Yahoo!: some things I am worried about

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Yahoo! isn’t just a company, instead like Texas it’s a state of mind. So even when you pick up your last paycheck and forget the password of your e*Trade account for your underwater options, part of the company leaves with you. The phrase ‘bleeding purple’ encapsulates this quite nicely. It isn’t about blind organisational loyalty, it’s about that state-of-mind.

The internet is under new management: yours It's Y!ou

I left a good while ago and many of my friends and contemporaries left in the meantime, that doesn’t mean however that I don’t care any less about what happens to the organisation.

Analysts have recently talked about the company’s ‘competitive position is weakening‘; I have my own concerns about this which break down into three areas:

  • What’s the market proposition?
  • Strategic recycling
  • Continued loss of talent

What’s the market proposition? The Sunnyvale managed ‘Its Y!ou’ campaign was a 100 million-dollar failure from an audience perspective. There was some things that the campaign did right. In Europe, the Yahoo! brand hadn’t been promoted and articulated for far too long. Marketing communications was usually done at the product level. Promoting the brand was absolutely the right thing to do.

So where did the wheels come off the wagon? You could blame the creative, which was a bit generic like most ads you see on CNN; but I am sure that it matched the brief that the client provided. Instead, I think that the campaign failed to recognise some basic things. Whilst Yahoo! is a brand with a global presence, it isn’t a global brand. The Yahoo! brand personality attributes are supposed to be:

  • Human
  • Fun
  • Irreverent
  • Simple
  • Modern
  • Approachable
  • Trustworthy
  • Striving

However there is a subtle differences in these attributes between American English and British English, then add in differing cultures and complex co-ownership structures that Yahoo! has in both China and Japan: its not hard to see how the global campaign needed to have a more nuanced approach than swapping out the photography for ‘European-looking’ and ‘Asian-looking’ models.

In addition, the product mix in major markets is sufficiently different from each other. Google dominates search in Europe in  way that doesn’t happen in either North America or the APAC region, Hong Kong has a popular Yahoo! blogging platform and the Asian experiences of Yahoo! Answers is completely different to the UK one.

Since the It’s You campaign I haven’t seen an attempt at a market proposition articulated – it’s been too long, especially as the web waits for no man (or woman). They need to dust themselves down and work out how to engage with existing and prospective Yahoo! audience members.

Strategic recycling: I found it interesting that the new current direction of Yahoo! is to resurrect Terry Semel and Lloyd Braun’s vision as a creator of original content. I had the pleasure of meeting Kevin Sites: the war journalist ‘star’ of The Hot Zone which was the first and only real child of this vision. The challenge with this is that replicating traditional media models in the new environment of the web generally hasn’t worked all that well.

If you are providing specialist focused content that  people either want, or need for professional purposes then things are all good. So people like TMZ, Popbitch, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg do very well out of this. However, in the past Yahoo! the closest it has got to that level of success has been the Finance section. The stand-out businesses (and I would argue that they had variable degrees of success) that Yahoo! has had in recent memory are in consumer content creation, curation and socialisation such as delicious, flickr and Yahoo! Answers.

Continued loss of talent: the recently announced departures of Heather Champ and Paul Hammond of flickr are symptoms of a wider loss across the organisation of key people. The talent loss really kicked off with Microsoft’s hostile acquisition attempt, however the drain of key people within the organisation hasn’t been reversed and I don’t hear people talking about the amount of star alpha geeks Yahoo! is employing.

Now you could argue that both of the examples I have chosen are people with valid reasons for going. They usually are and then one day you look up and the proverbial cupboard is bare. After cutbacks which saw the departure of George Oates, you now have a quite expansive situations vacant list over at Flickr. And Flickr is a microcosm of the wider Yahoo! organisation. Sales supremo Joanna Bradford upped sticks unexpectedly to go to Demand Media and the majority of the buzz marketing team who have historically helped Yahoo!’s US operations to punch well above its brand weight have departed to set up shop supplying the same services to any brands who are interest. And that’s just in the past month.

Without the right people given the right resources and room to innovate Yahoo! won’t be able to solve its current business challenges with spreadsheet jockeys –  no matter how smart they are.