Life after editorial staff: Yahoo's Ed Harrison on restructuring the business

  • Digital
  • June 18, 2015
  • Damien Venuto
Life after editorial staff: Yahoo's Ed Harrison on restructuring the business

In March, the story broke that Yahoo would be releasing all ten of its editorial staff as part of a restructuring process that would create five new roles, which these previous staff members could apply for. Until now, the regional executives in charge of this restructure have not commented to the media about what the changes have entailed or why the the website had decided to rethink its business operations.

After several requests for interviews, Yahoo 7 chief executive for Australia and New Zealand Ed Harrison recently chatted to StopPress about the changes and what they mean for the company. 

He says that changes being introduced at a local level were "very much in line with the strategy rolling out globally" and that it's designed to bring Yahoo in line with changing consumer habits.

"The editorial team looks very different than it did a month ago," he says. "And the reason for this is that social has really become the new front door to our network … [In Australia,] just one year ago only 14 percent of our news audience came to us through social media channels. They were largely coming direct, via mail or through another part of our network. Now, in April of this year, 51 percent of our audience had come in through a social media channel. That’s a fundamental shift in the way people are accessing our content. A lot of that is driven by the move to mobile … therefore we’re looking to social media channels to drive our audiences."

Harrison says that these changes have led the company to adopt a new editorial approach that aims to capitalise further on the traffic driven by social media channels. 

"Previously, we were structured by verticals. We had individuals allocated to specific verticals. And each day, those individuals would create a similar amount of content to populate each one of those verticals.

"Now, in the new world, where we’re looking at driving audiences through social media, what we need is a team that’s far more agile. And instead, they now look at what’s trending and what’s absolutely relevant to the total audience and they can move as a group to make sure that we are uncovering and pushing that aspect socially.

"It’s a very different way of thinking about editorial coverage. That means in any one day, they can point their resources to a single breaking news story in New Zealand. In one day, they can focus on a really big sporting event that might be relevant to people in New Zealand. Or there might be something going on in the celebrity space."

Asked whether any of the journalists and editors previously working at Yahoo had taken up the new social media-oriented positions, Harrison would not comment.

"I’m not able to comment on the mix of the actual individuals but I know that we’ve got different skillsets that we look for on an ongoing basis relative to what we had in the business before.”

Harrison was also tightlipped in terms of numbers when asked if the new team was leaner than the one that came before: “I just don’t think it’s the right thing to go down. We just don’t talk about numbers in any part of our business, so I just have to let that one go I’m afraid.”

And this was also the case when asked if the New Zealand business was profitable: “We don’t talk about profitability generally here or in Australia, but I can say it’s a very healthy part of our business and both shareholders are very supportive of our footprint in New Zealand. It’s been a very successful venture and will continue to be.”  

Internationally, Yahoo has invested in original content and this will increasingly be made available to the local market.

"Yahoo is making some significant investment globally in original content. Shows like Sin City Saints and Other Space. There are a whole of these shows coming through that we will have access to. There’s also a lot of short-form content, particularly around celebrity and entertainment. And what we need to do is to be able to build that into our proposition in the New Zealand market."

Harrison admits that it seems unlikely that Yahoo will be producing very much local video content for this market.  

"To be honest, I think every publisher will find it tough producing large volumes of local video content, just in terms of the economics. Market size [in New Zealand] makes it a little harder to generate a return from locally produced content. There may be scope for small elements of that, but to be perfectly honest, we would see a lot of our video being global content, Australian content and also the opportunity to partner with local businesses."

Given that the new team has predominantly been employed to pinpoint trending topics and drive traffic to those stories, it is likely that the team is smaller than the one that previously operated in the editorial space. To fill the column inches on the site, Harrison says Yahoo is looking to consolidate its strength as a content aggregator by striking partnerships with publishers in the local market.           

