Cotton candy from Marissa Mayer at Yahoo

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Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Yahoo’s been on a downhill slide for years. Now they’ve sold the company to Verizon/AOL for $4.8 billion, a fraction of what it was once worth. But this is good news – just ask Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Her email to employees reads like cotton candy — sweet, airy, and puffed up.

Unlike the employee email I published for LinkedIn when Microsoft bought it, this one comes in the wake of a host of challenges, including sporadic growth, losses, strategic floundering, and a succession of ineffective CEOs. But you’d never know it from the email, which is completely happy and upbeat. The concentration of superlatives and other weasel words here is astounding, more like a press release than an email to employees. (Thanks to Scott Monty for suggesting that I analyze this one.)

Weasel words aplenty in Marissa Mayer’s email to staff

In excerpt below, I’ve highlighted the superlatives and other weasel words in bold. My translations appear between paragraphs, and my comments in brackets.

Verizon to acquire Yahoo’s operating business

Dear Yahoos,

Moments ago, we announced an agreement with Verizon to acquire Yahoo’s operating business. This culminates a rigorous, thorough process over many months, and yields a great outcome for the company. Today’s announcement not only brings us an important step toward separating Yahoo’s operating business from our Asian asset equity stakes, it also presents exciting opportunities to accelerate Yahoo’s transformation. Among the many entities that showed interest in Yahoo, Verizon believed most in the immense value we’ve created, and in what a combination could bring our users, our advertisers, and our partners. [Rigorous and thorough? Well, that’s reassuring. How does the immense value you’ve created compare with the immense value your shareholders have lost?]

Translation: We found a buyer. What a relief!

This is a good moment to reflect on Yahoo’s journey to date.

Translation: You want to know about this transaction and your future, but I’m feeling nostalgic.

Yahoo is a company that changed the world.  Before Yahoo, the Internet was a government research project. Yahoo humanized and popularized the web, email, search, real-time media, and more.

What really sets Yahoo apart is the shared passion to create great products for our 1B+ users, and in doing so, transforming the world for the better. You can clearly see that spirit, that commitment, that fight in the work we’ve done together over the past few years. We set out to transform this company – and we’ve made incredible progress. We counteracted many of the tectonic shifts of declining legacy businesses, and built a Yahoo that is unequivocally stronger, nimbler, and more modern. We tripled our mobile base to over 600 million monthly users, we invested in and built Mavens from basically zero in 2011 into $1.6B of GAAP Revenue in 2015, we streamlined and modernized every aspect of our consumer products, and, with Gemini and BrightRoll, we dramatically improved our advertiser products. This only scratches the surface of what we’ve achieved… and we all know how much hard work it took to get here. [In case you don’t know what Mavens are — I didn’t — that means mobile, video, native, and social. In other words, the modern Internet.]

Translation: We were king of the world, then we weren’t. Then I took over. And now we’re not nearly as far behind as we were when I started.

It’s because of that hard work and resilience, that Yahoo will realize amazing opportunities in its next chapter.

This sale is not only an important step in our plan to unlock shareholder value for Yahoo, it is also a great opportunity for Yahoo to build further distribution and accelerate our work in mobile, video, native advertising, and social. As one of the largest wireless and cable companies in the world, Verizon opens the door to extensive distribution opportunities. With more than 100 million wireless customers, a shared view of the importance of mobile and video ad tech, a deep content focus through AOL, Verizon brings clear synergies to the table. And with their aggressive aims to grow global audience to 2B users and $20B in revenue within the mobile-media business by 2020, Yahoo’s products and brand will be central to achieving these goals. Joining forces with AOL and Verizon will help us achieve tremendous scale on mobile. Imagine the distribution challenges we will solve, the scale we will achieve, the products we will build, and the advertisers we will reach now with Mavens – it’s incredibly compelling.  [“Synergies,” “deep,” and “aggressive” are words that always signify bullshit.]

Translation: Before today, we could work with any mobile company we wanted. After today, we can work only with Verizon. Yahoo just became a feature on somebody else’s service.

The strategic process has created a lot of uncertainty, but our incredibly loyal and dedicated employee base has stepped up to every challenge along the way. Through the first half of the year, we met our operational goals and overachieved on plan. But, further, there are things that you cannot measure, like the passion of the people behind the products. The teams here have not only built incredible products and technologies, but have built Yahoo into one of the most iconic, and universally well-liked companies in the world. One that continues to impact the lives of more than a billion people. I’m incredibly proud of everything that we’ve achieved, and I’m incredibly proud of our team. For me personally, I’m planning to stay. I love Yahoo, and I believe in all of you. It’s important to me to see Yahoo into its next chapter.

Translation: Everyone who hasn’t left by now is blinded by loyalty. Let’s keep it that way.

As we work to close this agreement in Q1 2017, it’s more important than ever that we come together as one global team to continue executing on our strategic plan through the remainder of the year. We have delivered the first half of the year with pride, achieving our goals. Now, it is up to us to make Yahoo’s final quarters as an independent company count.

Yahoo is a company that changed the world.  Now, we will continue to, with even greater scale, in combination with Verizon and AOL.

Thanks,

Marissa

Translation: If you slow down now, the whole thing crashes to the ground. So please don’t. My bonus depends on you.

When addressing skeptics, keep the weasel density low

The density of weasel words is a key indicator of bullshit. In this case, 43 weasel words out of 713 yields a weasel density of 6%.

Any communication that’s more than 3% weasel words reads as bullshit. This is double that density.

Counterintuitively, the more convincing you have to do, the fewer weasel words, intensifiers, and superlatives you should use. Marissa Mayer has a big challenge: convincing a beleaguered company that selling out to a phone company — and AOL — is the right choice. Words like “immense,” “aggressive,” and “incredible” signal that she’s trying very hard, and doesn’t have actual facts to back up her statements.

When you’ve got a tough audience to win over, focus on facts over weasel words. Your credibility will benefit.

7 responses to “Cotton candy from Marissa Mayer at Yahoo

  1. Great analysis, Josh. Let’s be glad they didn’t sell the company to T-Mobile. She’d have had to buy a pink dress and a pink exercise ball — and she would’ve LOOKED like cotton candy.

  2. Translation: Everyone who hasn’t left by now is blinded by loyalty. Let’s keep it that way.

    Another translation: All of our H1-B workers who couldn’t change jobs or they’d get deported. Let’s keep it that way.

  3. Weasel word density is an interesting metric. How was the threshold of >3% established? As in:
    “Any communication that’s more than 3% weasel words reads as bullshit.”

    Sounds like pseudo quantitative bullshit although it may be true. Is there any normative data on bullshit metrics?

    1. You’re right. It’s arbitrary. But at 3%, we’re talking one superlative every three sentences, if the sentences are 11 words each. More than that seems to set off the “bullshit” sensor.

  4. “We tripled our mobile base to over 600 million monthly users, we invested in and built Mavens from basically zero in 2011 into $1.6B of GAAP Revenue in 2015” is essentially Mayer defending her record. It may be factual, but it’s BS in the sense that it’s all about her and does zero for the people who will be seen as “redundancies” and “non-synergistic.”

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