Category Archives: Random

Navigating Instagram ads

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Both are ads. But one is not like the other.

Last month Instagram opened its platform to all advertisers and is continuing to develop ad-supported ways of monetizing its global audience of more than 400 million monthly active users. Any platform that commands that size of an audience will automatically be of interest to a wide swath of marketers especially given the granular targeting opportunities that would be available. So how does this all look to the end user today?

The two posts above are both ads – the one on the left is the ‘official’ Instagram ad that you would buy through the Instagram platform. It carries a well-executed ‘sponsored’ logo and tagline in the upper right and for now sports more formats than regular posts do (for instance in this one you can swipe to reveal more photos from the campaign). Is it targeted well? There’s no easy answer because everyone’s Instagram feed is different. For some it’s a social network and a way to interact with people from their social circle. For others, it’s an interest graph meant for discovering and following topics, places, people or things you are into. Then there’s the use-case in the middle where it’s both a mix of social activity and larger discovery, with likely many other sub-flavors emerging.*

The post on the right is the true native ad format on Instagram: it emerged as followings grew and has produced some really interesting collaborations between famous brands and the proverbial ‘woman on the street’ view of the world, coated in authenticity that has been so absent from marketing lately. The brand and the poster arrange a price that’s heavily dependent on the number of followers a poster has as well as typical engagement levels and collaborate on the content of a post. In this case, the poster has clearly identified this as a sponsored post via the #sponsored tag. Most of the comments I spied were complimenting her on her shoe choice (She’s wearing boots and balancing a package of EmergenC on her soles) and were skating right past any mention of EmergenC, the product she is actually pitching.

A couple of things to bear in mind whether you’re a brand, an agency buyer or an Instagram user:

1. Targeting is key

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No thanks

As compelling as the ad monetization opportunity is, from a user perspective poor targeting on a device in your hand, inches from your eyes is so much more jarring than on other media. Platforms like Instagram will need to carefully walk that fine line and make sure they don’t alienate their highly engaged (and growing) user base. If it means seeing more and more ads for app downloads, retargeting, direct response and presumably soon other direct response greatest hits like teeth whitening and belly fat elimination ads (the kind we’re seeing on Twitter) then brands would be wise to withhold their ad budgets for other platforms and channels.

2. What’s an ad and what isn’t

There’s a lot of variance among authors on how to label and identify sponsored posts, ranging from no mention, through ‘I’ve mentioned it on my blog but not so much in the post’ to using certain hashtags like #spon, #ad, or #sponsored. Instagram could help here by enabling a slightly different background or badge for account owners (perhaps similar to their own sponsored one) that would allow authors to subtly distinguish between sponsored and regular posts. Authenticity and transparency go hand in hand.

Another yogi account, same sponsor but a very vague mention of working with the brand.

Another yogi account, same sponsor but a very vague mention of working with the brand.

3.  Find the right spokespeople

If you’re looking to reach an audience with your message someone’s follower count shouldn’t be your only frame of reference. Depending on the vertical you’re in you may be better off with smaller accounts that command more engaged followers. Likewise if you’re an author you want to make sure you’re surfacing partnerships that are not only financially lucrative but also something your followers would enjoy. Companies like MuseFind could help with this type of matchmaking while also providing benchmarks on payment, terms, etc.

There are many underlying challenges of making a successful ad-supported platform where each user can configure their own content experience. There’s no ‘right’ or single way to use Instagram and there will be no right or wrong way to buy and target ads on it either. Here’s hoping that it will remain the domain of brand advertising that supports and enhances overall user experience.




*Mine is the 2nd type: it’s an interest feed and I mostly follow a group of yogis, athletes, high fashion brands, photographers, street artists & art aggregator accounts. In that sense, the creative looks good although somewhat puzzlingly it’s showing me men’s clothing first (the last two images in the carousel out of four are female).

**MuseFind were part of the most recent cohort at Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator and I had the pleasure of mentoring them when they were first accepted. I’m a big fan of their leadership team and their platform is wonderfully straightforward and easy to use. Check them out.



