How Covid-19 Supercharged An Advertising ‘Triopoly’
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How Covid-19 Supercharged An Advertising ‘Triopoly’

Google, Facebook and Amazon collect more than half of all ad dollars spent in the U.S.

By Keach Hagey and Suzanne Vranica
Wed, Mar 24, 2021 3:21pmGrey Clock 7 min

When the pandemic upended the economy last year, companies took a hard look at their advertising plans.

Oreos maker Mondelez International Inc. shifted money meant for TV commercials during March Madness basketball and the summer Olympics into digital platforms. A hefty chunk went to Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which offered data on what locked-down snack lovers were searching for.

Athleisure company Vuori Inc. more than tripled its spending on Facebook Inc., spotting a chance to juice sales of its sweatpants to people stuck at home. Office-furniture maker Steelcase Inc. built an operation to sell directly to workers and advertised aggressively on Amazon.com Inc.

The Big Three of digital advertising—Google, Facebook and Amazon—already dominated that sector going into 2020. The pandemic pushed them into command of the entire advertising economy. According to a provisional analysis by ad agency GroupM, the three tech titans for the first time collected the majority of all ad spending in the U.S. last year.

Beneath the shift are changes driven by the pandemic: more time spent on computer screens; more e-commerce; a jump in new-business formation, and a steady improvement in tech giants’ ability to demonstrate a return on ad investment.

Success breeds success for what some call the “triopoly.” The increase in shopping and spending on Google, Facebook and Amazon’s platforms is adding to their already voluminous data on users, giving them even more appeal for advertisers that look to target their messages.

“These companies that are data-science-driven get stronger and faster with a tailwind of usage—and Covid was a hurricane,” said ad-industry veteran Tim Armstrong, a former Google executive and AOL CEO who now leads Flowcode, a direct-to-consumer platform company.

Many of the pandemic-driven changes likely are here to stay, say advertisers and ad forecasters. Still, when the pandemic winds down, it’s far from certain the tech giants will continue to increase their market share gains at this rate. With the vaccine rollout and easing of lockdowns, consumers could spend less time and money online and marketers could diversify their spending.

The growth in online advertising last year came as every other kind of ad spending shrank, with double-digit declines in television, newspapers and billboards, according to GroupM. And those online gains flowed heavily to the tech giants rather than to digital media sites and publishers that sell online ads.

The triopoly increased their share of the U.S. digital-ad market from 80% in 2019 to a range approaching 90% in 2020, GroupM estimates. It’s a surge that comes as the three face scrutiny and litigation from various agencies at home and abroad over their dominance.

Google, in announcing plans to tweak its tools that help publishers and advertisers buy and sell ads, is moving away from targeting ads based on individuals’ browsing activity across the web. But that shift might wind up further strengthening Google’s grip on the online-ad industry, some experts and rivals say, because it could boost the value of the data flowing through Google properties such as Search and YouTube.

Amazon this week said it will begin streaming Thursday Night Football by 2023, giving the company a high-profile franchise to take in ad dollars normally spent on TV broadcasters.

The three giants aren’t collecting just the money spent to advertise in the media but also some of the marketing dollars earmarked for coupons, catalogues and in-store promotions.

“They are not media companies anymore, they are marketing mongrels,” said Rishad Tobaccowala, a senior adviser to ad giant Publicis Groupe SA.

New-business applications in the U.S., which slowly climbed from 200,000 a month to 300,000 over a decade, shot up north of 500,000 in July and averaged more than 400,000 a month for the second half of 2020, according to the U.S. Census data. This proved a boon for the biggest tech platforms, which provide the kind of advertising that is often all a startup can afford. Facebook says it had more than 10 million active advertisers in the third quarter, up from 8 million in January.

Meanwhile, many businesses of all sizes pivoted to e-commerce selling—and turned to digital ads to support that effort.

Before the pandemic, a little more than 10% of retail purchases in the U.S.took place online. That jumped to 16% in last year’s second quarter when lockdowns peaked, according to Census data. Though the rate tapered a bit as the year wore on, the trend strongly benefits the tech behemoths.

“The pandemic zapped us two years into the future on the e-commerce side,” said Nicole Perrin, principal analyst at research firm eMarketer.

Mondelez, the Chicago-based maker of Oreo, Ritz and other snacks, in 2020 geared up to promote some of its brands in the marquee television events of the NCAA college basketball tournament and the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. When it became clear neither would be held, Mondelez redeployed the money to digital advertising.

It doubled down on Google ads to capitalize on interest in online recipes among those homebound. It used Facebook-owned Instagram to host a Pictionary-like game in which an artist made images out of the cream in the middle of an Oreo cookie. For the first time, Mondelez spent more on digital ads than on TV commercials last year. Google and Facebook were the biggest beneficiaries.

