Declining Online Advertising ROI

Anyone in ecommerce – particularly those selling third party brands or running marketplaces – know the important of online advertising. Without Google Adwords or Facebook Ads, many remaining pure-play ecommerce websites would be doomed. And offline counterparts would struggle growing their online business. But ad placement has become extremely automate these days and it’s destroying any kind of ROI from online advertising. So as a online merchant, do you increase online ad spend or focus on ‘organic’ customer acquisition? (or dare I say it, offline advertising!?)

Below are five companies who provide some details about their online advertising budget: Ebay, Amazon, TripAdvisor, Expedia and Priceline. Combined, they have spent over $10 billion on online marketing in FY2015, mainly on digital ads. Their ROI of online advertising is declining: businesses need to spend more for every additional dollar of sale.

Change in advertising and sales, from 2010 to 2015 (source: SEC 10-K filings)

online ad 2

Since 2010, their online ad spending outgrew their online B2C sales. This is a general trend in e-commerce: Google’s revenues are up 156% from 2010 to 2015, while online B2C sales roughly doubled. This is clearly not sustainable.

Now one might say online advertising (and advertising in general) can always be improved. However, the marketing departments of these huge online businesses are already well versed in online ads, true insiders to the market, and even their advertising efficiency is declining. One can only imagine the dreadful returns for outsiders, companies like Verizon or Walmart. Very few companies are transparent in their ad spending, so it’s impossible to really know what’s going on in their marketing departments.

The decline in bang for every ad dollar spent is proof that the expansion of online advertising is being done to the detriment of customers, in ever less productive campaigns.

Automation

The growth of ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, and programmatic buying has removed much of the need of human intervention in the process. User tracking enables advertisers to identify in real-time who is visiting any given website, and to match the visitor with an ad, instead of relying on the website’s content to draw an approximate profile of who might be viewing the webpage.

Automation has brought down the cost of deciding whether it’s worthwhile to place an ad, and user tracking has made websites’ content less relevant. It has become economical to place ads on low-end websites for cheap, because the marginal cost of placing an ad has become so low.
This means that the growth of online advertising has happened on subprime ad space. The industry’s argument is that it’s still worth their customers money, thanks to algorithms that check everything about the user, his browsing history, the cookies on his browser, his hardware data. This is a compelling case, because the prime as space on the Internet (websites such as The Economist, the New York Times) are very expensive. However, customers paying for their ads to be displayed have practically no way of making sure their ads are being displayed to the right people.
Brand

Moreover, the industry has been pushing for more advertising budgets to be allocated to “display ads”, particularly on mobile, where Internet users click on ads much less than on desktops. The huge red flag with this practice is that customers have no means of knowing if their ad dollars are being spent efficiently. With pay-per-click, at least someone is coming to their website. With display ads, they are merely paying for exposure and such vague concepts as “brand awareness”.

It’s not even clear if a visitor actually sees a “display” ad, and the industry is trying to set up a “viewability” standard for this type of ads. Currently, it is assumed that an ad has had a “reasonable chance of having been viewed by the visitor, if at least 50% of its pixels were displayed on the visitor’s browser for at least one continuous second”. This definition alone lets you understand how murky this type of advertising actually is.

“Display” caught up with pay-per-click in 2015, and is projected to reach $32.2 billion in the US in 2016, vs $29.3 billion for PPC. But the bigger question is, has time caught up with online advertising as a whole? And if so, as a merchant, what do we do about it? Is brand the solution and future of marketing period? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Need to Sell Online? Try Facebook

Believe it or not, when you have an all powerful platform with millions of users (and billions in this case) you think you can do anything. Like Windows in the 90’s, Facebook is the platform of the moment and now they’re extending it further – this time into shopping. In their own words:

Marketers are challenged to reach their customers and drive sales on mobile. The majority of time spent on mobile is in apps, and people spend the majority of that time in just a handful of apps, including Facebook and Instagram.1 For people, the mobile shopping experience is often difficult to navigate. Customers can experience slow load times and too many steps on the way to checkout. This is bad for people and bad for marketers.

I would suggest this is something that actually they’ve been looking at for a while. Remember beacon? That ill-fated attempt to mix social and commerce? This is perhaps the second attempt and it’s probably a much better route i.e instead of mixing content and commerce, they’re essentially creating a marketplace like Amazon, eBay and so-on. So this should work; the question is, as a merchant should you use it?

Today we have two main platforms in the western ecommerce world; eBay and Amazon. Alibaba if you’re an Asia merchant. Those three have stood alone despite the rise of Pinterest, Wanelo etc that promise coveted direct traffic to your store and products. With Facebook, the question in my mind is; who owns the customer? If FB directs customers to your store this new initiative is in effect an advertising play. Intriguingly though, they tease more:

Over time we’ll explore incorporating additional content into this experience, such as items listed for sale in Facebook Groups.

