Category Archives: Money

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.

Zillow to Buy Trulia; Will Pursue Twin Brand Strategy

Zillow is buying Trulia, its chief rival, for $3.5 Billion in stock. The two companies – both nine years old — have a lot of overlap currently. But after the deal closes in 2015, they will seek to develop two differentiated marketplaces for real estate-related information, which includes house sales, rentals, mortgage and related national and local advertising.

As the acquiring company, Zillow would focus on “top of funnel” awareness advertising. Trulia, meanwhile, would focus more on specific agent-related, final purchase (or rental)- related advertising. According to ComScore, Zillow attracted 83 million unique visitors in June, while Trulia attracted 53 million. Roughly half of Trulia’s visitors do not visit Zillow.

The proposed purchase price, roughly $70.53 a share, represents a 25 percent premium over Trulia’s current stock price. Combined revenues from both companies could produce $721 Million in 2015 under present conditions, according to estimates by Benchmark Research. Separately, the companies estimate $100 million a year in cost savings by eliminating redundancy. Under terms of the agreement, Trulia CEO Pete Flint will report to Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff.

In our view, the primary goal of the acquisition isn’t to build the one-two punch of differentiated real estate sites, or even to maximize cost savings from eliminating overlap. Mostly, it takes Trulia out as a rival company, and per GeekWire, it also ends apparent merger talks between Trulia and Move.com, the #3 Real Estate site that controls the NAR’s Realtor.com site. (It also isn’t the first time Trulia has considered selling itself. Google apparently was interested in buying the site in 2009 when it was pursuing a major listings effort).

Over the next several years,the effort to differentiate the two sites make more sense than to collapse them into one brand. Such a strategy would be reminiscent of what AutoTrader.com has accomplished with KBB.com; The Weather Co. has accomplished with Weather Underground; and what Match.com has accomplished with the purchase of several dating verticals.

Winning national advertising dollars is especially viewed as a key growth area. Zillow has budgeted $45 million in marketing dollars this year to accelerate that effort. Zillow, perhaps best known for its controversial Z-Estimates, sees a unique advertising market among speculative home browsers, targeting everything from landscapers to auto companies. Trulia, meanwhile, has been less controversial than Zillow in the Realtor community and might be a better brand for Realtors to work with.

Will there be anti-trust issues? Both Zillow and Trulia tend to draw from Realtors and brokerages that are digitally minded in their advertising. Zillow head Rascoff, however, suggests that the market is nascent and represents less than 3 percent of the $12 Billion market in real estate advertising.

We don’t know about that. The reality is that the two companies actually tie up a great deal of the linkages between real estate advertising and distributors, such as the search engines, local media companies and others. But ultimately, it probably falls short of real anti- trust concern.

Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff at a recent BIA/Kelsey conference

A Look at Yodle’s $75 Million IPO Filing

Yodle — part of the class of 2005-2007 SEM-focused Independent Sales Organizations that took on traditional local sales organizations — filed this week for an IPO that could raise $75 Million.

The filing provides insights into Yodle’s evolution, and the evolution of the local online sales space overall, which has moved towards cloud-based automation. As Yodle notes, it not only provides its customers with an online presence, but mobile and social presences as well.

“Businesses need a comprehensive digital presence that includes a professional quality website that is easily discoverable and optimized for mobile devices, exposure on leading online directories and ratings and reviews sites, and tools to communicate with customers via email, text messages and social media” notes Yodle in the filing.

The company’s customer base currently consists of 44,800 local businesses, making it one of the largest sales groups. These customers helped it achieve revenues of $161.9 million in 2013, with the average customer of its flagship product paying under $300 a month – or less than half what they’d have to spend if they purchased similar functionality a la carte, says the company.

Many of Yodle’s customers belong to one of several vertical categories. For instance, the company reports that it has account relationships with 6,400 dentists (out of 166,500); 4,500 plumbing, heating and air conditioning contractors(out of 226,500); 3,400 lawyers (out of 165,000 ) and 1,200 landscapers (out of 459,600).

Yodle has also focused increasingly on servings “brand networks” — national franchisors, manufacturers and multi-location businesses that are targeting locally. As the space evolves, the competitive picture has evolved as well. Yodle’s filing notes that rivals for local business marketing budgets now include a wide range of players, including traditional Yellow Pages, direct mail campaign providers and advertising and listings services on local newspapers, magazines, television and radio.