This year, digital advertising is projected to account for more than half the roughly $1.1 billion Mondelez spends on media world-wide. It was only about 30% as recently as 2017. TV’s share of the company’s ad spending continues to decline.

When Mondelez invests in digital advertising, it gets a 25% better return than with TV ads, the company says. It has found that its Google and Facebook ads do especially well, generating 40% higher returns than an average digital ad. The two now account for roughly 60% to 70% of Mondelez’s digital ad spending, up from less than 50% in 2017, the company says.

The tech giants share data that allows Mondelez to understand its customers better, said the snack maker’s chief marketing officer, Martin Renaud. Google data showed Mondelez, for instance, that people tend to search the internet for healthier snacks in the morning and for more-indulgent treats as the day wears on.

When the pandemic struck, Google provided updated data that helped Mondelez craft relevant ads. The company switched from showing college-age consumers an ad about eating lunch in the library to one that read: “Made it through an online class? Treat yourself.”

Mondelez has been working with Google and Target Corp. to figure out how likely someone is to buy Oreos or Ritz crackers from Target stores after being served ads for them on Google’s YouTube.

“I can’t go to CNN or other platforms and be able to get that intelligence,” said Jonathan Halvorson, Mondelez’s global vice president of consumer experience. Big advertisers like Mondelez still spend a lot on TV commercials, and most consider TV the best way to reach a mass audience, rather than any particular segment of consumers.

As it directs more ad money to the tech giants, Mondelez isn’t working with as many digital publishers in the U.S. In 2017, Mondelez worked with about 150; it now works with fewer than 10.

For direct-to-consumer businesses, the pandemic provided an opportunity like no other.

Activewear company Vuori distributes through stores, but its main focus is selling via catalogues and the web. Facebook is a key part of its strategy. Besides enabling Vuori to monitor the performance of its ads, the platform’s tools let Vuori upload lists of its customers and then use Facebook’s algorithm to find look-alike audiences, testing and pivoting in real-time.

When the pandemic arrived, Vuori CEO Joe Kudla noticed something interesting in the data: The prices of Facebook’s ads were dropping at the same time as people were clicking at higher rates on Vuori ads for items like its $80 sweatpants. That combination sent its return on ad spending through the roof.

Vuori stopped traditional marketing such as catalogues and direct mail and shovelled every dollar it could into Facebook. It doubled its April 2020 media spending from what was budgeted and saw sales quadruple. Facebook’s ad prices have since recovered, and Vuori has diversified its ad spending somewhat, but it has continued to increase its use of Facebook ads.

A surfer and yoga practitioner, Mr Kudla seeks to create products for people with the kind of active lifestyle he and his friends in Encinitas, Calif., have. But for finding customers, he says, Facebook beats his instincts.

“We could identify the age, demo and behaviour, but ultimately the algorithm is much more powerful in terms of identifying people who demonstrate certain shopping behaviours,” Mr Kudla said.

Performance-obsessed small advertisers such as Vuori are the reason Facebook revenue never stopped growing last year, despite the pandemic’s hit to the economy and then a summer boycott by some prominent advertisers over the platform’s handling of hate speech and misinformation.

In the three years leading up to the pandemic, Suzy Batiz, founder of the toilet spray company Poo-Pourri, was focused mainly on building out the network of retail stores that carried what it calls a “before-you-go” spritz of essential oils.

Then Covid-19 hit, and one distributor refused to take a multimillion-dollar order already produced. “That was pretty painful,” Ms Batiz said. “But as one of my mentors would say, crisis precedes transformation.” The company shifted focus from driving customers to stores to driving them to its e-commerce site and others’ shopping sites.

That meant cutting all marketing spending that wasn’t digital, such as payment for placement at Bed Bath & Beyond stores or for promotional events. Ms Batiz redirected the money to the web, especially Facebook. Sales on Poo-Pourri’s website surged 300% in the second quarter versus a year earlier and more than doubled for the year.

“This is our future,” Ms Batiz said. “I don’t think we will ever go back.”

Steelcase, which makes desks and other office furniture, spent roughly $1 million on advertising in 2019, primarily for print and digital ads in business publications to target facility managers, architects, developers and company executives. Most of its revenue came in direct sales to corporations or from its dealer network, which has showrooms around the country. Its business of direct selling to consumers was minuscule.

As states’ stay-home orders spurred an exodus from offices last spring, Steelcase’s sales plunged. The Grand Rapids, Mich., company ramped up its small direct-to-consumer business, increasing its staff for that to 25 people from two.

It stopped advertising in business publications and began buying search and social-media ads. Steelcase radically increased its ad budget last year and spent $5 million to $6 million on digital ads targeting people setting up home offices. About half of that went to Amazon search ads.

“Everyone focused on Amazon, whether you needed toilet paper, spices, a Cuisinart mixer or an office chair,” said Allan Smith, the furniture maker’s vice president of global marketing. “We decided to shift there as well, and it paid off.”

For every dollar Steelcase spent on Amazon ads during the holiday season, it made $30 in sales, the company says. Sales for its business aimed at consumers are up 500%.

Steelcase plans to double its Amazon spending this year. Its research indicates the pandemic has changed work-life for good, predicting that about 72% of businesses are likely to take a hybrid approach of working from both home and office. “The hybrid future is here to stay,” Mr Smith said.

 

Reprinted by permission of WSJ. Magazine. Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: March 19, 2021



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These stocks are getting hit for a reason. Instead, focus on stocks that show ‘relative strength.’ Here’s how.

By KEN SHREVE
Wed, Jun 12, 2024 4 min

A lot of investors get stock-picking wrong before they even get started: Instead of targeting the top-performing stocks in the market, they focus on the laggards—widely known companies that look as if they are on sale after a period of stock-price weakness.

But these weak performers usually are going down for good reasons, such as for deteriorating sales and earnings, market-share losses or mutual-fund managers who are unwinding positions.

Decades of Investor’s Business Daily research shows these aren’t the stocks that tend to become stock-market leaders. The stocks that reward investors with handsome gains for months or years are more often  already  the strongest price performers, usually because of outstanding earnings and sales growth and increasing fund ownership.

Of course, many investors already chase performance and pour money into winning stocks. So how can a discerning investor find the winning stocks that have more room to run?

Enter “relative strength”—the notion that strength begets more strength. Relative strength measures stocks’ recent performance relative to the overall market. Investing in stocks with high relative strength means going with the winners, rather than picking stocks in hopes of a rebound. Why bet on a last-place team when you can wager on the leader?

One of the easiest ways to identify the strongest price performers is with IBD’s Relative Strength Rating. Ranked on a scale of 1-99, a stock with an RS rating of 99 has outperformed 99% of all stocks based on 12-month price performance.

How to use the metric

To capitalise on relative strength, an investor’s search should be focused on stocks with RS ratings of at least 80.

But beware: While the goal is to buy stocks that are performing better than the overall market, stocks with the highest RS ratings aren’t  always  the best to buy. No doubt, some stocks extend rallies for years. But others will be too far into their price run-up and ready to start a longer-term price decline.

Thus, there is a limit to chasing performance. To avoid this pitfall, investors should focus on stocks that have strong relative strength but have seen a moderate price decline and are just coming out of weeks or months of trading within a limited range. This range will vary by stock, but IBD research shows that most good trading patterns can show declines of up to one-third.

Here, a relative strength line on a chart may be helpful for confirming an RS rating’s buy signal. Offered on some stock-charting tools, including IBD’s, the line is a way to visualise relative strength by comparing a stock’s price performance relative to the movement of the S&P 500 or other benchmark.

When the line is sloping upward, it means the stock is outperforming the benchmark. When it is sloping downward, the stock is lagging behind the benchmark. One reason the RS line is helpful is that the line can rise even when a stock price is falling, meaning its value is falling at a slower pace than the benchmark.

A case study

The value of relative strength could be seen in Google parent Alphabet in January 2020, when its RS rating was 89 before it started a 10-month run when the stock rose 64%. Meta Platforms ’ RS rating was 96 before the Facebook parent hit new highs in March 2023 and ran up 65% in four months. Abercrombie & Fitch , one of 2023’s best-performing stocks, had a 94 rating before it soared 342% in nine months starting in June 2023.

Those stocks weren’t flukes. In a study of the biggest stock-market winners from the early 1950s through 2008, the average RS rating of the best performers before they began their major price runs was 87.

To see relative strength in action, consider Nvidia . The chip stock was an established leader, having shot up 365% from its October 2022 low to its high of $504.48 in late August 2023.

But then it spent the next four months rangebound—giving up some ground, then gaining some back. Through this period, shares held between $392.30 and the August peak, declining no more than 22% from top to bottom.

On Jan. 8, Nvidia broke out of its trading range to new highs. The previous session, Nvidia’s RS rating was 97. And that week, the stock’s relative strength line hit new highs. The catalyst: Investors cheered the company’s update on its latest advancements in artificial intelligence.

Nvidia then rose 16% on Feb. 22 after the company said earnings for the January-ended quarter soared 486% year over year to $5.16 a share. Revenue more than tripled to $22.1 billion. It also significantly raised its earnings and revenue guidance for the quarter that was to end in April. In all, Nvidia climbed 89% from Jan. 5 to its March 7 close.

And the stock has continued to run up, surging past $1,000 a share in late May after the company exceeded that guidance for the April-ended quarter and delivered record revenue of $26 billion and record net profit of $14.88 billion.

Ken Shreve  is a senior markets writer at Investor’s Business Daily. Follow him on X  @IBD_KShreve  for more stock-market analysis and insights, or contact him at  ken.shreve@investors.com .