Yahoo’s new CEO should focus on customers, not content

If Marissa Mayer follows puts a greater emphasis on products than content, she will be successful, argues the author.

Yahoo, which has traditionally been seen as a content company, recently hired Marissa Mayer, a product person to run it.

On the Web we want to do things, and content enables us to do these things. Increasingly, the value of content is measured in what it enables us to do. In and of itself, content is of declining value. In other words, people don’t want to pay for content if they can avoid it. But they need content to help them make good decisions about other stuff they want to buy. Content is the lubricant of ecommerce.

Yahoo has been the classic Web content company. In 2009, then-CEO Carol Bartz said, “My fortunes are tied to my pages.” It was all about the page views and ads that could be sold based on having lots of page views. In 2010, TechCrunch asked Carol Bartz: “What is Yahoo?” Her reply: “Yahoo is a company that is very strong in content.”

Bartz got fired and now Mayer is in charge. Business Insider asked Internet legend Marc Andreessen what he thought of the move.

“It’s a huge statement on the part of the board that they want the company to be product-led,” he replied. “I say that because they had a great CEO if they wanted to be media-led. It’s a huge double down on product.”

Andreessen gave three reasons why he thought Mayer was a good choice:

1. She knows how to run these companies at scale. There aren’t that many product managers in our industry who can manage at scale.

2. She’s a proven product leader.

3. She knows the Internet inside out.

For years, Mayer used to be responsible for Google’s sparse homepage. The Yahoo homepage, on the other hand, has been more like a Roman orgy. Whereas Google has always been about helping people find information quickly, Yahoo has always been about its “pages” and advertisers.

“It had nothing to do with the user, but what Yahoo wanted the user to do,” Yahoo’s Tapan Bhat, senior vice president of Integrated Consumer Experiences told The Wall Street Journal in July 2008.

I never advise clients to focus on the content. A content focus generally leads to dead ends and a raft of bad practice. Focus on the customer instead and what they want to do.

The difference in approach and thinking may seem subtle and academic but it is critical to success. Content thinking and technology thinking are classic organization-centric approaches. People don’t want to a “book a flight” tool. They want to get to Dublin from London. People don’t want the installation manual. They want to install the product. For most people, content or technology is not the end, not the point.

For years, Yahoo’s stock price remained in the doldrums because its focus was on its “pages.” Google has been famous for its focus on the customer and what the customer wants to do. Mayer has been hired to inject that sort of culture into Yahoo. (Image via)

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