Yahoo's master communications plan: Personalization, 'groups of the moment'

Yahoo's beta of its latest Yahoo Mail is the first installment of the company's communications strategy, which will revolve around mobile, personalization and sensing how users want to communicate and to who.

Yahoo's beta of its latest Yahoo Mail is the first installment of the company's communications strategy, which will revolve around mobile, personalization and sensing how users want to communicate and to who.

Despite taking shots from the tech press Yahoo Mail remains the biggest Web mail service in the U.S. Yahoo Mail had more than 90 million monthly unique visitors in March, according to comScore. Meanwhile, Yahoo Mail had 284 million unique visitors worldwide. That tally is second to Windows Live Hotmail, which has 336 million unique visitors. Google's Gmail is No. 2 in the U.S. and No. 3 worldwide with 52.7 million and 222.2 million uniques, respectively.

And Yahoo executives note that comScore's data doesn't count mobile access to its mail service so the figures are likely understated.

We caught up with Steve Douty, vice president of communications and communities at Yahoo and a Hotmail veteran, and Dave McDowell, director of Yahoo's communications products, to talk shop. One thing I like to do with companies like Yahoo, which has its perception issues, is to substitute another outfit's name onto the strategy. If Yahoo's master plan for communications belonged to Google what would the reaction be? Playing that game leads me to believe that Yahoo is on to something and may be an underestimated communications player---assuming it can execute.

Here are the key points from our talk.

  • What's the plan? Douty noted that recent years at Yahoo have been spent collapsing data silos into cloud services that can be leveraged in scale. Yahoo spans communications---IM, mail, SMS---media---sports, news, finance---and user generated content---Flickr, Answers. Over these groups, Yahoo is planning to leverage "a personalization engine" that will utilize "groups of the moment" that can occur around a news story, photo, email and other properties.
  • So what's the niche here? Yahoo executives made it clear that they weren't trying to play the beat Twitter and Facebook game. Yahoo is integrating with them via Yahoo Mail and other services. If all goes well, Yahoo services will be a window into the small broadcast conversations that occur in your social graph. "We see the future direction of social in conversations and smaller groups," said Douty. "These conversations are one to few and it hasn't been solved well. It's about group me." McDowell added that Yahoo Mail will prioritize your top 10 contacts and people that matter to you.
  • Where does automation fit? Yahoo via its authenticated sessions---the goal is to reach 100 percent authenticated sessions via Yahoo accounts, Google log-ins, Facebook Connect and OpenID---will learn the intricacies of its user accounts. "Groups of the moment are organic and spontaneous," said Douty, who added that these conversations may not last longer than a few minutes and then dissolve. "In these groups you don't want to think about the set-up and invitation process." He added that the other key part of understanding who the user cares about revolves around multimodal communications. Mom may want email, but the kids want SMS. Your co-workers may want phone and IM. These conversations can be saved or disappear. "In the future we have to be able to accommodate the preferred mode of communication and access point," said Douty. "Yahoo will be putting this together."
  • Is this all Hadoop generated? McDowell said that Yahoo's Hadoop intelligence group will underpin machine learning, reputation of your group members and classify content. Some of these Hadoop tools are in production today. Yahoo dishes out dozens of versions of its home page based on user preferences.
  • Does it matter where these conversations occur? Yahoo executives noted that these conversations will be able to occur anywhere on the site. Douty noted that Yahoo Mail will likely be used to view these interactions although SMS via email is picking up dramatically. Yahoo expects that its personalization engine will determine whether you're on a laptop, mobile phone or tablet and react accordingly. Douty said Yahoo is looking to nail mobile with its apps and personalization because that's where most conversations will happen.
  • How will we measure success? Douty said the KPIs for this communication effort, which will roll out in pieces in quarters to come, are relatively simple. It's about user growth and a new set of people coming to Yahoo and staying there longer.