Review of current consumer themes in Internet, media and mobile

New ideas and startups don’t necesarily succeed by trying to drastically change consumer behavior. Instead, they succeed more often by identifying shifts that are happening in consumer behavior and needs, and then leveraging then capitalizing upon them with slick execution.

A framework that can help identify, assess and classify potential opportunities is to look for dominant consumer themes that are taking shape across a broad spectrum of products and industries. These themes represent major shifts in consumer behavior, and can  help identify new products and services that consumers are ready to adopt now, or will be in a few years.

Here’s a shot at listing some major current themes in consumer behavior evolution, which are applicable to the Internet, media and mobile sector:

  • Hyperdifferentiation and Personalization: We are in an era where consumers are asking for products that are more and more differentiated, and at the same time more personalized to their tastes.
  • Convergence: As the complexity of types of media and access mechanisms increases, the human need for simplicity keeps creating opportunities for various types of convergence – convergence of access device (e.g. TV content on mobile phone), convergence of media types (e.g. blurring boundary between TV content and online videos), convergence of desktop software and web services (e.g. SaaS).
  • Acceptability of new communication mechanisms: In the beginning, there were phone calls, email and personal web pages. Then came SMS, social network pages, blogs, personal videos, twitter, video twitter… whats next?
  • Consumers also want to be Producers: User-generated content (blogs, videos, music etc) represents a major shift in consumer behavior from the early Internet model, where most consumers were happy being just consumers. Even though the percentage of consumers who contribute content may still be low (less than 20% of YouTube users ever contribute a video), the key theme is that consumers are now ready and eager to consume content created by other non-professional users.
  • Community: The advent and popularity of the Internet took away a little bit from real-world social interactions, as an entire generation grew up spending enormous amounts of their leisure time in front of screens. However, humans are social animals, and the human need for social interactions and affiliation has given rise to an entirely generation of online tools that relicate real-world social behavior – ranging from social network platforms to people search tools to match-making sites.
Then there are some evergreen themes, that have always been around, but which keep acquiring a different flavor with each generation of new technology. These themes include:
  • Information Organization: As the amount of information that is available continues to grow exponentially, opportunities for new mechanisms to organize that information keep on arising. Version 0 was Yahoo-type directories. Version 1 was google-type horizontal search. The current frontiers seeing a lot of action are vertical search (e.g. Indeed for jobs, Kayak for travel), social discovery tools (e.g. StumbleUpon, Digg etc), recommender systems (like the ones used by Amazon for instance). One area where we could see more action in this domain the near future is more comprehensive Personal Information Management.
  • Ease of Use or Lower Cost: Anything that helps me simplify what I already do, or lowers the costs of what I do in some way is always attractive.

These, of course, are all very broad themes. But they can provide us a good framework to look for opportunities. We can cross-index these themes with the major macro trends and structural changes that I laid out in a previous post, to have a matrix that we can classify currently evolving opportunities into.

In a few posts, I’ll start delving into each theme, with the end goal of identifying upcoming players that are well positioned for harnessing those themes.

Vacuum Spaces

Given the knowledge of today’s key structural trends, how do you determine what the right market timing for implementing your cool idea is? If you know the answer to this question, I’d like to meet you.

Google, Apple, Facebook, MySpace, Skype, Youtube… These are of course some fabled companies that are known, especially in the popular media, to be the most innovative entities of our times. But what was it early on in the life of today’s category dominators that put that put them on their incredible growth trajectories? Was it that they invented a new path breaking product that didn’t exist before? Or was it that they identified and created a brand new market?

The answer to both questions is No! In fact each of these companies’ success was (and still is) about finding the perfect timing, and then following it up with flawless execution. Here’s a quick look:

  • Altavista, a leading claimant to the title of The First Search Engine, has been around 1994 (“The Search” makes for an interesting read). Google burst on the scene in 1997 with a technically and visually superior product. Moreover, the concept behind Google’s now legendary AdWords and AdSense systems (originating around 2000) finds their roots in (later Overture, now a part of Yahoo), which was operated an ad marketplace with a similar concept way back in 1997.
  • Mp3 players and portable music players have been around for years and years. Apple surfaced with the iPod in 2001, and by 2003, it owned the entire category.
  • Friendster, in 2002, was the first on the online social networking block (in its current form), but how many of us have Friendster accounts now? facebook and MySpace of course own that category today.
  • I started using Yahoo Messenger’s Voicechat functionality sometime around 1999. Skype came to the scene with similar functionality in 2003 and owned the entire category within a year.

