Who is Kathy Savitt, and what will she do as Yahoo’s new marketing chief?We asked a Yahoo spokesperson for comment on Savitt’s plans and haven’t heard back. But our conversations with people who know Savitt, as well as her public statements, provide a useful guide to why Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was eager to hire her.
(So eager, in fact, that Mayer announced Savitt’s hire while the current chief marketing officer, Mollie Spillman, was on vacation.)
Targeting Gen Z
A big clue lies in the company she just left. Savitt founded Lockerz, a social photo-sharing and e-commerce startup that’s something of a cross between Pinterest and Twitpic, in 2009. (She’s staying on as chairman.)
Savitt has said that she became obsessed with the idea of “Generation Z,” the generation born between 1992 and 2010, at a previous job as chief marketing officer of American Eagle Outfitters, the clothing retailer.
In an interview with Tricia Duryee of AllThingsD, Savitt described herself as a “Gen Z maniac.” She recounted to Duryee how her interest in this emerging demographic led her to leave Amazon, where she reported to CEO Jeff Bezos, to join American Eagle—and then start Lockerz.
A source familiar with Savitt’s original plans for Lockerz said the company shifted its focus early on. It began with an emphasis on watching videos and sharing things to buy. It then moved into the social photo-sharing market, though it failed to gain traction on Twitter against rivals like Instagram. Its current site looks a bit like Pinterest, with the added twist of earning rewards.
But throughout these product shifts—which are not atypical for an early-stage startup trying to find the right formula—Savitt clearly remained animated by the central idea of marketing to this new generation of teens.
In her interview with Duryee, she shows a startling detailed awareness of teens’ musical habits—citing, for example, how teenage boys may say in a survey that they listen to Limp Bizkit, but a scan of their iPod will show they have Miley Cyrus songs in their library.
Curation and gamification
That eclecticism is something she hoped to capitalise on at Lockerz, which throughout its twists and turns has focused on rewarding its users for expressing their tastes.
Curation—allowing users to assemble collections of items—and gamification—creating little game-like tasks and rewards that make an app or website more enjoyable—are big ideas right now. Pinterest is an example of the curation trend. Foursquare, with badges and specials unlocked by checking in to various venues, is an example of the gamification trend.
Another area Savitt could help on is Yahoo’s content-creation businesses. At Amazon, Savitt persuaded Bezos to stop advertising on television and instead start doing original online programming like “Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher,” an early Web-video series. (That’s no longer airing, but Amazon has recently renewed its push into original video production.)
Lockerz may not have done well in the photo-sharing market, but Savitt’s experience there could help provide ideas for revitalizing Flickr, Yahoo’s long-neglected photo site.
Finally, there’s Savitt’s background and interest in e-commerce. In her early meetings with Yahoo employees, Mayer has shown little interest in the advertising-sales part of the business. Perhaps that’s because she has entirely new business models in mind.
So there’s a lot Savitt can do for Yahoo.
Building a future
Facebook may have a lock on the generation that went to college in the past decade, but designing new products that appeal to Generation Z could give it a future. Those products may include content creation or curation, and they may rely on e-commerce rather advertising as their fundamental business model.
Will all of this translate to the top-line growth that Wall Street wants to see from Yahoo? Far too early to say. But Savitt’s hire is another hopeful sign.