A glimpse into the future

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There’s a very interesting discussion on AVC this week that fits squarely into a few topics I’ve been thinking about rather intensively this summer. To that end, I’m borrowing Fred’s title for this post. The background reading is this piece by Bloomberg’s Justin Fox and the money quote:

“In general, developing countries are making the switch from goods to services much earlier in their development than the U.S. and Europe did.”

This is a tectonic shift. We are used to measuring success and status via material goods accumulated but the switch to valuing services across more levels of the socio-economic spectrum aims to disrupt that. What if people in the developing world can skip the car ownership step altogether in favor of, say, on-demand drivereless cars, the way they’re skipping telephone land lines and desktops in favor of smartphones? How will that change their overall consumption patterns?

While the crystal ball is a great tool to have whenever considering the future, there are 3 large change agents to how we do things today that are visible and already underway:

  1. How we innovate: today innovation is globally largely still synonymous with Silicon Valley. I think (and am betting on) the defining characteristic of the next 50 years of innovation will be the emergence of diverse local hubs. The initial start will likely be mimicking successful companies (like what Rocket Internet is doing at scale) but within a decade we should start seeing local successes especially in the larger markets first (e.g. Turkey w/ 75MM people and mobile penetration rates in the high %60s).
  2. How we learn: with many localized variations, we generally subscribe to the concept of elementary, vocation, and higher education. It’s interesting to observe how much variation there is between countries on what should be covered in elementary school.* With the availability of excellent learning materials for free or negligible fees via MOOCs perhaps that basic curriculum can be toned down to a more general set of skills (logic, reading comprehension, foreign languages, mathematics, statistics, and other principles of analysis) augmented with very deep dives into more specific topics of interest. Tech aptitude is rapidly becoming the new literacy and the sooner our formal education systems are able to reflect that the better off our kids will be.
  3. How we make things: advancements in 3D printing are really intriguing to monitor. While we may still be a few years out from true market adoption, for the first time in recent memory we can contemplate what producing goods locally will look like. There’s an entire new economy hidden here: for example, how do you monetize and incentivize product designers**, what does the cost structure for more complex products look like, are there premium printer options/materials to consider, etc.

Most of our assumptions about the developing world are based on how the now-developed world has grown. Technology gives the developed world the opportunity to skip a few steps on that ladder and as a result come up with stronger, localized markets. We’re looking at a very interesting decade that will potentially warrant a tome of itself in the history books*** of the future.


*In Serbia, by the end of elementary education we were expected to command basics of calculus (math was mandatory), advanced physics (4 years of study), chemistry (3 years of study), 1 or 2 years of Latin among a variety of other subjects that my American colleagues didn’t cover until university or in some cases very advanced AP classes in high school. It made for an interesting transition from one educational system to another and back. 

**Most today seem to fall flat in the hobbyist category which is great given that most people interested in computers in recent memory were considered hobbyists until the first dot com boom/bust and the beginning of consumerization of computers. 

***Assuming we still have the concept of books in the future. And that we haven’t accidentally blown said future up.

Through the eyes of a viewer – a simple test of TV’s addressability promise & the perceived value of video ads today

Which button should I press?

Which one is the easy button?

Television has always been a predominantly passive experience: get comfy on your couch, tune in at the right time (primetime!) and a bevy of good content is about to pour your way especially if you don’t touch that dial. Fast forward to today where remote control dials have largely been replaced by a more active consumer experience: instead of wait and casually browse, we search and operate on our own timetables, on demand. Catering to this shift in viewer behavior is the main advantage of various VOD and OTT systems who are more closely tailored to the search vs. browse than old school MVPD interfaces and remote-control-accessed menus can ever be. But advertising budgets still command a heavy premium on the linear TV side as opposed to its digital cousins, although that gap is shrinking daily. While both are technically addressable media, the flexibility of ad targeting and buying on the digital side is far greater and the promise of granular audience targeting is there for the taking. But never mind the industry view; what does an average viewer think about all this?