Each of these snippets is about a product that came to a space that had existed for a few years, but was stagnating or linearly growing. The new product then bowled over the consumer with a technically superior product. But perhaps most importantly, all of these products entered the scene at a time when consumer attitudes in these spaces were at their inflection points. I call these spaces Vacuum Spaces – spaces waiting for a fresh new wind of change and innovation to come rushing in, and fill them up.

The good news, then, is that in order to build a behemoth category dominator from scratch, you don’t need to identify and create an entirely new market. You have a shot at identifying spaces that are ripe for disruption, and then enter them with full force and slick execution. One of the hard parts, of course, is identifying what these spaces are at any given point (the other one is carrying out the slick execution). Knowing that some of the spectacular successes of tomorrow will be in spaces that already have a few players in them today, how do you identify and bet upon them?

Macro trends that underlie massive successes

Some of the biggest successes in today’s Internet and information economy were created by powerful underlying macro trends that allowed the disruption of status quo.

Exploding amounts of online information in the mid-nineties gave rise to the likes of Yahoo and Google, which provided a way to organize the clutter and mechanisms to search through it. An inflection point in broadband penetration, coupled with the rapid advance in compression and streaming technologies enabled the spectacular rise of YouTube and now its plentiful successors. Prevalence of broadband, coupled with falling call termination prices and improving UI technology were the force that helped Skype bubble up to the top. Each of the 20 biggest successes of the last 10 years can be mapped to underlying structural shift(s), that someone rapidly capitalized upon.

Obviously all this looks so clear in hindsight. How can we use this information to predict the major opportunities over the next few years? A look at some key trends that are currently near or at their inflection point can provide a clue. Here are some ongoing large-scale structural changes in the media/mobile/internet sectors that will likely give rise to the behemoths of tomorrow:

  • Advertising Shift: The massive shift that is currently underway in the $250 Billion advertising industry (that’s in the US alone) from traditional modes to online and interactive advertising is perhaps one of the most significant structural changes currently going on, and opens tremendous opportunities for innovation that can and should be capitalized upon. The fact that this trend perhaps has the most direct relation to monetization makes it even more interesting
  • Digital Media: The rapid adoption of digital media is currently transforming an entire industry. Opportunities will continue to get created around creating, managing, monetizing, hosting, searching, improvising, merging and providing access to digital media.
  • Wireless Data and Multimedia Penetration: The ubiquity of the cell phone, and the ongoing rapid uptake of data plans and multimedia devices is finally providing an additional platform that could be comparable to the Internet in the magnitude of opportunity it provides.
  • Universalization of Gaming: Gaming, which was hitherto a pass-time of a miniscule, committed set of people (youngsters and geeks), is undergoing rapid expansion of scope, providing another brand new platform and ecosystem for building opon.
  • Everyone is Social Networked: Social networking is no longer a new trend, but the ubiquity and wide adoption of social networks is. Emergence of facebook as a platform is only the tip of a much larger structural shift. The disruption that social networking platforms could fuel will be of a magnitude comparable to the change that the emergence of internet brought to the brick-and-mortar economy.
  • Prevalence of Digital Signage: The cheap availability and quickly arising ubiquity of LCD screens and digital signage used for advertising, retail displays and dynamic information screens provides yet another platform that is already starting to engender significant innovation and its subsequent monetization.

This list could go on and on…we live in exciting times!

Initiatives that leverage some combination of these trends will be aided by significant tail winds over the next few years. Over the next few posts, I’ll start to delve deeper into each of these trends and their implications, and use these as a framework to help identify specific opportunities.

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