Friday, January 17, 2014

Yahoo at the Crossroads - Again: What Does Marissa Mayer Do Next to Get Signal?

Executives sometimes hire to complement their own skills, sometimes to extend them. For +Marissa Mayer, her recent dismissal of former Google exec Henrique de Castro after 15 months of trying to turn around Yahoo's ad business as their COO seems to point to the latter. Mayer presents well to the public, to be sure, and has more than a few good ideas about innovation, but at her core she's a numbers person, focused on the details of getting things right.

There's only so much that a CEO can do that and still show up for those keynote addresses, so it seems that de Castro got one arm of what Mayer would have otherwise taken on herself, and with much the same outlook. Apparently de Castro was not a "people person," which, in the world of big display ad deals formed over power lunches and the like, is not an asset. At all. Tack on the recent embarrassment from Yahoo ads that carried malware to hundreds of thousands of their users, and it was time for a fresh start.

So while de Castro's departure is perhaps a better-now-than-later admission that Yahoo needs a people person at the helm of its ad operation, it's also an admission that Yahoo has a very complex mission ahead of itself in trying to turn the company around. And it's a mission that requires Yahoo to consider whether it's really on track for achieving its core goals. While its web site claims that Yahoo is in business "to create deeply personal digital experiences," somehow CPM rates for display ads and the content that's likely to be carry them are not necessarily a good match for that mission. So while big-name advertisers may say "Yay" when they hear of big-media folks like Katie Couric and David Pogue signing on to beef up Yahoo content, 90-plus percent of the Web audience probably went, "Huh?"

Let's put it another way: in The Signal Economy, big media doesn't generate signal, it consumes it. Mainstream media provides a platform for interaction with people, but it is very narrow-band signal, signal that revolves around that specific topic or event. That's fine for folks selling mass-market goods, and credit sites like AOL's Huffington Post for refining today's online model for aggregating and generating such content to a fine art. But while HuffPo's +Arianna Huffington is a media star in her own right, you'd be hard-pressed to think of one HuffPoster staffer who you would call a "media star" - some columnists, perhaps, but they're toe-to-toe with Web superstars. In HuffPo-land the content is the star, and its star rises and falls in a matter of moments if it doesn't go viral and gets promoted like the dickens for brief moments of Web fame when it does. You don't get to that level of high-quality audience engagement by shuffling around feeds from the usual mainstream news suspects and hiring on big-name media stars to eat up your margins producing mediocre gossip, or tech content focused on "boomer" tastes that most any blogger or +YouTube star like +Marques Brownlee could outclass in a heartbeat.

No, the truth is that while Mayer has assembled some very good bits of technology recently to push Yahoo forward and has done a very credible job reinventing the brand, the heart of Yahoo's revenues are largely an anachronism. Yes, it's important to be in the middle of "smart TV" viewing, but you're not going to do that with blogging niche player Tumblr in tow. For the time being, Twitter has sewn up the marketing hearts and minds of TV advertisers - at least until +Google+ begins to mount a credible assault on the living room via its now-popular Chromecast TV appliance and emerging Android TV efforts. You're not going to do it by spiffing up Yahoo Mail, even though having a credible messaging system of some kind is important. None of this is really going to increase Yahoo's signal-gathering or signal-deploying capabilities enormously. And while the new Yahoo News Digest app introduced at this year's CES show has good design and utility, the "why" of using it versus +Flipboard, Google Newsstand or any number of news aggregation services is not a slam-dunker by any shot. It's competent, making the right moves, but not setting the pace - or gathering much of any personal value to support that "deeply personal" mission statement.

And pace is what it's all about in developing personal online services that generate truly personal signal. While Mayer has been busy trying to reconstitute the semblance of a profitable online media business, companies like Google - well, mostly Google, really - have been out inventing new sources of signal and new contexts in which to exploit it. Google CEO +Larry Page noted recently at a conference that Google's refined mission is "to create beautiful, intuitive services and technologies that are so incredibly useful for people that people use them twice a day, like you might use a toothbrush." While Yahoo is trying to invent new media, Google is out inventing new activities - new verbs that provide a whole new array of signals to process and new contexts into which to drop media services for marketers. As far as I can see, there's nothing remotely like that on the docket for Yahoo. And it's the lack of such activity-related signals that will restrain the further growth of companies like AOL, and the core reason that their Patch hyperlocal publishing initiative failed.

So where does Yahoo go from here? I am sure that there's good product in the pipeline to some degree that will provide us with some surprises, but the core challenge is to find some better ways to get better signal for marketers. That's going to be hard to do with just mainstream media, and even not all that easy with just social media in tow from Tumbr or Flickr. Where are new  and unique Web-driven "dos" in the Yahoo lexicon? What are the new attitudes coming out of Yahoo that the mainstream media elements cannot embrace easily and which can power the interest of younger audiences? What is it about Yahoo that can attract Web-generation trendsetters - people who will probably never appear on CNN, and who may have never even watched it or heard of it? Without answers to those questions, Yahoo is chasing a graying demographic with less sex appeal than Huffpost manages in the same pursuit, and needs to come up with content, services and positioning that takes Yahoo out of its 1990s doldrums and into the forefront of exploiting 21st century signal in ways that really turn on both its audiences and its marketing customers.

Always glad to help, Marissa. Just give a call. Or send me a Hangout invite. Sorry, had to say it.
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