To attempt an answer, I decided to concoct an experiment to compare the experience of watching the same content on traditional TV and via online VOD. The premise was rather basic: impersonating your average viewer, I’d watch an episode of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart in the evening when it first airs on cable and then again over VOD the following morning, comparing the ads and my overall viewing experience. For VOD, I opted for Hulu over Comedy Central’s own streaming portal since that seems to be more analogous to how a MVPD operates (e.g. Hulu aggregates content from multiple networks, vs Comedy Central’s service only streams its own; this struck me as a fairer comparison). To make things more equal I watched both of these on the same screen: a beautiful 65” Samsung SmartTV (in the one case via STB, and in the other Hulu Plus over Apple TV), thus putting to bed the old adage that VOD is for small and secondary screens only. So on a Thursday night I settled in on the couch comfortably and started fishing around through hundreds of channels to find Comedy Central.

The results surprised me: on the linear side a total of 25 different ads came hurling my way and I couldn’t discern any particular targeting pattern. Movie promos and trailers led the way with 6 – all for upcoming releases of different genres. The most confusing category was auto: the 5 ads included high-end marques like Jaguar and Infiniti, middle-ground Hondas and Toyotas, and a ‘sponsored by Kia’ spot that kicked off the episode (and was immediately followed by the Infiniti ad). Judging by the ad load Daily Show viewers must be in market for all cars all the time. The rest were fairly run-of-the-mill national campaigns for telco, consumer electronics, insurance services, rounded out by (only?) 1 local ad and 1 PSA.

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Hulu’s interface gives viewers information on how many ads they have left and option to select an ad they’d prefer

On Hulu the following morning (as soon as the content became available), locating the episode took 4 quick taps*. Instead of 25 there were 13 ads, split into a pre-roll and then 3 blocks of 4 ads per. Each block was clearly labeled showing how many ads remaining, countdown to when content will resume, and a menu option to choose a different ad if I wanted. It feels like the viewer has a choice – I’m not passively being fed a stream of ads I don’t particularly care for; I can, at least in theory, do something about what I’m watching. It’s also interesting to note a very different line-up of what I was served: movies and autos were notably absent in favor of food, beverage, services, and pharma. Again, I could not discern a clear targeting pattern other than the ads were clearly (and correctly) skewing female in both creative and topic (e.g. pharma ads were for feminine health issues which is interesting and arguably quite valuable since the audience of the Daily Show tends to skew towards the young male demographic).**

At a glance: breakdown of ads shown against same episode on STB vs digital VOD

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So what conclusions can we draw? From a pure consumer perspective I’m finding it really hard to argue in favor of the linear TV experience. From an industry perspective it doesn’t readily seem we’re taking advantage of the promise of addressability. After all, when it’s the same content and same screen but such a different advertising experience, why not decide what to watch based on the ads alone? It’ll be interesting to see how MVPD’s own attempts at OTT shape up (like Dish’s Sling service) and if they can prove to be truly competitive with the OTT natives like Netflix. One thing is clear: viewers have more video entertainment options than ever before***, and the bar is not measured on content quality alone, but ease of discovery, access, and overall viewer experience (ads included).


*One to switch on Apple TV and 3 to find and play content.

** Here’s a good rundown of Daily Show average audience size and changing demo, all through the lens of Jon Stewart’s impending departure

*** The South-Korean performer Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame at the time of writing commands 8,061,763 subscribers on YouTube. The 2 year old “Gangnam Style” video has been viewed a total of 2,370,147,492 times (that’s more than 2 billion views with a capital B).

Mary Meeker’s most interesting slide

There are 197 slides in this year’s Internet Trends presentation by Mary Meeker and her team — or the gospel of the Internet, as I lovingly call it. If you’re reading this you’ve probably spent the better part of yesterday afternoon dissecting the deck. As usual it’s filled with very interesting insights, some well-deserved recognition of market-makers come market-leaders and all manner of statistics that will quickly become part of funding pitches, strategy outlines, go-to-market decks, and assorted assets. But there’s one slide this year among many great ones* that truly stands out.

