Musing on value attribution across the purchase journey

The notion that there is more value created in the process of delivering purchases than in the process of creating the content which makes people want to buy in the first place has been buzzing round my mind since I read Chris Dixon’s post Why content sites are getting ripped off.  He makes a distinction between ‘intent generation’ and ‘intent harvesting’, arguing that it is original content which generates the intent to purchase, but that intent is then harvested by Google, Craigslist, affiliates and other participants in the link economy who take all the value, hence ripping off the content sites.

I buy all of this except the ripping off bit.

Prior to the web intent generation and intent harvesting happened in the same place, to some extent at least – e.g. in newspapers.  But the web has torn that bundle apart and current evidence suggests that the value is in the harvesting (e.g. via classifieds) rather than the news and reviews that sat alongside them.

It was reading on the newsweek blog this morning about Rupert Murdoch complaining about Google stealing his content, but not doing anything about it which crystallised this thought for me.  He could stop Google from indexing his sites, but doesn’t because his traffic would plummet as all his readers went elsewhere.  They can do that because news, and hence intent generation, is an abundant commodity.  The site that delivers the consumer is different though – ecommerce companies will pay as much for that as they can afford, and they will do it over and over again.

Don’t take this as meaning that I think content sites don’t influence the purchase decision, of course they do.  There is a lot of talk and innovation currently aimed at understanding this better and at getting away from the last cookie pays paradigm, which I welcome.  I suspect though, that when these innovations see the light of day and the dust has settled, advertisers will continue to place the lions share of value on the site that actually delivers them the customer.

Taking an offline analogy I would argue that in a sense this has always been the case.  If I’m on Oxford Street I can choose whether to go to Selfridges or House of Fraser to buy many of the same items.  No-one has a problem with the one I choose taking all the retail margin regardless of how I got interested in the product in the first place.

The thing that has definitely changed though is the way we find information on what we want to buy.  In times gone past our only sources were the very limited number of TV channels and print publications at our disposal, and a lot of the information was in the ads.  These days nobody relies on ads for information, which reduces their value, shifting it to the intent harvesters.

These thoughts are a little more half-formed than usual, hence the ‘musing’ in the title.  I’d love to hear your views.

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  • Just the production, wholesale, retail distinction? Milk farmers complain about TESCO's?

  • I like the the Selfridges/House of Fraser example but I suspect people have no problem with this because it's totally infeasible to track where the intent came from (in fact if those stores appeal to the same demographic they'd probably both benefit from a positive review in a Sunday paper via an up surge in sales). The negative conclusion would be that the paper publishing the review had better find another way to get payed: by the their own readers – which is exactly the model which is breaking in the media industry or by the manufacturer of the product – which compromises the review.

    On the web though maybe it's possible to do something better – a kind of meta-shopping-bookmark which content sites can embed as a widget. Readers can use it to make a quick note to go an search for that product later, associating the content with the product, and reinforce it if they happen to find other content (collecting information about it in the process). Linking in ecommerce sites in the backend allows the user to subsequently click through and convert – all the content sites associated with the bookmark get a kickback.

    This is a little like fluid, kaboodle etc. but with less emphasis on the social (which is an obvious extension) and more on the basic utility of making a mental note to potentially buy something later. It creates a no-brainer for content sites to include since they'll be associated with potential purchases (and the resulting kickback) and etailers (who in theory get excellent quality leads and can pay per purchase not click). Skimbit's model is actually pretty close to this, although I think they mainly track clicks on outgoing links which measures immediate intent but wouldn't catch articles I read at the beginning of my interest cycle.

    There's a critical mass problem – but given the need for content sites to get around this problem that might be crackable.

    The key is to deal with the time shift between intent generation and harvesting – which is hard to do in the physical world but online might actually work.

    Easy to code up if someone has the time on their hands 🙂

  • Thanks for the comment Steve. That is quite a change in behaviour you are talking about, both for site developers and consumers. It might work, but I still think the best option for content sites is to find ways monetise indirectly.

  • True – although much of it could be done implicitly (assuming the right privacy controls are in place) and the metaphor of a meta shopping cart which I come back to any time could make a lot of sense (kind of like delicious but for products I might want to purchase in the future). The problem with ads next to content is that they only work well if there's an immediate purchase – unlikely to happen for large items (which is part of the root of the original problem you and Chris described).

    Sites can monetize indirectly but the two most obvious sources to get paid – their own readers and the people pushing the products are tricky to do without generating a negative reaction.

    No user is going to spend effort telling a retailer why they made a buying decision, so there has to be something in it for the user along the way – it has to be a one click (or even no click) action. Still if you could actually capture that intent and subsequently identify that a purchase was made (which is the other hard part) a lot of business models for content sites become possible. At least for online content sites that might actually be possible, whereas for offline media I guess it remain difficult.

  • Interesting perspective. I think the real issue is that the web has enabled the creation of “zero billion dollar businesses” see Fred Wilson post on the subject here http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2006/03/the_zero_billio.html. This means that you need much more scale and a lower cost base to make traditional newspaper intent harvesting profitable. Time for a new model.

  • Indeed. I am starting to think the internet will have the effect of sucking a lot of money out of brand advertising as well.

  • I agree. Google, Facebook and Youtube are already doing that and there is lots more they and others can do. Once we get proper convergence in the living room watch out TV advertising.

  • My impression is that companies are/have been trying to put the bundle back together again for a while now, eg TripAdvisor content now has a transaction system to sit beside it and MoneySupermarket went in the other direction and added content to the transaction system. UK media groups have been buying or building their own transaction systems to sit beside all that content but, perhaps it could be argued, haven't done it particularly well (qv your post on innovation and integrating innovation for a possible reason behind this). In the long term I can't see the two remaining separate.

  • Hi James – all these players are extending their businesses up and down the value chain in an attempt to capture more value, and over time they will find their natural resting points. My gut is that we will start to see a distinction between different types of content – news, analysis, data etc much of which will be free and subsidised by different companies making money in adjacent areas.

  • My impression is that companies are/have been trying to put the bundle back together again for a while now, eg TripAdvisor content now has a transaction system to sit beside it and MoneySupermarket went in the other direction and added content to the transaction system. UK media groups have been buying or building their own transaction systems to sit beside all that content but, perhaps it could be argued, haven't done it particularly well (qv your post on innovation and integrating innovation for a possible reason behind this). In the long term I can't see the two remaining separate.

  • Hi James – all these players are extending their businesses up and down the value chain in an attempt to capture more value, and over time they will find their natural resting points. My gut is that we will start to see a distinction between different types of content – news, analysis, data etc much of which will be free and subsidised by different companies making money in adjacent areas.