OMEN OR GLITCH?: Yahoo’s new Style channel headed by Joe Zee launched last week and set out to make a big splash during New York Fashion Week, which Zee termed the site’s “Super Bowl.” If so, there was a fumble Tuesday when the channel tried to live-stream for six hours from The James Hotel overlooking the Hudson River. As Zee chatted with Veronica Webb and cohost Katharine Zarrella of Style.com, the sound of wind ruffled the mikes. As for the picture — it was fine if someone was viewing the live-stream on a mobile phone or using the browsers Chrome or Firefox. Otherwise? Blackness.
Some might view it as an ominous start — especially for a company out to prove its chops in both content and tech.
Admittedly, it’s early days yet for Yahoo Style, which Zee said he aims to use to “democratize fashion.” Over the summer, he left his perch at Hearst Magazines’ Elle, where he served as creative director, to come to Yahoo, where he was crowned editor in chief and executive creative officer of Yahoo Style, as well as editor at large of Yahoo Beauty.
The move has allowed Zee to speak to Yahoo’s vast audience and give them access to the world of fashion that he has inhabited for more than two decades. During the live-stream — and in recurring segments on Yahoo Style — people were encouraged to submit questions via social media or tweet to the Yahoo team to join the conversation. This will actually be a large part of Zee’s overall editorial strategy, he said, explaining that he hopes to attract a new audience this way.
That could prove challenging. Coming from Elle and the entertainment world, where he has hosted various television shows, Zee has always cultivated the built-in audience that already existed in those places. Now he is faced with bringing fashion readers to Yahoo, which is largely seen as an aggregator of disparate newsy tidbits and a search engine that lags behind Google. Typical features might include denim stories, but for every budget and different body types, as well as a large component of original content for sponsors (native advertising, anyone?). During a recent pitch meeting, Zee and his team talked about doing dating-profile makeovers for a partnership with Tinder and OkCupid, for example. Rewriting dating profiles and giving women makeovers is certainly a mainstream idea that could hit with a broader audience.
Luring readers to Yahoo is exactly part of a broader challenge for the tech giant and its chief executive officer and president Marissa Mayer, who has banked a considerable amount of time and money to create content through its digital magazines. Case in point: It’s recruited a gaggle of bold-faced names, creating a masthead of what some have likened to the “Avengers” of media. Recent hires include Bobbi Brown for beauty, Paula Froelich for travel, Josh Wolk for entertainment, David Pogue for technology, Matt Bai for news, Sarah McColl for food, Michele Promaulayko for health and Katie Couric as global anchor.
Yahoo previously tried and failed at a similar endeavor, Yahoo Shine, the fashion and lifestyle site that it closed and repurposed this year. Staffers from Shine are split up among the new magazines, as Mayer gives the content game another go.
Some have put the shelf life of her digital magazine project at two years, and noted that the company is investing a lot into its future, not just with new hires, but also with technology. It’s renovating a new space on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue — The New York Times’ old building — which will become its headquarters in 2015.
The investment comes at a time when Yahoo’s earnings and revenue are slipping due to the firm’s struggle with display advertising sales. In the second quarter ended June 30, Yahoo earned $269.7 million, down from $331.2 million in the year-ago period. Revenue fell 4.7 percent to $1.08 billion from $1.14 billion. After commissions to ad partners, Yahoo’s revenue slid 3 percent and totaled $1.04 billion. Yahoo’s share price probably would have been under immense pressure if it weren’t for the fact that the company has a 22.4 percent stake in Alibaba, which is just about to embark on the road show for one of the biggest initial public offerings in history. Yahoo is reportedly selling 140 million shares, or about 27 percent of its stake, in the planned Sept. 18 IPO.
In the second-quarter conference call to investors, Mayer insisted digital magazines are one of the “driving forces” behind its display business, especially its “native ad inventory.” She noted: “Our digital magazine verticals are increasingly becoming attractive placements for brand advertisers eager to see themselves next to premium content.”
This is where Zee comes in. In his bright but small office, he talked about why he jumped from print to digital, and specifically why to Yahoo. “What was the most attractive thing to me coming here — yes, was the creative freedom — but also the audience. It’s huge,” he said. “This is sort of the ultimate in storytelling. Look at the audience. It’s free. It’s accessible to everybody and it’s accessible no matter where you are. You can look at my magazine if you just tap on your phone. It’s literally one click away.”
Despite his enthusiasm, when asked how long he has to turn Yahoo Style into a destination for content, and not just an aggregator of it, Zee’s seemingly permanent grin faded.
“Are they throwing me out?” he said. “Look, I don’t think we are going to do desperate things to get a click. People know — Marissa included — that it’s going to take a minute.”