Hyper-Local Classifieds Publisher PennySaver Abruptly Folds After 53 Years


Direct mail classifieds directory PennySaver — the original hyperlocal ad platform — has abruptly gone out of business, apparently because it couldn’t secure further financing. All of its roughly 700 employees were laid off and its doors shuttered.

Distributed in California and Florida, it was founded in 1962 and later, for most of its life, owned by one-time local media conglomerate Harte-Hanks. In 2013 the Texas-based company sold PennySaver and its companion national website to private equity firm OpenGate Capital for roughly $22 million. Harte-Hanks said at the time asset was no longer core to the company’s strategy, now focused on digital marketing services.


Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 9.51.21 PM

At the time of the sale, in 2013, PennySaver revenues were approximately $200 million, but that was apparently about half of what they were in the 1990s at the height of the publication’s success. Harte-Hanks has a current market cap of roughly $375 million.

At one point Pennysaver claimed a print circulation of 13 million. The company says on its website that current print circulation is 9.1 million with 1 million monthly website visitors. It also says that it was receiving more than 50K new listings per week.

Accordingly PennySaver seems to have decent traffic and, interestingly, a fairly developed social media presence.

Pennysaver on Pinterest

It’s not clear what the full story is but this appears to be an entity with some life left in it. Someone will undoubtedly buy the PennySaver website and brand from OpenGate — although the PennySaver brand was apparently never copyrighted and so similarly named publications exist across the US. In any new acquisition scenario it’s unlikely that the print publication would be revived.

While a combined print-digital publication makes sense in this multi-platform world, print classifieds have been dying a slow painful death for the past 15 years. Now mostly online and increasingly in mobile, classifieds have also been heavily segmented and verticalized. However there are some horizontal digital marketplaces that still exist: eBay, Craigslist and, more recently, Nextdoor.

PennySaver could be seen as a symbol of the decline of print classifieds broadly or it could equally be a story of specific mismanagement and poor strategy. As with all these things, the truth is probably somewhere in between.


It’s the User-Experience Stupid: Why Uber Is Destroying the Taxi Industry

Uber logo

Perhaps no market has been more quickly “disrupted” than that of taxis and chauffeur-driven cars. Whatever you want to say about the company’s ethically challenged management, Uber has delivered a fantastic consumer experience all the way around and become a global phenomenon in a very short period of time (since 2010).

Uber is being fought in many countries and US municipalities. However Uber will probably ultimately win most of those fights. As an interesting aside, vested interests have always sought to use the state or legal apparatus to block new entrants when their markets and incomes were existentially threatened. This goes way back to the European Middle Ages.

Various government and private interests have aligned to try and fight Uber. Yet what is so threatening to the taxi industry is the fact that Uber is simply better, more pleasant, cleaner, more convenient and usually cheaper.

In March the New York Post, remarkably, announced that there were now more Uber cars driving in NYC than yellow cabs. Accordingly the market for taxi medallions in NYC has also taken a bit hit. This is essentially the taxi futures market.

The following chart shows the impact of ride-sharing services on the San Francisco Taxi industry:

Uber impact on SF taxi industry

Source: SF MTA/The Atlantic

We can certainly debate any or all of the following questions surrounding Uber:

  • The ethics and m.o. of the company
  • Whether Uber drivers are sufficiently background-checked and insured
  • Whether drivers can actually make a living wage with Uber
  • Whether, if Uber and its imitators win, the long term impact will be bad for drivers and ultimately for consumers
  • Whether Uber, as a future public company, has staying power over the long term

I’m focused on the user-experience here, however. Heavily regulated and quasi-monopolistic, the taxi industry became complacent. The passenger-user was effectively an afterthought in most markets, especially in places like New York. Dealing with dispatchers in other markets was painful and you couldn’t ever be confident that the cab would actually show up.

Indeed, the terrible experience of getting cabs in San Francisco inspired Uber:

Garrett’s big idea was cracking the horrible taxi problem in San Francisco — getting stranded on the streets of San Francisco is familiar territory for any San Franciscan.

The well-designed app and — this cannot be emphasized enough — the “payment in the background” made using Uber a radical improvement over cabs. After one Uber ride, generally you were hooked.

It’s possible, though unlikely, that the taxi industry will be able to recover and upgrade its service to match Uber. For example, Flywheel has tried to duplicate the app-based Uber experience but it’s a weak imitation. I’ve tried to use it several times but won’t any further.

Here’s a secondary point: if you’re an incumbent being disrupted you can’t simply create a “me-too” offering. You have to go beyond what the insurgent is doing. That may be effectively impossible in most industries where the culture and economics are typically stacked against creative innovation.

