Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
Last month, I wrote a post titled “Associated Content is Yahoo’s First Big Media Move. Here’s What Should Come Next,” in which I pushed Yahoo to acquire premium content properties to overcome the commodity signal they sent by acquiring AC. I said at the time that Huffington Post’s curation model “crowdsources content but applies a strong point of view and features premier branded names, lifting it above the commodity fold.” For Yahoo, Huffington Post is the perfect combination of premium and economical.
Now, over this last weekend, Erick Schonfeld wrote at TechCrunch that deal discussions between these two publishers are underway for a content partnership or outright acquisition. Though Arianna Huffington denies it, other sources indicate that HuffPo has been on Yahoo’s short list, and I wouldn’t be surprised if conversations have been ongoing.
While Yahoo had previously announced intentions to compete in news by hiring brand-name reporters, that direction is fraught for the big portal: the news category is difficult to lead with a heavy demand on consistently breaking news — and it would take years for Yahoo to build the credibility in original reporting to become a true audience magnet. And the prize for winning even if they do? It could be losses, not profits, as has been born out by the experience of myriad old media outlets who are now making over their businesses.
What Huffington Post represents is a far better road for Yahoo to go from portal to destination in a realistic way. HuffPo can draw audiences not by competing with the news outlets on reporting but with great access and point of view – both of which are within Yahoo’s brand and execution reach. It would serve as an anchor property with true destination draw.
Indeed, Huffington Post may be unique among the news-oriented sites of the portals, curators, and aggregators in having earned true premium positioning. They did so by emphasizing a strong and reliable point of view along with affiliation with notable brands (such as regulars Arianna Huffington herself, Bill Maher, Harry Shearer, and Rosie O’Donnell, along with guest posts from a robust range of influentials). Along the way, the site has also earned an outstanding brand and destination audience of 22 million (comScore), consistently garnering visits from both search engine referrals (14% of traffic from Google according to compete.com) and social networks (16% from Facebook).
This destination draw is critical for Yahoo. At Yahoo’s home page, 73% of monthly viewers are there to get their mail – and that usage is shrinking at (2%) per year (comscore April 2010 vs. April 2009) vs. a US internet universe which grew at 10%. As Yahoo commits to a media-company destiny, its strategy must be to create high-end destination titles that will draw premium advertising – not just keep mail users on-network longer.
For those in charge of Yahoo’s media properties, David Ko and Jimmy Pitaro, they would get two other benefits to leverage: HuffPo gives Yahoo a premium curation model prototype for it to replicate; and a DNA transplant to bring in the talent and experience to scale that model.
As far as the first, Huffington Post has shown itself to be the best of the curators, establishing a strong point of view that draws a huge audience with near-zero cost for original content. And the model – the fame and traffic of Huffington Post beget contribution from interesting people, which drives more fame and traffic for Huffington Post’s brand – is replicable in other categories, as HuffPo has shown with its entertainment category rumored to already reach an audience of 10 million monthly, according to internal measurements. This is the sort of model that Yahoo should be banking on, as commodity content alone will never make Yahoo a premier media company.
Perhaps more importantly, there is nothing to catalyze the adoption of a new direction like bringing on a talented and effective crew. An acquisition of Huffington Post brings not just a branded destination, but a whole crew of operators with a scarce and effective set of skill, approach, and attitudes. Those genetic elements are exactly what Yahoo needs to quickly set a new approach to existing properties with large audiences, such as entertainment, shine, and omg!, as well as to each new title launched.
All in all, an acquisition of Huffington Post would form the perfect foundation for Yahoo’s new ambitions as a premier media destination – and would be well worth the several hundred million dollars it would surely cost to set a bold and profitable strategy for Yahoo to be a premier media company.
With yesterday’s announcement of the acquisition of Associated Content, Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz has sent a loud message: Yahoo is investing in becoming a new kind of digital media company for the new age of digital media. Cheers to Yahoo for recognizing that their “1.0” model needs an upgrade to be more effective in a 2.0 world. The only problem is that this move gets Yahoo just one step toward where it needs to go. It could be a powerful first step to add content and audience to their network, but will only be strategically valuable for Yahoo if it is layered with additional new investments to build true destination media sites with premium positioning.
Let’s explore what Yahoo gets from AC first, and then cover what Yahoo must do from here if it is serious about winning in media.
1. Yahoo gets commodity content at commodity cost. With Associated Content’s marketplace, first and foremost Yahoo can source commodity content – i.e. the kind of content that doesn’t need a particularly differentiated author, original reporting, or other hard-to-find talent – cost effectively.
2. Yahoo can improve time (and value) on network. In this age of deteriorating portal power, users come to portals primarily for one reason: mail. (According to data from comScore, 73% of Yahoo’s viewers of its most valuable real estate – the home page – are Yahoo Mail users.) Once they arrive, however, there is far more money to be made by vectoring them to networked media properties like Yahoo Finance, Sports, and Entertainment than by serving additional pages of poorly-monetizing email. So, by beefing up the available content in the network, Yahoo receives the benefit of extending visits at low cost.
3. Yahoo increases its audience by drawing traffic from Google. Yahoo’s made the strategic decision to move its focus out of the search game and onto media. And so rather than just feeding them from mail and search, Yahoo needs its content properties to draw audience on their own. The AC content marketplace can produce thousands of pages per day of content – each one baiting more search engine traffic, and all produced at modest cost. A recent EConsultancy interview with CEO Patrick Keane revealed that the bulk-buy strategy works: “80-90% of our audience is driven through natural search,” and according to comScore data, nearly 50% of the traffic that AC’s content sees each month is incremental to Yahoo’s core audience that comes for mail most days.
All three of these improvements have financial benefits to Yahoo – both in increasing revenues with greater reach and traffic; and in bringing down average cost of content. But they miss out on the strategic positioning that Yahoo absolutely must own if it wants to ensure a leader as a top digital media company:
Yahoo needs to be a premium destination; and the AC acquisition message undermines that positioning. Read the rest of this entry »