Marissa Mayer's Yahoo! - one year on

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan July 22, 2013
Summary:
It's a been a busy twelve months for the woman charged with the unenviable task of breathing life into what is in internet terms an ageing property that's taken several mis-steps.
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Marissa Mayer

Last week Marissa Mayer celebrated her first year in the hot seat as CEO of Yahoo.

It's a been a busy twelve months for the woman charged with the unenviable task of breathing life into what is in internet terms an ageing property that's taken several mis-steps.

Rivals such as Google and Facebook had long since overtaken Yahoo in the online-ad industry, leading to open discussion among Yahoo's board about whether the company should remain an independent, publicly traded entity.

Instead, it hired Mayer to become the firm's sixth CEO in less than five years.

Her appointment didn't meet with everyone's approval to say the least. Forrester's Shar Van Bostrick said at the time:

Mayer's background is in product development...not corporate strategy, not marketing, not brand definition...the areas where Yahoo! has the most critical need.

My other worry with Mayer's appointment is that it signals yet another shift in strategic vision for Yahoo!. I count four different strategies over the last four years.

Creche-ing into the headlines

From day one Mayer has delivered headlines, being six months pregnant at the time she took on the role.

She gave birth and returned to work almost at once, a seeming inspiration to working women everywhere that rather rapidly backfired when she decided to put an end to telecommuting and remote working for Yahoo staffers, including working mothers.

The move was controversial enough without the secondary revelation that Mayer herself was able to use a personal creche next to her office for her child. You can't buy bad PR like that!

(The telecommuting policy has been revised since then. Yahoo now offers up to 16 weeks of paid leave for new mothers, paid paternity leave and an eight-week unpaid sabbatical for every five years of tenure with the company.)

Still, Mayer has been busy. She's orchestrated 17 acquisitions, including the $1.1 billion purchase of Internet blogging service Tumblr. Yahoo's home page, email and Flickr photo service have all been redesigned while mobile applications have been upgraded.

Turning the ship

But it takes a long time to turn around a ship like Yahoo as the firm's second quarter results reminded the market. Yahoo trimmed its outlook for 2013 revenue after revealing a sharp slide in ad prices in the second quarter.

Revenue from its display advertising business in the second quarter fell 11 percent from the year before on an adjusted basis, while search advertising revenue was up 5 percent on an adjusted basis.

Mayer used the short fall to emphasise the need for Yahoo to find new ad formats, but the news rattled analysts who are running out of patience. BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis commented:

"If there is some kind of genius happening here, it needs to start materializing later this year, and taking your guidance down is not a step in that direction," said. "We have had eight quarters of decline for the number of display ads sold. And the price per ad dropped significantly this quarter - that's huge."

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Colin Gillis

For her part, Mayer obviously remains upbeat, describing the second quarter as one of the most productive ever with a new product launched every week. She breaks down her objectives in the first year in situ as being twofold:

"The first sprint was all about people and culture, the second and current sprint is all about execution, execution around improving products and increasing traffic…traffic will increase advertiser interest and ultimately translate into revenue. People then products then traffic then revenue."

Traffic problems 

Traffic is of course what's most needed after a long period of decline. Mayer is confident however that a crossover point has been passed that means traffic is now on the increase. Moreover she notes that Yahoo's figures do not include either the Tumblr or IMAP email users:

"We simply count one pageview despite the fact that the user may actually get multiple pages of information. In other words these measures are conservative.

"Renewed traffic growth in the face of multiple years of decline is to my knowledge unprecedented among industry players that operate with billions of pageviews and we’ve achieved just that."

The policy of improving products to improve traffic is paying dividends, she insists, citing the the launch of Yahoo! Mail app for tablets:

"This beautiful magazine like reading experience has contributed to daily active users being up 120% across our mobile mail applications and in Q2 we were excited to announce an initiative to make more desirable Yahoo! email addresses available by releasing accounts that have been inactive for 12 months.

"Anyone can visit wishlist.yahoo.com to check to see if the username they have always wanted is available. We also launched our redesigned Yahoo! app for iOS and Android complete with some integration. As a result of this launch we saw a 55% increase in daily active users and a 60% increase in time spent using the application."

Apart from the unfortunate creche headlines, the biggest attention-grabber of the first year of the Mayer regime was the acquisition of Tumbler and its community of predominately demographically younger users. Tumblr is also driving new sign-ups, argues Mayer:

"We see 250,000 blogs being created new each day on Tumblr. Those are largely being driven by new user sing-ups. We also are seeing more than 75 million posts every day on Tumblr. So, right now, we just don’t want to screw it up.

"We basically want to understand what’s great about this community, support David and his team, and then ultimately work to really produce advertising and embedded advertising opportunities that ultimately really enhance the experience."

Problems on display

But aside from the successes, there are areas where tree is a lot of work to do, most notably in the display advertising space. Mayer concedes:

"Our display business has felt some negative impact, particularly due to the shifts around programmatic buying. We need to do a much better job here in order to reverse these trends.

"What we have done with our homepage and our news property is a good start. More modern paradigms, better content partnerships, new ad formats, these are all early efforts, but this is just the beginning.

"In addition to improving our user-facing products, we are also investing in our ad technology to enhance our advertiser offerings and increase our platform’s capabilities in the phase of a very competitive display marketplace.

"We can do better in display, and this is going to be a clear focus for the business."

Another area in need to sign of improvement is video. Mayer admits that Yahoo's video inventory sells out months in advance, which she admits is not a good thing.

"We are working hard to drive traffic and video views and will make this a primary area of investment over the next year. As we aim to entertain our users with content like Saturday Night Live, expect to see us make investments in video over the next year.

"We also want to have some content that of course comes from our own original programming and we’ve a nice lineup as we move into the fall season in online programming.

"We also think that we can have a fair amount of that content actually generated through user generated means. Today you can upload three-minute videos on Flickr and we also see good video presentation on Tumblr and so it will be a pyramid of content with some original programming and content acquisition of the premium form but also having some curated forms from across the web and then also this basic content that will be provided by user sharing with their friends and the people that they are following.

"I do think the other thing that really makes us very excited about video is that advertisers really like it, it's something that translates really well from the format that they are used to, so an advertising can start on television, makes the jump to online and also ultimately be viewed on tablets and smartphones."

Verdict

Still too early to tell completely.

Mayer has made an impact and there are signs of improvement in areas such as the firm's mobile push.

Her background as a product person has led to upgrades to key products while her theory that better products means better user experience means better traffic is sound.

But Yahoo has not been miraculously reborn as an exciting brand as yet and the display advertising decline still causes Wall Street to have a fit of the vapours.

After five CEOs in six years, perhaps the most positive thing that can be said for now is: still here!