In some markets, such as Manhattan, taxis will undoubtedly survive. New Yorkers have fewer reasons to use Uber. However in most other places, such as San Francisco, the Uber experience is so much better, that it is decimating the existing industry.

In another sense Uber is a lesson in customer service and what providing a superior customer experience can do.


The $500 Billion Cost of a Disengaged American Workforce


Two years ago I stumbled upon a 2013 Gallup survey that argued 70% of the US workforce was “disengaged.” Beyond that stat, a big chunk the group was “actively disengaged” (think “Office Space”-style sabotage). Though I wasn’t shocked by these findings, I was very surprised at how bad it was.

It makes sense. It’s very hard to find people who genuinely like their jobs. Things may be somewhat better in the tech sector for several reasons.

Gallup engagement data

Gallup’s 2014 survey data are slightly better than the 2013 results. In fact, Gallup says that the level of employee engagement is better now than at any time since 2000, when the pollster started conducting this survey. But they’re still not good.

It’s worth pointing out that this is no survey of 1,000 adults at a point in time. It’s based on a sample of more than 80,000 US adults from every state captured over the entire course of the year:

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted January to December 2014, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 80,837 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

The following are example questions used in the survey to determine levels of employee engagement:

Gallup engagement questions

As the chart above indicates, Gallup found in 2014 that 31.5% of US employees were “engaged,” while 68.5% were not. Gallup reports that “managers, executives and officers” had the highest levels of engagement in 2014 at 38.4%.

This is probably because these groups are better compensated than others and their compensation may be partly tied to individual and corporate performance. In addition, I would speculate, they’re more emotionally identified with their jobs and roles than lower-level employees.

Gallup engagement data

In accordance with the cultural stereotype, “Millennials are the least engaged group, at 28.9%.”  Gallup says that “Millennials are particularly less likely than other generations to say they ‘have the opportunity to do what they do best’ at work.”

Gallup engagement data

According to Gallup and other sources the cost of unhappy employees is “between $450 and $550 billion in lost productivity each year.” And turnover costs employers between 100% and 300% of the former employee’s base salary. By contrast, companies with engaged employees perform better across the board and generate more income.

Gallup engagement

These findings argue that the biggest problem in the American workplace and perhaps, by extension, the US economy is not efficiency or “productivity” in some conventional sense but employee dissatisfaction — as the root cause of other problems. Much of this stems from a long-standing disregard of employee well-being and satisfaction.


David Letterman’s 33 Years on Air and TV De–con–structed

Old TV

As many people know tonight was the final episode of the 33 year run of the David Letterman show. It was on NBC as Late Night with David Letterman from 1982 to 1993 and then on CBS as The Late Show with David Letterman until tonight.

As I was watching clips of the opening monologue (below) and final “top 10″ list I thought this is a metaphor for TV as a whole and how it has evolved since Letterman started. When the first show aired on NBC in 1982 most people showed up in real-time (12:30 am) to watch the program on broadcast TV and sit through the commercials.

Later people subscribed to cable and more people “taped” the show with a VCR for on-demand viewing. They fast-forwarded through commercials.

DVRs then replaced VCRs. And tonight, in the post-cable TV era, I watched most of the show’s segments in the form of embedded clips on different websites (not CBS), neither in real time nor in sequence as they were presented on the program itself.

Most of each of these segments were presented with different pre-roll ads, some of which were skippable. Beyond this, I am able to embed those clips here on this blog.

So there it is: we’ve evolved from appointment viewing where the network controlled advertising and distribution to an on-demand system where people can watch deconstructed clips of shows on myriad sites (but especially YouTube) and the network is a background and only marginal factor in the consumer mind.


Love-Hate Relationship: 59% of SMBs Still Say No ROI from Their Social Media Efforts

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.09.15 AM

In 2013 Manta released a very interesting survey of its members regarding social media attitudes and adoption. The headline I pulled from the first survey’s findings was: 61% of SMBs Say No ROI from Social Media.

Now the company has done a follow up survey of 540 small business owners (also active Manta members), which was conducted between April 21 and April 28, 2015. The following are the questions and my comments on the responses:

Are you willing to spend money to promote on social media?

  1. Yes – 50.9%
  2. No – 49.1%

Comment: This question did not appear in the 2013 data so we can’t evaluate whether sentiment has changed. But the fact that half are willing to essentially by ads on social media sites is a positive indication for those companies. I would have expected the number to be lower.

There may also be a implied recognition (at least on Facebook) of the increasing challenges of organic reach.

Compared to a year ago, how has your social media activity changed?

