Online advertising in Japan, status report

For some reason ads have popped up into Japan’s news agenda lately (Second Life is coming to Japan, local newspapers got in trouble in their flailing attempts to use government contracts to make up for lost ad revenue) and on the Western side as well (Google is offering a new pricing structure for its ads). So as an armchair observer I want to bring up (and translate) some interesting articles I’ve seen on the subject that take a closer look.

Last month, Dentsu announced that Internet ad spending surged in 2006. It beat out radio spending in 2004 and is poised to overtake spending on magazine ads in 2007. The numbers came out with great fanfare, but not much context. Thankfully, Shukan Toyo Keizai has stepped up to fill in the details with a free online article on the subject (translated in full below):

At the Front Lines in the “Hard Fight” of Internet Advertising
March 16, 2007

In 2006, Japan’s Internet ad spending jumped 30% from the year before to 363 billion yen. Yet, we don’t hear Internet companies heralding that “Internet ads are booming.” What’s going on in the field?

“Companies have been leaving ad budgets unspent these past 4 quarters. They have money leftover but aren’t using it. We’ve been hoping that they’ll finally use it each quarter, but that time has yet to come” (Masahiro Inoue, President of Yahoo! Japan). “The Internet ad market overall is stagnating, with industry-wide price-drops in advertising having an effect on regular ads including banner, text, and search-sensitive ads” (Tetsuya Ebata, President of AllAbout Japan).

net-ads-140_2.jpgIn Februray, Dentsu announced in its “Advertising Spending in Japan, 2006” (PDF in Japanese)that as ad spending for the 4 mass media of TV, newspapers, magazines, and radio slumped, Internet ads jump 30% on a year-on-year basis to 363 billion yen. Net ads already surpassed radio in 2004, and it seems certain that they will beat out magazines in 2007.

Despite this, most top executives at Internet companies complained of a “sense of stagnation in Internet ads” in earnings announcements for the Oct-Dec 2006 quarter.

Internet businesses get their main source of revenue from advertising. Slow growth in that market could lead to slower growth for Internet companies as well.

Some Smaller Companies Reporting Negative Growth

So what’s going on here? Take Yahoo! Japan, for example. It ad revenue grew 40% in 2006 to 84.7 billion yen. Looking at this figure alone makes things look like an ideal situation. But one’s impression changes drastically when looking at per-quarter numbers. Though Yahoo’s ad revenue grew 13% from 18 billion yen in Oct-Dec 2005 to 20.5 billion yen in the same quarter in 2006, growth clearly slowed in the following quarters: 21.2 billion, 21.2 billion, 21.7 billion.

Examples of negative growth are far from rare. Excite Japan, a mid-market portal site, has continued to see its ad revenue shrink since the Apr-Jun 2006 quarter. AllAbout, a company offering specialized guides and articles from experts in their respective fields, has been unable to exceed its peak in the Oct-Dec 2005 quarter. Ad revenue for Cyber Agent’s media operations saw their growth come to a halt in 2006.

The cause of this slowdown in Net ads, as everyone in the industry points out, is the drop in ad placements from major consumer credit firms. These companies were a major advertiser in all Internet media from banner ads to search-sensitive ads. But they took a turn for the worse business-wise when scandals led to a rise in maximum interest rates. The companies’ major scaling back of ad budgets has taken its toll.

“The exodus of consumer finance has collapsed ad demand” (Osamu Ishikawa, Finance and Accounting Director, Excite Japan); “Revenues from consumer finance companies have been dropping each quarter since the first. Revenues from many other industries are growing, but they have not made up for the drop” (Akira Kashigawa, CFO at Yahoo! Japan)

Over the past few years, year-on-year growth rates of 50 or 60 percent were taken for granted, and quite a few companies had boosted hiring and investment based on this surge, moves that are at the root of the doom and gloom attitudes that have prevailed from mid-2006.

But if you think that the industry will return to its former health after riding out the shock of consumer finance, think again. That’s because a huge structural change is underway in the Internet ad market.

A Growing Oligopoly: A Battle for the Top Spot between the 2 Big Search Engines

Recently, you have probably noticed quite a few TV, newspaper, and outdoor ads that feature search boxes.

