Yahoo's board met yesterday amidst disappointing financial results that have failed to live up to the expectations of its investors. Prevailing rumors suggest that the board under pressure from investors will vote to break apart the business and sell the pieces.
While it is true that the majority of Yahoo's revenue comes from online advertising, the future is clearly mobile. Mobile phone numbers are more important than email addresses, and consumers already use their mobile phones more than two hours a day in the U.S. Global expansion depends on mobile.
Power in mobile depends on two core factors: audience and data. Here's why.
Audience will draw in developers, advertisers and service providers. Today in mobile, audience depends on a strong presence in social networking, instant messaging, and media (e.g., video, music, games, news and books).
Data is the context that drives the value of the audience. The more context brands have about consumers to offer them insights about needs and motivations, the better brands can win, serve and retain those customers in their mobile moments. Winning in data includes access to email, browser, maps, search, wallet, commerce, health, fitness, home and automotive data - as a start. Those who own the mobile OS (e.g., Apple, Google and Microsoft in the U.S.) own the trump card in data.
Simply put, despite a host of strategic mobile acquisitions (e.g., social media, mobile analytics) and new talent, Yahoo! is still too small. It lacks the scale of Facebook or Google. This makes Yahoo a good partner, but not the booming, independent success that each of these businesses has become.
Being great in mobile is unlikely to happen through organic product development and audience growth alone. Replacing Marissa Mayer won't fix this. Competing with Facebook or Google will require assembling the assets listed to scale audience and assemble the data needed to create the context and fuel insights to serve customers better.
In the absence of a huge capital injection to assemble these assets, the answer is to sell the pieces to a partner whose own holes in mobile Yahoo fills.
If you assume that the buyer depends heavily on ad revenue, there is no obvious candidate in the U.S. Mobile is still a very regional business, but the world is shrinking.
I think you look to China - to Tencent or Baidu ... and maybe Xiaomi. First, assume that Yahoo sells its Alibaba stake, and that Alibaba's focus remains on commerce and not competing with Baidu or making advertising a large component of its revenue.
Both Tencent and Baidu make money by selling content and monetizing their audiences. Either could benefit from the scale of adding Yahoo's audience to its own.
Tencent is already a strong player in most mobile categories. Yahoo's assets would give Tencent a foothold in the U.S. and other regions outside of China. Yahoo brings content, search and email in new geographies. While Tencent has a strong offering in games, news, video, and search among other categories where Yahoo is also strong, Tencent is not a leader in these categories. But, would Tencent be willing to pay enough to move outside of its core markets? It already has 600M monthly active users - a huge audience for most, but short of Facebook's 1B+.
Baidu has a business similar to that of Yahoo's with leadership in Search along with a strong presences in news, gaming, music, and video. Baidu also brings a strong business of cloud-based services, maps and even a virtual assistant. Yahoo could help fill gaps in Email, instant messaging, if it goes mobile, and commerce. One could argue that Email is less relevant as we move forward, but Email is still valuable today. Yahoo would not help it garner more audience in key categories where it needs audience, given that it has a limited presence in social media, for example.
Some might suggest Facebook in the U.S., but I would argue against this. Facebook's gaps in mobile are in Email, media, cloud-based services (e.g., storage, browser, search, etc.), commerce, and data (e.g., health, fitness, home and car). Yahoo checks many of these boxes, but the price tag is large given that Facebook could use the products, but doesn't need to buy the audience. To date, Facebook has been successful with organic product creation along with a handful of strategic acquisitions.
Other candidates would be mobile phone manufacturers or wireless service providers looking to move along the value chain. In countries outside the U.S., carriers do count on advertising revenue, but it is not a core business.
I think it is unlikely that an enterprise buys Yahoo's assets just for audience. I believe a play for its products or geographic expansion would hold more value.