  1. We have remained the same – 34.4%
  2. We have increased time spent on social media – 34.1%
  3. We have decreased time spent on social media – 7.6%
  4. We have a dedicated resource(s) in place to manage social media activity – 6.3%
  5. We have increased our social media budget – 6.1%
  6. We have decreased our social media budget – 4.6%
  7. Other – 6.9%

Comment: The percentage who increased their time on social media this year is smaller than in 2013 (but that’s to be expected as the base grows): 34% (2015) vs. 49% (2013). More interesting is the fact that there were increases in budget (6% vs. 3%), dedicated social media resources and, perhaps surprisingly, there were budget decreases as well.

All this suggests that more SMBs are more engaged with social media in 2015 than in 2013.

What is your primary goal for using social media?

  1. Acquiring and engaging new customers – 36.7%
  2. Driving awareness/marketing for my business – 16.7%
  3. Gaining lead generations/referrals – 15.0%
  4. Building community – 7.6%
  5. Retaining current customers – 4.3%
  6. Connecting with other small business owners/partners – 4.3%
  7. Learning about best practices to drive business growth – 2.6%
  8. None of the above – 8.9%

Comment: The responses above are largely consistent with the previous survey. However “Gaining lead generations/referrals” dropped 4% in this year’s survey. And “Retaining current customers” gained in importance for this year’s respondents. So while customer acquisition and engagement remain the top uses for social media by SMBs, there’s a slight broader range of goals and perhaps more nuanced understanding of social media and its uses this year.

Do you see return on investment from your social media activities?

  1. No – 58.9%
  2. Yes – 41.1%

Comment: This is literally the money question. In the first survey, as indicated, 61% said they weren’t seeing an ROI from their social media efforts. That number has declined slightly but it’s within the margin of error of the survey. So we can say at best there’s a slightly better social media ROI perception in 2015 vs. 2013.

Given the answer above — that 51% were willing to pay for promotion on social media — it’s not clear whether this “no ROI” perception is based purely on organic reach and exposure or whether it extends to advertising on social media sites. My guess is that most of the respondents were probably speaking about their organic efforts.

If yes, how much each month?

  1. Less than $100 – 47.0%
  2. $100 – $1,000 – 39.5%
  3. $1,001 – $2,000 – 5.5%
  4. More than $2,000 – 8.0%

Comment: The returns for the majority of those who said they were seeing an ROI (41%) are pretty modest. In addition it’s unclear whether the business owners are including the value of their time or that of third parties in this calculation. It’s possible that the social media efforts of the large majority are totally unprofitable, given these numbers.

The problem is that right now there’s no effective and economic third party social media solution that I’ve been exposed to. They’re either quite expensive or perfunctory and ineffective.

Which social media platform has generated the most ROI for your business?

  1. Facebook – 53%
  2. Google+ – 15%
  3. LinkedIn – 10.5%
  4. Twitter – 5%
  5. Pinterest – 2%
  6. None of the above – 14.5%

Comment: This also appears to be a new question without a 2013 survey antecedent. Facebook is the clear winner (but it also has greater participation probably skewing the outcome). Google+ is a surprise though. On question these responses beg is “how is ROI being measured?” It’s not clear whether these business owners are doing any analytics/tracking or whether this is all intuition and anecdotal information.

In 2013 Manta asked “Which social media platform is hardest to maintain for your business?” The top five in order were Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Manta and Google+. So the most challenging platform to maintain is the one also delivering the most value according to these answers.

Final comment: the big takeaway from these data are in alignment with other SMBs surveys and my anecdotal experience of SMBs and their challenges. They’re very interested in social media but they’re still quite challenged to “work it” effectively as well as understand the impact of those efforts. Accordingly they still need hand-holding and best practices education, as well as help with ads. But ads are where third parties definitely can (and will) be able to help.

What are your thoughts about these data. How do you interpret them?


Report: More than Half of Offline Retail Sales Now Influenced by Digital, Mobile

SF mall shopping

In 2013, I crudely and conservatively estimated that roughly $1.83 trillion in annual offline purchasing in the US was impacted by the internet. Using consumer survey data, Deloitte Digital came up with a very similar number, saying that in 2014 roughly $1.7 trillion of in-store retail purchases were influenced by digital.

This year’s Deloitte survey generated the following statement: “digital interactions are expected to influence 64 cents of every dollar spent in retail stores by the end of 2015, or $2.2 trillion.”

Extrapolating from US government data, total retail sales should reach roughly $4.5 trillion in 2015. Accordingly a $2.2 trillion impact would be closer to 48% of total retail sales. Deloitte sees a smaller $3.7 trillion retail sales total, hence the higher percentage figure.