Cross-media marketing, a practice that combines existing advertising techniques and search engines, is experiencing a surge in popularity. “Dentsu and Hakuhodo, who want to sell existing ad space (which is more profitable than Internet ads), are pitching this method as a way to meet the needs of companies that want to take advantage of the Internet,” explains a source connected to the industry. Companies both large and small have been getting into the cross-media game.

Search-sensitive ads refer to ads that are displayed above or to the right of results when a user searches on Yahoo! or Google. They are very effective since the ads displayed are tailored to the users’ interests and ad fees are only paid when the ads are actually clicked on, giving them a high level of cost effectiveness. Users and advertisers have both accepted the ads and they have exploded recently.

The above-mentioned Dentsu survey shows that search-sensitive ads grew 57% in 2006 to 93 billion yen, making up 25% of all net ads. However, asd President Akira Shinta of Aun Consulting notes, “30% of the American market is search-sensitive ads. Their share is going to grow in Japan as well.”

Japan’s net ad market is currently dominated by one player, Yahoo! Japan, which has 25% of the market. But the more search-sensitive ads grow, the more Google is sure to make its presence felt.

Unlike in the US, where Google reigns supreme in search engine market share, Yahoo has held onto the top spot in Japan. Even still, Shinta argues that “Google is gradually becoming a threat.” While Yahoo Japan relies on Yahoo! USA subsidiary Overture for its search ad system, Google has its own. If search-sensitive ad revenue were set at 100, Yahoo’s takehome would be 55, while Google takes home 85-100. Moreover, Google, which has teamed up with KDDI, is in a better position in the mobile search market than Yahoo is in its partnership with Softbank.

What’s happening right now is a fight for the top spot in the Japanese market between Yahoo and Google. It’s gone from a market dominated by a single company to one dominated by 2 companies, and as a result an oligopoly has taken shape. Unless they can sell their uniqueness, the “3rd place and under” Internet companies may get weeded out as they suffer a structural lull.

(by Masao Yamada)

UPDATE: Excite Japan’s Web Ad Times has a good graph depicting the slowdown. You shouldn’t even need to read Japanese to see that growth is way down.

12 thoughts on “Online advertising in Japan, status report”

  1. Isn’t falling ad revenue one of the main reasons that led to the collapse of Web 1.0 besides the inflated values of the said dotcoms?

  2. Excellent choice of article. Thank you very much.

    My take? This is the death throes of banner ads in Japan, which died an appropriate death in the US a few years ago.

    As more Internet users in Japan gravitate towards searching and away from the portals, it will be a handicap not to own one’s own search-engine advertising platform.

    The other thing that is fascinating to see is all of the outdoor and print media that is pushing “search by this keyword” when those businesses have no real control over which URLs will come up at the top. Sure they can invest in SEO, but others can too. That said, asking people to remember URLs is not viable long term and QR codes haven’t taken off either.

    Finally, I’m glad to see the advertising industry being weaned off of consumer finance ads. Good riddance.

  3. More like good riddance to the oppressive presence of the predatory lenders in general. I guess the dirty money has helped to fund some of Yahoo’s loss-making enterprises like the Politics section, but all the same.

  4. What I want to know is how can Yahoo auctions in Japan actually get away with charging its users? It seems like the total reverse of the ebay business model of putting the entire burden on the seller and making things as easy as possible for the bidder.

  5. > how can Yahoo auctions in Japan actually get away with charging its users?

    Easy. There’s no other competition in Japan for auctions so Yahoo! Japan can do whatever they want for pricing of auctions ( thinks that it is competition, and that’s debatable.)

  6. Note to Mark: Asking questions is just about obsolete these days. If you had simply decided to search “web 2.0 in Japan” in Google instead of asking me, your 1st result would have been this July 2006 article from PingMag. If you need to know what web 2.0 is doing RIGHT NOW, use that as a jumping off point. One update – Mixi was one of Japan’s hottest IPOs later in the year.

  7. Yahoo Japan hasn’t charged users to bid on auctions for months. If you’re a Yahoo BB user you get to put items up for sale without that fee, too.

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