This suggests they want to catalog inventory and act as a storefront themselves. Facebook could perhaps be the world’s largest store should they want it given the 1.3 billion plus people on the platform. Do they want that though?

Five Key Features of Chinese E-commerce

The E-commerce sector in China is an incredibly lucrative one. An internet penetration rate of just under 50% results in 600 million Chinese citizens having access to the internet. E-retailing is therefore a key opportunity for western brands who can establish a presence in the mysterious orient without having to physically move operations here. With the large potential consumer base coupled with the relatively low costs of operating online, this is a significant opportunity for western brands.
Here are five unique features of Chinese e-commerce.
China is the largest market for e-commerce in the world
Forbes reported that in China “the e-retail market is estimated to grow to over $1 trillion by 2018”, it could therefore become larger than the e-commerce markets of the U.S, Britain, Japan, Germany, and France combined. There were more than 360 million online shoppers in China in 2014, more than the entire population of the U.S. Due to rapid urbanisation in China cities are increasingly more congested, polluted and crowded with more pressure put on infrastructure and public services. Many Chinese as a result turn to online shopping to avoid the crowds, this coupled with faster delivery times leads to more purchases.
The Chinese popularly purchase fashion items, cosmetics and entertainment based products online.
E-commerce has ‘gone mobile’ in China
E-commerce has truly gone mobile in China, online shopping conducted on smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices will reach US $334 billion in 2015, mobile shopping will thus account for 49.7 percent of ecommerce expenditure. With the rise of the smart phone/tablet (phone sales have increased 17% from the previous year) and user friendly apps, the Chinese consumer’s life is increasingly centred around their mobile. This produces an avid consumer who seeks to purchase ‘on the go’ without relying on physical stores or locations.
The e-commerce landscape is different
The e-commerce market is unique in China largely due to internet censorship, many western e-commerce giants have not been able to successfully expand into the middle kingdom due to state restrictions. This is also evidence that the Chinese market is very different, you cannot simply transplant an existing business model that works in the west into China.
As a result the largest e-commerce websites in China are domestic firms that have grown to cater for the unique demands of the market here.
Who are the main players?
The Chinese internet giant Alibaba own the two largest e-commerce platforms.
Tao Bao – Tao Bao is owned by online giants Alibaba and is the most successful online retail platform in China. Taobao facilitates consumer to consumer (C2C) retail by providing a platform for small businesses and entrepreneurs to open online stores. Sellers can post goods to sell at a fixed price but also in auction (although this makes up a very small percentage of sales).
Unlike eBay who charge sellers on a transaction basis, Taobao offers the basic service to sellers for free.
Taobao also offers an advertising/promotion service to monetize traffic, which sellers will popularly pay to participate. Taobao provides two lists, an ‘organic’ listing, where sellers are listed for free, as well as a ‘paid’ listing, where sellers pay Taobao to increase their exposure to potential buyers.
The Chinese greatly value direct communication so setting up a messaging system between buyers has also proved popular, users can rate sellers and leave reviews which are strongly heeded in China.
TmallTmall has become a popular e-commerce platform where Chinese shoppers are able to purchase international and local brands.
It was launched in 2008 as an e-commerce website with the aim to host official brand ‘shops’. This greatly appeals to the Chinese as there are so many fake and counterfeit goods circulating, they want to ensure brands are genuine and will pay a premium for this.
Tmall Global was then launched in 2014 with the purpose of promoting foreign brands and facilitating their access to the Chinese market. Nowadays, Tmall has more than 70,000 brands in 50,000 stores.

Other sites such as JD.com or yhd.com are also growing in popularity but Alibaba currently have the e-commerce monopoly in the middle kingdom.

The Chinese actively share their purchases on social media

Shoppers are incredibly active in terms of their online communication, they will often share their purchase decisions with their network on social media outlets such as Weibo or WeChat. Many Chinese online platforms offer consumers the chance to share their purchases directly after they are made online. The Chinese particularly place great trust in their immediate social circle so linking e-commerce to social networks is an important cross-over to capitalize upon.
Understanding the right channels and the market is key, many firms will partner with local, specialist agencies to develop this knowledge and utilize their connections in China. Establishing connections with online retailers is key, of course the language barrier can be an issue (there are still relatively low levels of English) so having a Mandarin speaker and their knowledge is vital.
Benji Lamb has lived in Shanghai for five years and specializes in e-commerce, digital marketing, and social networking in China. He is passionate about finding solutions for western firms in the aptly named mysterious orient. For more information see his marketing website and blog.