Other competitors include online search engines, online business directories, providers of digital presence offerings (i.e. GoDaddy, Main Street Hub, Web.com); providers of digital marketing solutions, such as SEM companies; and productivity and office management tools, such as Constant Contact, Demandforce, MailChimp and Solutionreach.

Priceline Moves Upscale via $2.6 Billion OpenTable Acquisition

Priceline is sort of like eBay – a company known for its origins in auctions, but more recently focusing on distinct, “buy it now” niches. It has recently fleshed out its core travel brand by moving up the value chain to travel reservations via its acquisition of Kayak. It has also gotten into the “sharing economy” by adding AirBnB-like private listings to its Booking.com brand, which is an international powerhouse.

Today, Priceline added restaurant reservations and search to its stable via the $2.6 Billion purchase of industry leader OpenTable, which works with 31,000 restaurants – mostly high end white table cloth restaurants willing to pay a hefty premium for reservations management and leads to undecided consumers. Open Table is an international leader with strong customer bases in the U.S., U.K.,, Germany, Japan and Mexico.

For Priceline, the most attractive parts of the deal are probably OpenTable’s 15 million, high end, travel-oriented customers; the company’s verified, high quality restaurant reviews; OpenTable’s strong mobile orientation; and its extensive affiliate network with 600+ local and vertical sites, which receive commissions for sending traffic to OpenTable (and accounting for 5-10 percent of OpenTable’s business.) These networks might be extended to include other Priceline properties.

There is probably some disconnect with OpenTable’s high-end customer base and Priceline’s discount set – most OpenTable customers won’t be using Priceline itself. And an effort to extend OpenTable’s feature set with Groupon-like deals proved to be underwhelming (although the company has maintained an extensive and apparently successful “Dining Checques” loyalty program). Many OpenTable customers are also not using the service in travel mode — they are local.

Still, OpenTable customers might use the other services. And the seamless Priceline app experience could also be applied as mobile becomes a paramount factor for all travel services.

A larger question we’d have is the core of OpenTable’s value proposition for restaurants: the reservations management system, which is based on dedicated customer premise equipment (known as The Electronic Reservations Book.) The average ERB using restaurant pays $249 for the service (plus $1.00 per seated diner using the OpenTable system.) But in the age of tablet-based POS and reservations services using WiFI, OpenTable’s proprietary system would seem threatened.

So far, it has held its own against such tablet-oriented companies as UrbanSpoon’s Rez and Groupon‘s Breadcrumb – OpenTable’s base of customers is too strong to quickly turn off. OpenTable itself is preparing for a transition. Yet, it has been developing a Cloud Based program that charge a $2.49 per diner charge.

Structurally, we also ask ourselves whether OpenTable is in a distinct “high end restaurant reservations silo,” where it now sits; or whether it is really part of a developing “food silo” that is based on search and discovery, would also include reviews; restaurant and fastfood delivery (i.e. GrubHub), grocery delivery (Amazon Fresh, Google) and reviews (Yelp.) Priceline might be positioning itself to be in the right of the middle of these conjoining elements. (then again….the new silo might ultimately be oriented more around delivery).

More Exec Changes at ReachLocal Amidst Advertiser Growth

We’re watching ReachLocal closely, and note some changes at the company. Reach has been pushing the envelope as it transitions from a company that is largely dependent on reselling search and display to one that has a deeper relationship with SMBs via a wide range of platform services – and a direct relationship with consumers as well via service leads, placement and transactions.

Today, during its 3rd quarter earnings call, Reach announced the departure of President (and SMB Digital Marketing Keynoter) Nathan Hanks. Hanks follows founder Zorik Gordon out the door and will be replaced by CRO Josh Claman, who joined the company in August 2012 from Dell and NCR. Interim CEO (and DoubleClick Cofounder) David Carlick remains in place.

The announcement was made during the company’s Third Quarter earnings, which emphasized that the company has expanded its advertiser base 11 percent from a year ago, to 24,600. It also grew its advertiser campaigns 11 percent , and now has 34,600 active campaigns.

Additionally, international operations in 16 countries have become increasingly important to the company’s revenue mix, with 34 percent of its revenue now coming from international, up from 29 percent in 2012.