Regardless, the larger point is clear: digital’s influence on offline and in-store sales is huge and increasingly visible (from mobile usage). But this online research-offline buying consumer pattern has been significant for at least a decade.

The 2015 Deloitte study (n=3,016 US adults) contained the following additional high-level observations:

  • In-store mobile users “convert at a 20% higher rate” vs. non-digital shoppers
  • Digital media influence varies by product category
  • Nearly 8 in 10 consumers (76%) interact with brands or products before arriving at the store (and are making buying decisions earlier in the process accordingly)
  • 67% of consumers read product reviews as part of their “shopping journey”

Findings 2 – 4 above are already fairly well established. The first observation much less so.

Retailers have until perhaps very recently been profoundly ambivalent about catering to smartphone shoppers — with things like in-store WiFi — because they feared and still fear showrooming. But by enabling the mobile in-store shopper there’s a net gain for retailers.

Digital consumers have access to information that helps them make more confident and immediate buying decisions. In other words they don’t have to go home to consult with a family member or check the internet for product reviews. All of that can be done in real time while in the store, accelerating the time to purchase.

In one sense mobile devices and in-store internet access have served to uncover and make more visible the pre-existing O2O consumer behavior. But mobile is also dramatically shifting the market too. Consumers are even more empowered with real-time information and less susceptible to manipulation by marketing or brand messages.

Retailers still lag far behind consumers in terms of their recognition and adaptation to evolving shopping behaviors and the centrality of mobile devices as shopping and real-time internet access tools.

The Deloitte report is called “navigating the new digital divide.” My spin on that title is that the “divide” is less about different segments of the population and more about the gap between consumers and retailers today.


Google Making (Mobile) Search More Transactional with Buy Buttons, Booking Links

Google customer funnel

Over the weekend it came out that Google is going to start including “buy” buttons on selected mobile search ads in the relatively near future. This is part of a broader movement to “compress the funnel” and to enable mobile users to complete intended or desired actions with fewer steps.

According to the rumor, buy buttons would appear on shopping ads at the top of mobile results. Users would then go to landing pages that offer various shopping/sizing options. Payments would be stored or facilitated by Google, but there would be more than just a Google Wallet option. Retailers wouldn’t get the payment information.

I’m less interested in the specific mechanics of the arrangement than the fact that buy buttons will be showing up in search ads themselves. This is conceptually similar to what Google has done in local by incorporating third party booking or ordering services into search results.

GMB booking

In the latter case, I assume, local businesses must be registered with the relevant third party service. Right now there are only a handful of these providers, including GrubHub and Delivery.com among several others. If consumer response is strong more will undoubtedly be added.

This approach mirrors Yelp Platform, which integrates third party booking/ordering services into Yelp pages to make them more transactional.

The two developments represent the integration of transactional capabilities into both AdWords (buy button) and organic listings (ordering). It makes search much more “app-like.” (Microsoft is doing this too.) We should anticipate that more transactional capabilities will be integrated into AdWords, including and especially local search results.

Like the “call button,” expect that over time we’ll see “book” and “order” buttons showing up in many more search ads.

These developments are in some sense responding to consumer desires to complete tasks and take action on mobile devices with fewer steps — the removal of the “referral step” — and Google’s recognition of high intent queries in mobile: so-called “micro moments.” As we discussed extensively at LSA 15 these capabilities reflect a blurring of online and offline commerce and the overall commerce-enablement of the local market.


Facebook Adds ‘Call Now’ Button to Local Awareness Ads

Facebook Local Awareness

Last October Facebook introduced Local Awareness Ads (LAA) specifically for small business owners. These ads are relatively simple to create and they allow for multiple layers of targeting with location and audience targeting at the core.

Facebook says you can create them in roughly two minutes.

LAAs initially offered a “get directions” button intended, literally, to drive people to physical stores and business locations. Now the company has added another call to action option: a call now button.

This allows would-be customers to call directly from LAAs in the Facebook News Feed (on mobile devices). The value here is obvious. And it provides Facebook with an additional ROI metric to report to local business owners.

Facebook Call Now

The company doesn’t yet have to ability to track store visits or offline conversion lift for local businesses (as it does for brands). This is the next best thing.

Facebook’s app captures user location data (if that’s permitted by the smartphone owner) and will show LAAs based on last-known location or residence or work location. Default radius is one mile from the business address but that can be adjusted by the local advertiser.


Will Verizon Successfully Ingest AOL or Screw It Up?


As I wrote yesterday, “on paper” the Verizon-AOL deal makes lots of sense. It fills in gaps and blanks in Verizon’s portfolio.

