With Turmoil In Its DNA, Yahoo Promotes Its ‘Big Data’ Play Genome

genomeThe $270 million purchase of data management platform interclick last November was considered one of Yahoo’s sharpest moves during the period between the ouster of Carol Bartz as CEO and the replacement with Scott Thompson, whose reign was ended after less than six months this weekend.

Given the turmoil that has surrounded Yahoo’s executive ranks the last few years, it was no surprise that members of the advertising team opened Internet Week New York with a collective “business as usual” mien to herald the completion of the integration of Yahoo’s data stack into the interclick system, which collects data from third party sites, into a tool called Genome.

Aside from the CEO debacles, the introduction of Genome is reminder that although Yahoo fell from its perch as the leader in display ad sales to the space’s new hegemons, Google and Facebook, according to an eMarketer report in February, it isn’t out of options. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it can just keep going as its been doing either. Yahoo is expected see its share of the U.S. display market fall to 9.1 percent in 2012, from 10.8 percent in 2011, eMarketer noted in that same report.

Yahoo’s dominant position is ever-more distant from 2008, when the portal’s share of U.S. display revenues peaked at 18.4 percent. But Yahoo, through all the company and shareholder mishegas of the past few years, has continued to generate revenue growth, and it is still way ahead of Microsoft, which will experience a decline of its share of display dollars to 4.4 percent this year from 4.5 percent in 2011, eMarketer estimates; bringing up the rear, AOL’s share will fall to 4 percent in 2012, from 4.3 percent last year.

With the landscape continuing to shift under all marketers, media brands and tech companies, the big question is not whether Genome will be able to at least help Yahoo maintain a healthy number three position, but whether the continuing shifts within the company will make it difficult to figure out how a product like Genome can fit into a larger strategy, which could evolve once yet another leadership regime is put in place.

Since data and analytics are the name of the ad game these days, buying interclick was pretty much a no-brainer for Yahoo. But convincing advertisers and agencies the proposition is actually going to make a material difference in the value Yahoo offers is the challenge that will be left to Rich Riley, EVP, Yahoo Americas, and Peter Foster, Genome’s GM, as Ross Levinsohn moves to the interim CEO seat from his primary role as EVP, Americas region.

Yahoo assembled a group of reporters following the morning’s presentation, which included a keynote speech by Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s GM whose use of data in scouting baseball players was dramatized in Moneyball starring Brad Pitt, and panel of executives on Internet Week’s main stage to discuss the importance of data in today’s ad ecosystem.

“There are a lot of companies out there successfully using data,” Foster said alongside Riley at the mini-press conference. “So to be competitive, we have to be differentiated and we think Genome accomplishes that – because it helps marketers meet their advertising goals.”

In making his pitch that Genome is “the best audience analytics stack in the market,” Foster pointed to the Yahoo data, “which no one else has: 150 million users in the U.S. alone, 700 million globally. A high percentage of them register and login to Yahoo’s sites. We know a ton about those users including what they’re searching, reading articles, checking email. We can use that to build profiles for targeting and no one else has access to that data. Lastly, we have a supply footprint that we can offer preferred access to – as well as 500 media partners. It’s the combination of data you can’t get anywhere else, data this is available from third parties and premium ad inventory.”

Genome is expected to be an integral component of every marketer relationship Yahoo has, though some may decide to use it to varying degrees. “In some cases, it may be a bigger component, from a targeting perspective,” Foster said. In other cases, it might just be an analytics component for a marketer that’s doing a more brand-awareness oriented campaign. But the point is that the ability to know who is seeing an ad, who’s clicking on an ad, who’s taking some sort of an action on an ad is going to be crucial for every marketer.”

Although the interclick acquisition preceded Thompson’s hire, it presaged a strategy that was largely predisposed to Yahoo’s engineering side, as opposed to its media/ad sales/marketing side. In particular, Thompson had been looking to the marriage of e-commerce and media ad sales as an area Yahoo could best exploit.

Given the ability of Genome to tap offline consumer data through its arrangement with credit rating and consumer intelligence agency Experian and ad tech firm Acxiom, the new offering would seem to be provide essential connective tissue to Thompson’s e-commerce hopes.

As the company prepares for what is likely to be another restructuring down the road, things like e-commerce and data/analytics will not diminish in importance.

Riley and Foster both refused to touch questions about what impact on the current strategy would be in the wake of Thompson’s defenestration over misleading information in his curriculum vitae and battles between activist shareholders over the general direction of the company. Again, it’s just par for the course.

“We’re simply going to concentrate on rolling out Genome over the next few months and that will answer all the questions over time,” Foster said.

By David Kaplan

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