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Interview: Yahoo’s new head of travel, Emma Jowett

March 1, 2014

(Published in TTG – 30.01.14)

New head of travel Emma Jowett talks to Matthew Parsons about changing ad formats, big data and the brand’s return to form

It was a journey that began with a talking bus shelter. Fourteen years ago, working at advertising company JCDecaux, Emma Jowett remembers her first foray into the world of travel – a campaign for British Airways that saw shelters in cities such as Madrid and Milan play recordings of Big Ben’s chimes, or cockneys shouting “apples and pears”.

Now, she laughs as she tells me she can remember thinking how innovative it was; a million miles away from the current state of travel advertising, but still a spark that has come full circle as she spearheads Yahoo’s newly created travel division.

Sweeping changes

The internet giant has been reinventing itself since ex-Google executive Marissa Mayer joined in July 2012 as chief executive, and in November the Yahoo homepage was redesigned, and real-time news feeds added.

The 2014 version of the Yahoo homepage

“Since she joined, the rate of change has been incredible,” Jowett says. “These are exciting times and she’s a fantastic addition to the Yahoo team.

“There’s a reinvention of some of our products, and with Marissa there is now a new focus and new direction.”

Yahoo Inc’s share price has almost trebled over the past two years – you could almost draw parallels with Thomas Cook’s Harriet Green and her own turnaround success story, although Yahoo has been making more acquisitions than disposals.

And it is this series of acquisitions, twinned with Jowett’s travel division, that may offer the UK travel trade a new landscape of digital advertising choices.

Soon after Mayer joined, Yahoo completed a £4.5 billion deal to sell back its 40% stake in China’s Alibaba Group. Then came reinvestment back into Flickr (which it acquired in 2005); the acquisition of microblogging platform Tumblr for $1.1 billion, and mobile news aggregator Summly for $30 million, among others.

At the Consumer Electronics Show 2014 in Las Vegas earlier this month, Mayer also unveiled a suite of new and simpler advertising platforms, soon to make their way over to the UK.

New platforms

So how does the travel industry fit into all of this? Yahoo’s strategy is increasingly media and content focused, which is where Jowett says she feels “naturally grounded”, after nine years with Yahoo already and a previous career at Eurosport.

“I’ve always been in global media. And Yahoo’s suite of products are suited to travel. The articles on Yahoo are engaging – one recent piece of editorial on the top 25 cities gained 100,000 clicks,” she says.

“We are the digital experts, this is our bread and butter. Travel makes up a third of all e-commerce in the UK – in 2012 it was worth £18 billion. Travel companies have a lot of data, and we can help them leverage that data.”

As well as the overall redesign, Yahoo Mail was refreshed to be more intuitive and offer a “magazine-like reading experience”, Jowett adds.

However, some in the US have complained that while it may look good, some functionality has been lost. One online petition urging the company to bring back the old versions has so far garnered more than 42,000 votes.

“It’s not about stopping the conversation once the customer has made the booking. We’re a global business, we can make life easier.”

Meanwhile, display advertising on the log-in page can be “equivalent to a double-page spread in a magazine” – at 50 x 30cm, Yahoo claims this is the largest currently possible on the web.

As for Tumblr, Jowett claims it officially has the most engaged users: “They are an engaged audience, and that’s attractive to advertisers, and it’s good for the travel trade.”

Meanwhile, native advertising is soon to arrive in the UK – “similar to sponsored tweets in Twitter, but runs across all our media”, according to Jowett. Logging into Yahoo, the user would see curated branded content among other articles in the recently launched news feed.

Flickr was also relaunched recently, now offering one terabyte of free data to its 92 million unique users, and as an image-based website, advertising on this platform lends itself well to an “emotive” travel industry.

With branded campaigns, Jowett cites one current campaign with Disney – a “Family fun” section within its Lifestyle section is in partnership with Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, Disneyland Paris and Disney Cruise Line, which heavily uses video content. “That’s how we work, and these are conversations we’d like to have with travel companies.”

“It’s not about stopping the conversation once the customer has made the booking, and there are different ads for different formats. We’re a global business, we can make life easier.”

Yahoo also worked with VisitBritain in the build-up to the 2012 London Olympics. “VisitBritain had a lot to say in 2012. There was lots of sponsorship and branded content, but our audiences liked it.

Yahoo and VisitBritain partnered for the 2012 London Olympics

“We recently commissioned a study into the ‘connected traveller’. We want to share as much of our data as possible. Digital inspires – at 62% – more than your family and friends, at 51%. Images were 68%. Advertisers need to know that, whatever their size. It’s not just about scale.”

With the rise of mobile, Jowett says “sequential advertising” is also key. She suggests campaigns could begin in the morning with a striking image; during the day content and advertising surrounding dates and availability – perfect for the iPhone; then ending perhaps with video content of a particular hotel in the evening.

“Yahoo Mail is a big product for us. A high proportion of these users are always logged in. They’re saying ‘tell me a story’ and it follows them.”

She also urges travel companies to “try something different” when it comes to search advertising, of which Yahoo has a 12% market share. Yahoo works with Microsoft’s Bing search engine and Jowett says Yahoo users are 33% more likely to be potential holiday buyers than the average British searcher, because of the higher household income demographic.

So it appears one of the oldest internet companies is beginning a new chapter, hopefully ushering in new ways for travel firms wanting to look beyond the likes of Google and Facebook. And with an estimated user base of 800 million people, that’s a lot of people waiting for buses.

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