Media consumption is moving to OTT services and mobile devices. AOL’s got content, ad-tech (esp. programmatic video) and ISP subscribers. All of these things can potentially be “leveraged” by Verizon to compete and grow revenues. Longer term Verizon is facing the near disappearance of its wireline business, flattening of mobile subscriber and data revenues and erosion of its FIOS cable TV business.

AOL helps the company across the board — potentially. Many ad execs and ad-tech gurus agree this is an intriguing deal with a good deal of opportunity for the telecom company.

Verizon also is now in the (mobile) advertising business, which it has not be able successfully enter to date on its own. There are questions about whether Verizon will spin off the content assets (e.g., HuffPo or TechCrunch). AOL is denying that’s going to happen.

The big X variable in my mind is culture. Will Verizon be able to manage and integrate AOL without screwing it up?

Verizon will say it’s a technology company. But it’s really a phone company with all that implies about its culture. Say what you want about AOL but it’s a digital advertising company. As long as AOL has been around it’s still and internet company and doesn’t have a culture anything like a phone company.

Disney has successfully acquired Lucasfilm, Pixar and Marvel and so far has allowed those entities sufficient creative independence to flourish (whatever you think about superhero movies and whether they’re ruining the industry).

Verizon will need to do something quite similar, while integrating AOL enough to realize the benefits of the acquisition. However if Verizon tries to impose or insert its culture at AOL most of the key people will quickly go out the door.

There are numerous examples of companies not being able to effectively ingest acquisitions, which means wasted time and money. Most of the time this has to do with a clash of cultures. The all-time biggest failure is arguably AOL-TimeWarners. Two other immediate examples that come to mind are: RHD-Business.com and Intuit-StepUp Commerce (and now Demandforce).

Do you agree with this? Can can you think of other examples of culture-based acquisition failures? What’s your outlook for Verizon-AOL in particular?


Data Suggest Local-Intent Queries Nearing Half of All US Search Volume

Apple maps mobile

Last week Google disclosed that “more Google searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan.” It goes without saying this is a watershed moment for marketers and local search marketers in particular.

Google wasn’t any more precise than that, although it did clarify that “mobile” means smartphones and not tablets. Google groups tablets and PCs together. If tablet-based search were included in the “mobile” category, presumably mobile’s lead would be greater — although we don’t know relative numbers beyond what Google has said above.

Google also suggested without stating it explicitly that at least in the US market the crossover came in Q1 of this year.

We’ve already been hearing for some time that many companies are seeing 50% or more of their traffic and/or ad revenues from mobile. Such companies include:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Yelp
  • Pinterest
  • YP

The Q4 2014 comScore search volume numbers for the US (below) are called into question by last week’s mobile search announcement. But because we don’t have comparable data from other sources, let’s assume they’re accurate for the PC and put aside mobile for the moment.

comscore Q4 search figures

What the chart above shows is that there were 45.5 billion search queries (across Google, Yahoo, Bing, Ask, AOL) on the PC in the US in Q4. The numbers likely undercount actual mobile query volume, in view of Google’s recent announcement.

Google previously said in 2010 that roughly 20% of PC-based search queries carry a “local intent.” (It’s larger but Google was being conservative in issuing this number.) Using that 20% formula across the industry, about 9.1 billion of those 45+ billion PC queries in Q4 would have been “local intent” queries.

Let’s assume that PC search volumes are flat Q/Q and focus only on Google, which controls 67% of the US search market according to comScore. That would mean Google saw roughly 30.4 billion PC-based search queries in Q1 2015.

We can assume that at least that number of US mobile queries for Google, given the company’s recent statement. So let’s assume mobile queries are barely more than the PC (31 billion) in mobile in Q1 for Google.

Previously Google has said that 40% to 50% (based on two different statements) of mobile search queries carry a local intent. Let’s use 45% and split the difference. That would mean 13.9 billion local-intent mobile queries, out of 31 billion, in Q1 2015.

Using the figures and rationale above the following chart compares local-intent and general search queries on the PC and smartphones for Q1 2015. Once again, this completely excludes tablet search volumes.

Local vs. non-local queries

Given that more than 90% of retail transactions happen in stores, I’ve previously argued that a much larger percentage of PC-based searches should ultimately be considered “local intent” queries.

However using the basic assumptions and crude calculations above, we find that local-intent queries represent roughly 32% of combined search queries across the PC and smartphones for Q1 2015. If we factor in tablet queries — using the comScore numbers above and an assumption of no growth from Q4 — we find that combined mobile (smartphone + tablet) queries are roughly 42% of all Q1 US search queries.

I would assert, however, if we had complete transparency and online-to-offline attribution we would see that local-intent queries across platforms exceed the total volume of non-local queries.