"Another layer on this is looking to grow contributor networks as well, and that means that all of our output doesn’t necessarily have to come directly from people who are employed by our business but rather partners who might have specialisms in specific areas. So in that contributor network, we’re looking for specialists in TV for example, or specialists in sports, and bringing their content into our network. And doing that gives us agility to cover in depth more things that matter to our audience."

MSN similarly struck a deal with Radio New Zealand to distribute its content via the MSN network. This move is particularly interesting given that it has a commercial model that enables the state-funded broadcaster to share in the revenue that the content attracts. And Harrison says that this is an approach that Yahoo would also be interested in incorporating with its partnerships in the local market. 

“Increasingly, we see ourselves as a distribution platform for other partners, so we will always be looking for local partnerships and the ability to monetise other people’s inventory in that space … We have scale, we have the ad technology, we have large distribution network and we have a large audiences … It’s about us helping other publishers to find digital revenue streams."

However, those "large audiences" aren't as pronounced in the Kiwi market as they once were.

Several months ago, Fairfax celebrated the fact that Stuff had overtaken Yahoo in terms its monthly audience numbers. And while this suggests that Yahoo is losing share in terms of Kiwis audiences, Harrison points out that overall audience size isn’t always integral.

“Being number one doesn’t have the same advantage it used to. We used to be caught up on single metrics and selling a homepage. The world has very much moved on. What you’re noticing in those numbers is not a full reflection of mobile audience—and I think everyone will quickly start waking up to the importance of that.”

Harrison is right in terms of the data quoted by Stuff not giving a full account of mobile traffic, because the Nielsen report does not include traffic driven through mobile apps. And while this means that Yahoo’s New Digest and Yahoo New Zealand apps aren’t taken into account, the same could also be said of the Stuff app.

A valid point that Harrison does make is that media owners no longer focus on an overall number when selling ads. 

“The way we are selling audiences isn’t generally on a total number. It’s about understanding those audiences. We have enormous, deep data on audience, largely because of mail footprint. You’d rather have an audience that you understand and are able to target than just focusing on size.”

Yahoo is in a strong position in this regard because of its mailing service that requires users to log in and share information. 

“As soon as you have a logged in user, you have substantial ongoing data on that user and your advertising will be far more effective,” Harrison says.

Regardless of audience makeup, convincing advertisers to buy digital advertising in the shape of banners and sponsorships is becoming increasingly difficult, and Harrison says that Yahoo has responded to this by developing a new native ad-serving platform that he believes will prove popular in New Zealand when it launches here in the coming weeks.

Given that native adverts are generally understood to be quite labour-intensive, Harrison was asked whether Yahoo would be bringing on additional staff to bring the new service to market.

"[Native advertising] is an enormously broad catch-all label. We run a spectrum of native advertising. What you’re referring to and what a lot of people think of straight away is the high-touch, bespoke, content-marketing form of native. We already do that; we have been doing that for some time, and we have the capabilities to continue doing that. 

"At the other end of the spectrum, we have what you’d refer to as native ads—and this is an ad format where advertisers will provide us with their advertising assets. They’ll provide an image or a series of images, text (and we’ll let them know the number of characters), and a headline. Then, what our global system allows us to do is repurpose that creative so that it fits seamlessly into whatever environment that we put it into."


(image credit: Adage)

Harrison argues that this will solve the problem that many advertisers face in terms of having to produce unique ads for each channel, in that a single ad uploaded will automatically be served across the various channels within Yahoo's network.

While this approach might make it easier for advertisers, it's yet to be seen how Kiwi users will respond. Yahoo's decision to pull its investment in producing original content already means that it can't compete with the major publishers in this regard. And if users are turned off by native ads created entirely by business owners, then its traffic could continue to dip. And while Harrison says the overall number doesn't matter as much as it used to, Yahoo still needs someone visiting its sites. And as things stand, the Yahoo mail log-in looks like the only thing that will keep Kiwis coming back.                         

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