Taboola, the company that operates a popular grid-based advertising and content recommendation network across media properties, today announced an acquisition to expand its reach further into e-commerce, its first big move since going public in June by way of a SPAC: It is paying $800 million in a combination of cash and stock to buy Connexity, a marketing technology company that operates an retail- and e-commerce-focused advertising network. Connexity has been owned by Symphony Technology Partners since 2011.
The deal — coming in the form of $260 million from cash on hand, $300 million from committed debt financing and approximately $240 million through the issuance of ordinary shares to the seller — will supersize and further diversify Taboola, which currently has a market cap of about $1.9 billion (that’s according to Google Finance; Taboola says the share count is off and it’s actually $2.35 billion) and is in hot competition with another content recommendation network operator, Outbrain: The two were set to merge operations but eventually went their own ways, and Outbrain itself went public this month.
Taboola said it expects the combined company to have gross profit of over $500 million for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2021 (ex- traffic acquisition costs, or TAC), with $185 million of adjusted EBITDA for the period, with both figures growing 20% in 2021 versus 2020.
Connexity was originally called Shopzilla before rebranding, and it has over the years amassed a number of related businesses, including Become.com, Skimlinks and PriceGrabber. (Even Connexity itself was an acquisition made by Shopzilla when it was primarily a shopping search engine.) Together, it has helped the company build out what has become a sizable network focused around the business of e-commerce.
While Taboola focuses on content recommendations and advertising that runs alongside that, and Connexity is more squarely focused on the business of e-commerce, the two have something in common. They both position themselves as viable alternatives to the big players in advertising and discovery, giving publishers and retailers another way of making revenues and finding new customers without selling out data and a cut to the Googles, Facebooks and Amazons of this world.
While keeping the landscape competitive and providing viable alternatives to beleaguered publishers sounds like a noble enough effort, there are of course potential drawbacks. Taboola’s approach has long incurred a lot of criticism for disseminating click-bait and other garbage links, and some might have an issue with the concept of a deeper move into e-commerce and selling merchandise along side that. Some in the media industry (and within the world of journalism in particular) have long aimed to keep commercial and other vested interests at arms’ length from its content, and so it will be worth watching to see how and if that effort shifts as publishers continue to look for profit.
Adam Singolda, the CEO and co-founder of Taboola, very much understands the challenges that publishers face, and he sees his company as building solutions to address that. He told TechCrunch that when Taboola went public, part of its sell to investors was that it would move into newer “types” of recommendations, covering new segments, that would also further scale the bigger operation, and this is a part of that strategy.
“We believe the future of the open web is e-commerce,” he added.
Taboola today has 9,000 digital property partners, 13,000 direct advertisers and 500 million daily active users on its platform, where publishers can use the content recommendation format to recirculate their own content as well as that of other publishers and advertisers on the Taboola network.
For Connexity’s part, it covers various activities like affiliate links, influencer marketing, in-stream advertising, shopping search ads and more. Its customers include 1,600 direct merchants, and 6,000 publishers (Walmart, Wayfair, Skechers, Macy’s, eBay and Otto are some of the most high-profile of these). And in total, it says its network has some 40,000 retail-oriented publishers that can select from a pool of 750 million product offers, and an audience of 100 million shoppers.
And in a very fragmented e-commerce world rife with challenges in keeping online consumers’ attention, it says its various activities have generated over 800 million shopping leads, and in 2020, more than $2 billion in sales for its customers.
That is still a relatively small part of the pie, though; eMarketer estimates that the e-commerce media market is worth some $35 billion in the U.S. alone.
Added to that, Taboola’s bet is that the publishers it already works with are going to be getting deeper into this space as part of their own drive to maximize more revenues per visitor/reader and make their own business models more viable (alongside diversifying into paid content, paywalls, alternative advertising formats like sponsored content, events and so on).
“Sixty-two percent of U.S. publishers expect e-commerce to be one of their biggest revenue channels,” Singolda said. “I strongly believe every publisher’s leadership these days have e-commerce as a top three thing they want to get into in a big way.”
Connexity is a fairly multichannel offering today — a byproduct of all the acquisitions it has made into adjacent technologies — and Taboola plans to keep it all, with “massive cross sell and upselling opportunities, bringing e-eommerce to every publisher on the open web, driving higher yields, going global with e-commerce, empowering editorial teams what to write about around e-commerce,” Singolda said.
Connexity on its own is a substantial business, and the shift to more e-commerce in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic has put a focus on the different tools it has in its armory to capture attention and convert ordinary site visitors into browsers and then into shoppers. It says that in 2019 it generated $151 million of revenue, $63 million of ex-TAC gross profit and $28 million of adjusted EBITDA in 2019, with that figure increasing to $172 million of revenue, $78 million of ex-TAC gross profit and $38 million of adjusted EBITDA in 2020.