Marissa Mayer’s Hidden Four-Step Approach To Rebuilding Yahoo Into A Mobile Powerhouse

About three years ago, I became an ex-Yahoo user. I happened to be traveling on business in China, and I awoke one morning to a phone filled with text messages and voice mails letting me know that my Yahoo mail account had been hacked. I already had grown weary of a cluttered Yahoo mail experience and its porous spam filters, so having to cancel my Yahoo mail account felt like something of a mercy to me. I haven’t paid much attention to Yahoo’s products ever since.

As an old Internet company whose best days from a shareholder’s perspective are behind it, however, Yahoo fascinates me. The stock hit its peak in December, 1999, at $108.17 a share. It now trades at just above $29 a share, so the company would need several years of galactic growth just to get back to its once lofty valuation. Still, it’s up nearly 100 percent since its current CEO, former Googler Marissa Mayer, took over in July, 2012, and a new optimistic buzz follows the company. Mayer is the chief reason why. She is young, energetic, and, as this interview with TechCrunch reveals, she is not punching above her weight in her new role. She seems to have the entire package someone in her position needs to succeed.

Mayer offers a lot of interesting insights into her leadership personality in this interview. She is effortlessly diplomatic when confronted with trendy “gotcha” questions, often spiced with profanity, that too often emerge at conferences like TechCrunch’s Disrupt. She has a sense of humor. She is gracious, curious, and humble, but not to the point of subordinating the results of her work. For the most part, her comments and answers are safe, but they ring of truthfulness. Above all else, Mayer strikes me as a CEO who does not crave celebrity, so for her substance and absence of showmanship, I think Yahoo shareholders have much to like.

The most interesting insight I take from this interview are Mayer’s four steps to rebuilding shareholder value. She professes to have focused the company on mobile, which these four steps support. I actually think that for every step she names, there’s another one that she could have mentioned if not for the fact that four steps sounds a lot more appealing than eight.

Here’s a break-down of what Mayer actually said, as well as what she didn’t say but could have. I call them her “Hidden Four Steps.”

Mayer’s Step 1: People. By this, she means hiring the right employees.

Her Hidden Step 1: Customers. A relentless focus on what Yahoo customers want, need and respond to will largely determine whether or not Yahoo can reclaim market leadership for digital and, increasingly, mobile advertising and media spending.

Mayer’s Step 2: Products. Examples include Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Finance, and Flickr.

Her Hidden Step 2: Marketing. Like many if not most tech companies, Yahoo probably is a product-driven, engineering-driven culture. She almost has to say things like “we can only succeed if we build great products.” That is true, but it reflects an incomplete, “if we build it, they will come” strategy that underestimates the importance of marketing those products. Put another way, she needs strong marketing to bring a passion for customers that equals her engineers’ passion for products.

Mayer’s Step 3: Traffic. Here she means getting customers to spend more and more time using Yahoo products.

Her Hidden Step 3: Data. Pivoting to mobile is necessary because that’s where more and more customers are spending their time. Figuring out what content to deliver, when, and to whom, requires measurement and thoughtful analysis. Mayer has impressed me in the past for her recognition that mobile screens aren’t just smaller versions of our laptops and desktop monitors. Using information Yahoo traffic generates to create more effective, compelling products that are optimized especially for smartphone screens will give Yahoo a chance to reassert its leadership in a market increasingly dominated by mobile usage. Generating and measuring traffic leads naturally to her fourth point.

Mayer’s Step 4: Revenue.

Her Hidden Step 4: Mobile revenue. The mobile advertising market has failed to live up to its prominence as a media consumption platform. Whether that can change will depend on how effectively companies like Yahoo can identify, target, and measure mobile customers with great products delivered by talented people.

I remain skeptical of whether the world needs a service like Yahoo or Aol that offers to customize the web, but Yahoo clearly sees this as an opportunity it can develop and own, especially as the world transitions to mobile screens. In Mayer, Yahoo appears to have found a leader who can rejuvenate the company and help it maximize its chances of succeeding.

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