers, the 100 person, San Francisco-based company will also compete directly against them via two products: MyTime Scheduler, a sophisticated scheduling program.; and MyTime Marketplace, a “fully responsive consumer destination to find and book appointments with nearby service businesses.”

The services cost from $9.99 to $39.99 a month, depending on the number of employees supported and types of services taken. The pricing is seen as significantly lower than other scheduling software providers.

Anderson notes that the launch of MyTime’s Scheduler and Marketplace products is a natural extension of its appointment aggregation service, which is already driving “nearly one million people” a month to its Web site and mobile apps. He contends that the company’s efforts have also been set apart by a more seamless consumer experience.

Driving MyTime’s new strategy is the rapid adoption of mobile tools and services by consumers. “We know consumers prefer to book and pay for things through their smartphones now, but most businesses haven’t made it possible to book them online yet,” says Anderson. “Everyone knows that consumers are ahead of the SMBs.”

Businesses that take leads from MyTime will pay a 37 percent commission. MyTime also provides an attractive 2.69 percent rate for payments, undercutting Square’s 2.75 percent commission.

The company says it has built a relationship with 10,000 businesses, with 1,000 new businesses are signing up a month. Anderson hopes to see that number double or triple during the next quarter and converted into paying accounts– due in part, to the new products, and its sales team. “Our goal is to go after the two million local businesses and get them on Scheduler within 5 years,” he says.


MyTime CEO Ethan Anderson

UBL, Advice Interactive Group to Merge: SEO + Syndicated Listings


UBL, a publicly-owned syndicator of updated business listings and profiles, is merging with The Advice Interactive Group, a fast-growing search marketing firm that has evolved into a full service agency. The merged company is slated to earn nearly $20 million in 2015, and is refashioning itself as a peer to companies such as Go Daddy, ReachLocal, Local.com, Yext and Factual that are either public or have attracted attention on Wall Street.

UBL will provide stock and cash in consideration of the merger. While both companies initially keep their own identities, they intend to work towards an integration of operations and a single brand. Both companies earned approximately $8 million apiece in 2014. Charlotte-based UBL has 38 employees while Advice Interactive has 85 employees in Dallas and Newport Beach.

Billed as a “combination of equals,” UBL CEO Doyal Bryant will be the new entity’s CEO, while Advice CEO Bernadette Coleman will run marketing, tech and operations. Bryant notes that the deal allows UBL to focus on a growing global market in syndicated business profiles; an area that has gone beyond search engines to also include mobile apps, GPS search and online maps, video platforms, marketing platforms and social networks. UBL currently has operations in Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand and says it will soon add four more countries.

Advice, meanwhile, is set to leverage UBL’s listings/video and mobile-rich database, and provide a one stop for a wide range of activities for its business and enterprise customers. These include local search, PPC & SEM, reputation management, SEO, Web design, content marketing and social media. The majority of Advice’s customers come from local channel partners; its strength and technology platform are expected to enhance UBL’s current efforts in the space, which are not a main emphasis.

The merger gives Advice “a major edge over everyone in the (SEO) space,” says Coleman. As marketing moves to hyperlocal capabilities, it isn’t just about search anymore, she emphasizes. “Clients need to have data syndication; optimized profiles; and customized linking and meta data – all in one place.”

Advice Interactive Group CEO Bernadette Coleman is speaking at BIA/Kelsey NATIONAL, which takes place March 25-27 in Dallas.

LevelUp Teams with Sprint for Billing: Will Carriers be the New Local Billers?

More than 15 years ago, telecom carriers seemed like the logical candidate to handle ecommerce and other third party billing. But high commissions as high as 30 percent ruled them out for handling most billing accounts, after a fast start with porn and other services.

Now, Sprint is re-entering the third party billing arena and will compete with credit and debit cards via its Pinsight Media mobile ad network. The #3 U.S. wireless carrier with 50 million subscribers, has signed a deal with LevelUp to be one of several processors of its bills.

Customers who choose to pay with Sprint at any of the 14,000 merchant locations that take LevelUp will receive a 10 percent rebate as an added incentive. Those spending $100, for instance, will get $10 back.

Speaking at Money2020 this week in Las Vegas, LevelUp Founder Seth Priebatsch said the advantage of teaming with Sprint is that it is “frictionless” and “easy to set up.” The ace in the hole is working with Sprint’s ad network, with is working with 150+ enterprise apps. The ad network can boost restauranteur and retail affinity and allow for users to target based on geo-location, demos, interest/social profiles and LevelUp App Usage.

Sprint is the only mobile carrier who can provide fully integreated mobile ads with carrier billing,” noted Priebatsch. He would not comment on what LevelUp will pay for Sprint billing, although costs will likely be partially defrayed by the use of the ad network.