Slide 153. This one:

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  • It’s about removing friction from mundane real-life tasks. This is what ‘Uber for ______’ should ideally look like.
  • It ensures higher quality of input (and output) data. No more paper forms and indecipherable handwriting**. Data input becomes structured, with error-checking at each step. Pre-populating fields can ease form completion and submission.
  • It’s a natural extension of a chat platform. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel or require you to download a myriad of ill-designed separate apps. It’s already relying on a system that most everyone knows how to use and has on their phone. By continuing to add functionality its utility continues to increase (especially if there’s a way to seamlessly pre-populate and repurpose repetitive information like address, basic personal information, etc).
  • Its logical next step will be more automation. “Your license is expiring in 1 month. Would you like to renew it?’ can be an alert. With the quality of on-board phone cameras, there’s fewer and fewer reasons why one wouldn’t be able to snap a passport or visa photo on the phone. With a few taps and a swipe you could skip the queue and have your documents dispatched to you. Now wouldn’t that be lovely? Then let’s all wait for the day when all of those documents actually live inside our mobile devices.
  • Its cost-saving and efficiency increase could be staggering. Bureaucracy is expensive and no one likes it; not even the bureaucrats, it seems. While rudimentary data input until recently typically required a digitization step, with the penetration of mobile devices*** so many common requests can be created and processed digitally right off the bat.

This is not a definitive list but the mere presence of this slide and the existence of this screen within the WeChat platform is an incredibly exciting step towards a more seamless future. The one in which mobile technology truly becomes an enabling utility for the currently connected and unconnected worlds alike.****


* Full deck, which you probably already have, can be found here (along with previous years’ versions all the way back to ancient history, aka 2001):  KPCB Internet Trends

** I had to fill out a form with a pen and send it via fax yesterday, May 27th, 2015. There’s no earthly reason why anyone should still be using a fax for anything. Very few things make me as grumpy as faxes do.

*** That’s on slide #5. We’re globally at 73% population penetration and rising. For comparison, the most recent UN study on global penetration of improved sanitation (aka % of people with, at a minimum, access to a 20th century version of a toilet) is at 64% (but the data for this was sourced in 2011 so hopefully we’ve improved dramatically since then). 

****This futurist can dream. Also, in this scenario, artificial intelligence doesn’t kill us all. 

3 interesting NYC startups + 1 wildcard from Denmark

We’re nearing the end of the year and this is the time for all kinds of ‘best of’ and ‘predictions’ type lists. I won’t buck the lists trend, but do want to give it a bit of a different twist — here are a few select companies that have really captured my imagination (and in some cases wallet):

1. Project Gravitas

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 5.55.52 PMSurely there are a billion female fashion brands worldwide yet remarkably few target the needs of professional women. If you’re not looking to spend high-end designer money on each garment your options are limited – especially considering that quality in this price range can also be a bit of a toss up. At a more palatable price point you’ll find just a few brands who specialize in flash-in-the-pan quick fashion and garments that are not built to withstand more than a single season; the situation becomes even more bleak if you’re not built like a 12 year old boy. While looking for a Savile Row-like option for us ladies I stumbled upon Project Gravitas and became an instant convert. Their selection of modern, meticulously built classics is perfect for any professional wardrobe, and the pieces transition well to just about any other situation you’ll encounter (fancy parties included!). Each of the dresses is named after an iconic woman – so there’s the Simone after Simone de Beauvoir, the Katharine after Katharine Graham, the Amelia after Amelia Earhart, etc. Lisa Sun, the company’s founder and CEO was gracious enough to give me a tour of their impressive NYC space (all the production is done here in the city’s Garment District) and should surely warrant a dress named after her one day soon. Her innovation doesn’t end there — every month the company features one spectacular woman, and 10% of all sales of her favorite dress are donated to the charity of her choice. You can get a good sense of the brand from the phenomenal content they’ve put together (styling boards that resemble a high-fashion glossy, interesting interviews with their customers, classifying which dresses fit which body type the best, etc).*


Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 5.57.43 PMIt’s (almost) 2015 but we’re still calendaring in much the same way we did way back when it was still pen and paper and a diary. Unless you have a full-time assistant managing your own calendar can easily eat out a few hours of time each week, between negotiating appropriate open calendar slots, figuring out where to meet, and actually sending the invite. Most of this is really repetitive work which means it’s perfect for some type of automation and that’s exactly what delivers thanks to a personable (?!!) algorithm named Amy Ingram. It’s wonderfully simple: all you need to do is cc Amy on an email thread where you’re discussing calendaring something and she’ll take over; she has access to your calendar and you can specify locations and types of meetings you prefer by emailing her directly (as you would a human assistant). Amy sends out all the necessary emails to set up a meeting and upon agreeing on time and place can send out a meeting invite to all guests. After seeing Amy in action I started wishing that I could outsource a myriad of other menial everyday tasks to an algorithm, too.** is currently in beta so you may need to hang out on their waiting list for a little while, but the wait is well worth it.

3. MobileSuites

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 6.00.46 PMYou can book your hotel on your mobile device, browse through a rich set of photos and guest reviews, get step-by-step directions on how to get there, yet once you’ve arrived your experience hops in the way-back machine and takes you back to the world of oversized phones*** and brochures with hotel amenities. Now you can see photos of what the dish you’re ordering off the room service menu might look like, tour the spa and hotel gym from a safe distance and order other services with a few taps. It’s such an improvement to the hotel experience that I’ll forgive them their current lack of an Android app — in fact, I could see smart hotels handing their guests an iPod Touch**** at checkin sort of as a universal remote for the hotel property (I’m looking at you, destination hotels and resorts!).

+1 StartupTravels

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This one feels like a bit of a meta entry since its purpose is to connect traveling entrepreneurs with their local counterparts around the world. This is the kind of service I’ve always wished someone would build so I can purely selfishly use it (for a while, the forums section on A Small World was an excellent substitute, but that sadly went downhill promptly). A local entrepreneurial community is pretty much the first thing I look for when on the road (at home too!) and learning from other startup ecosystems can really help expand an entrepreneur’s horizons, not to mention forge practical partnerships across borders. It’s quite simple — you create a profile and list your travel plans. You can browse who’s available in the location you’re interested in and reach out. I’ve had a few on-site interactions so far that were wonderfully pleasant, but haven’t had the time to meet up with anyone in person yet. This is the type of service that will get better with more people who sign up, so go sign up right now!



 * It’s a very interesting play on words, too, since the company’s name can be read as a verb (to project gravitas) or as a noun (project, as undertaking).

** Jasper, make me a sandwich. (Who’s Jasper? Oh, he is my wonderful robot butler. I imagine he looks like a domesticated, hardwood-floor-friendly version of Wall-E).

*** This beauty turned me sideways in more ways than one in an otherwise lovely hotel in Boston’s Seaport district.

**** They still make these, right? Cause they’re awesome.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve used all of these. MobileSuites is part of the accelerator that I mentor in, ERA, but we have not worked together directly. I am not an investor in any of the above — I just happen to really like what they’re all doing).


During the broadcast of the World Cup today, ESPN’s announcers mentioned that around 800 million people worldwide are tuned in and watching Germany and Argentina play. This number struck me as simultaneously both large and small — large, since we so seldomly experience things en masse at the same time; and small for precisely the same reason: football is perhaps the most global of all sports and since we’re more than 7BB strong now that does seem a tad conservative.

There’s something to be said about the unifying effects of a shared experience of such proportions. After all, what events other than major sport ones could command such an audience?  Perhaps one day soon another landing on the Moon or on Mars, but until then this pretty accurately describes the World Cup experience: