Lessons Learned from imeem

Before moving on to a new phase in my career, I always like to reflect on the previous experience and put together key takeaways that I can leverage in the next opportunity.

It's that time again as this past Wednesday was my last day at imeem. As some of you know, imeem acquired Anywhere.FM at the end of 2007. Since then I've helped to migrate Anywhere.FM, develop the imeem Media Platform, and contribute to a variety of monetization projects. But now I'm eager to move on to the next adventure :)

Since I have a blog this time around, I thought I would share my lessons learned from imeem with all of you.

Content Matters. Having interesting or exclusive content is a great source of traffic. imeem's decision to allow user uploaded content has definitely helped it obtain valuable SEO for hard to find tracks. People who really want access to a specific song will go wherever they need to in order to find it. imeem's ability to get exclusive content like the Britney Spears' Circus pre-release album definitely resulted in a nice bump in traffic as well.

Creating a Community. While many people would say developing a web 2.0 UGC site is easy because users contribute significant content, it's actually a lot of work to harvest the desired community. It requires staff to police user-contributed content, answer questions\moderate forums, contribute\manage editorial content, encourage appropriate behavior, and so on. In order to scale, it's important to automate as much as possible and allow users to help manage the community themselves.

Conversion Funnel Optimization. Don't underestimate drop-off rates resulting from adding an extra click in a flow. There are lots of flows that can be optimized simply by removing extraneous pages or reducing non-essential exit paths. It's worth re-looking at all your important conversion funnels to see if you can further optimize (sign up, contributing UGC, sharing, purchase events, premium account sign up, etc).

A/B Testing. Everyone knows that A/B testing is a good idea and they should do it. Yet still so few people do. And why is that? It's because A/B testing is hard and the tools often used to perform it are limited. However, if you take the time to either build or use an existing great A/B testing framework, the cost of A/B testing goes down significantly and becomes easier to do on a regular basis. Investing in A/B testing tools is hugely useful, especially for optimizing monetization for sites where small gains have huge effects due to volume. (There's likely a startup opportunity to provide better A/B testing tools that let you look at the full effect of variations over time).

Widgets. While allowing widgets to be embedded on third party sites significantly extends your reach and can be a huge opportunity for building your brand, the amount of traffic that converts to destination site users is often minimal and the ability to monetize widget traffic is still dismal. When developing widgets, one needs to think very carefully about the actual benefits for the site and exactly how much functionality to expose in the widgets versus reserving for only the destination site.

Using an API Internally. Building an external API is a great discipline for even improving the quality of internal API methods. It forces you to think through good design, re-usability, and creating common usage metaphors. All things you should be thinking about for internal APIs. Speed to market for imeem's own apps has significantly increased with the creation of our external APIs. The audio and video flash players, the imeem Uploader, the VIP player, MySpace\Hi5 apps, and the mobile app were all built on top of these APIs.

Evangelizing a Platform. While getting large well-known companies to use your developer platform provides great case studies that will help you convince other developers to jump on board, you have to trade this off with the fact that large companies take a long time to decide whether to engage as well as a long time to build. For each large integration, you could probably get 3-5 small integrations up and running.

Focus on Monetization. Very few music startups have focused on monetization. There is still a lot of novel business models that should be tried in the music space. Instead startups have focused on building compelling products without much care to the business model. There is room for innovation in the music space if people are willing to tinker with music business models as well.

Competing with Free. It's very difficult to compete with free. Users have come to expect free music streaming from the days of Napster and BitTorrent. And now there are plenty of free music streaming services (either illegal or legally ad-supported) and continue to propel user's expectation to pay nothing for music consumption. It's very difficult to aggressively advertise or charge users without fear of user's flocking to the competition, which just gives it all away. The one nice thing about the recession is that it has forced imeem's competitors to more aggressively monetize in order to stay afloat\get funding and therefore allows imeem to follow suit without fear of losing traffic.

Media and Entertainment Monetization. It's tough to monetize media and entertainment properties through advertising, lead gen, or affiliate revenue. This is because users are there for socializing and consuming content and have very little purchase intent. While they do share a vertical interest in music, associated music commerce opportunities are limited either because of the small margin the publisher gets working with partners for digital downloads and ringtones or because the providers for concert tickets and merchandise are still not aggregated well or lack established affiliate programs. (There's likely another startup opportunity in an aggregated music merchandise storefront and affiliate program).

Direct Sales. Having a direct sales team is expensive. Not only do you need sales reps, but you need sales planning support, post sales production support, and trafficking support. It may make more sense to outsource direct sales to rep firms in the early days of a startup's life.

International Monetization. It's very difficult to monetize traffic outside of the US and a few key markets (UK, Canada, etc). Ad spend in most other countries is still very low since their online ad markets are still nascent. Oftentimes it is probably a better use of time trying to improve US monetization or trying to attract additional US traffic as opposed to trying to optimize international monetization. (I smell a startup opportunity for anyone who can crack international monetization).

Users Willingness to Pay. I was surprised that users are actually willing to pay for online services. Obviously conversion rates are very very low. But it was surprising to me to learn that people were willing to pay at all - anywhere from $3/mo - $100/year for imeem's VIP subscription service. The features were really around convenience. Not even access to content. People will pay for quality products.

Online Audio Ads. Online audio ads are a promising area for innovation and monetization. There is still $21B being spent on offline audio ads and there is clearly an opportunity to move some of those dollars online. No one is aggressively innovating with the right ad unit. Most are simply re-purposing offline audio ads online.

Incentivized CPA Offers. Incentivized CPA offers can be used to monetize a variety of digital goods even outside of the social gaming space. However, the highest eCPMs seen thus far are still in their use in social gaming.

Music Licensing. It's very difficult to get on-demand streaming deals done with all four major labels. And this doesn't even include indie content. Even if you get the deals, you are looking at a large upfront payment to each label, giving up equity, plus a rev share or per-stream fee. The labels have not been looking to give the deals to everyone either, instead focusing on making some large bets.

Value of Data. Every site of any interesting size has a wealth of data. It's important to know exactly what data is tracked and available and to mine it wherever appropriate. All too often this valuable data goes unleveraged. On the other extreme, many believe that the ultimate business model lies in selling data. For those who believe this though, I think it's tougher than one thinks to monetize data itself. But there are many valuable insights that can be gained by mining it for product improvements and getting a better insight into your audience.

Don't Believe Everything You Read. It's interesting being on the inside of a large web property with many eyes watching it. Since I had the inside scoop, I knew that many times imeem was written about, the reporters simply got it wrong. Either because of misinformation, not really understanding the service, or some rumor that someone else started. Because of this, I've become much more critical of what I read online in the tech press and look much more closely at their stated sources of information.
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