Money2020: ApplePay Drives Mega Event

The emergence of geo-targeting and mobile payment and wallet technologies has meant that we talk a lot less about the future of “advertising” than “marketing.” All this was crystal clear this week at the third annual edition of Money2020 in Las Vegas, a showcase for payment innovations, and a major boomtown, too. Attendance climbed from 4,000 attendees in 2013 to 7,500 attendees this year. Next year, the show will move to much larger quarters at The Venetian, and add a European edition.

BIA/Kelsey participated in this year’s festivities by presenting new research into card linking trends during a special offsite session hosted by The Cardlinx Association.

ApplePay – not part of the program, incidentally — was clearly the big driver of this year’s event, rebuilding momentum lost from earlier efforts by Google Wallet and others. As Visa President Ryan McInerney noted, the high awareness of ApplePay generally, and its use of tokenization has brought a real sense that payment technologies have moved beyond credit card account numbers towards high impulse and efficient transactions.

It will also help open the door to a new generation of payments, promotions and services – even if many features, such as NFC contactless payments, won’t be in widespread use for several years. Kicking off the show, McKinsey & Co.’s Philip Bruno and Kausik Rajgopal highlighted six major payment themes. These included:

1. Point of Sale evolution
2. Payment security
3. Crypto-currency
4. Globalization of commerce
5. New credit models
6. New partnerships and acquisitions

Things are happening very fast in this space, noted Bruno. It was just 17 years ago that ecommerce began. It has now crossed the trillion dollar mark.

American Express CEO Kenneth Chennault, during an opening interview, said that when it comes down to payment innovation, it all comes down to one thing: Merchants want to grow sales. Does the innovation “help merchants meet customer needs?” he asked. “Do they provide incentives for changing customer behavior?”

Chennault expressed confidence that Amex, for one, is providing marketing insights that “allow us to provide different types of promotions and offers to drive more business. Not just acceptance, but engagement,” he emphasized.

Other industry leaders also spoke about appealing to merchant needs. Heartland Payments CEO Bob Carr, for instance, said that they key thing with payment innovations is not to give advantages to a merchant’s best customers without disintermediating merchant margins. “The problem with othwerwise useful sites like OpenTable and GrubHub is that they disintermediate margins,” he said.

Gannett’s Deal for Cars.com

In a move that shows a deep commitment to the future of classified/vertical advertising, Gannett has announced it will buy out its newspaper partners in Cars.com and take sole possession of the #2 car site (which trails only Cox’s AutoTrader in the online auto marketplace.)

It will pay heartily to do so, paying $1.8 billion for the 73% stake of Cars.com that it doesn’t already own. That sets a value for Cars.com of $2.5 billion — an impressive amount, but still $500 million less than what the highest estimates called for.

An “economic event” around Cars.com and its sister company, Apartments.com, had been considered an absolute certainty by insiders since Summer 2013. This was mandated by the sale of The Washington Post; and the deep debt of other newspaper partners, notably The Tribune Co., and NY Times Co. Apartments.com was sold this April to CoStar Group.

Some have questioned whether Gannett is paying too heavily for Cars.com at 11.5 x earnings. We don’t comment on these issues, but note that the online auto space has gone through a lot of consolidation, boosting the prospects for more car-maker advertising; and is set for a new era that will likely go beyond dealer advertising and leads to include all kinds of transactions; dealer services such as scheduling; and perhaps other revenue producers. The increased dependence on mobile channels will also play a factor in online auto’s growth.

The Cars.com news was accompanied by Gannett’s announcement that it is separating its newspaper properties from its 46 TV stations and its rich collection of digital properties (i.e. Cars.com, Career Builder, Pointroll, BlinQ, ShopLocal, DealChicken, Clipper Magazine, KeyRing). The newspapers will keep the corporate name, while a new name will be found for the TV/Digital group (perhaps an extension of its recently announced G/O Digital brand?)

The spinoff of the newspaper properties will presumably placate Wall Street’s needs to see media companies unencumbered by newspaper and magazines, which are felt to be in an inevitable — if slow — decline. It follows similar moves by Scripps, Belo, Tribune, News Corp. and Time Warner.

The prospect of Gannett holding its newspaper-developed brands such as Cars.com, CareerBuilder and ShopLocal outside of its newspaper company shows how little synergy is seen with today’s newspaper industry (although the grandfathered Cars.com newspaper owners will hold a five year period of exclusivity to sell Cars.com following the sale.)

Should Cars.com have been kept with the newspaper group anyway? To do so would have forced Gannett to saddle the newspapers with debt from the sale.