Why Yahoo acquiring Tumblr for $1 billion makes a certain horrible kind of sense

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According to a blizzard of anonymous news reports, Marissa Mayer is working feverishly to land the biggest fish of her career as CEO of Yahoo: namely, the $1-billion-plus acquisition of New York-based Tumblr, the ultra-hip blog network — the two are reportedly involved in discussions that could come to fruition as early as Sunday. Although Tumblr fans seem horrified by the idea, this one makes a substantial amount of sense for both sides.

Of course, as Om and others have already mentioned, there’s no guarantee this deal will actually be consummated: it could fall apart on valuation, as so many deals do — or Facebook could swoop in with a much higher offer and snatch Tumblr out of Yahoo’s clutches, the same way it did when it stole Instagram away from Twitter last year for close to $1 billion.

Update: According to the Wall Street Journal, the Yahoo board of directors has approved a $1.1-billion all-cash bid to acquire Tumblr.

It makes Yahoo look desperate — because it is

Marissa Mayer at Davos

Even if the deal does get done, one of the risks for Mayer and Yahoo is that the company could look desperate by paying more than $1 billion for a site that had revenues of less than $15 million last year (although CEO David Karp has said that figure should hit $100 million this year). That’s an almost bubble-like multiple for a company, and there will likely be plenty of criticism from investors who believe that $1 billion could be better spent elsewhere — in other words, on businesses that would make Yahoo a better return.

But the painful fact is that Yahoo doesn’t just look desperate — in many ways it is desperate. Mayer has made some changes since she took over the ailing former web portal, including the acquisition of Summly and a number of other mobile-focused startups and services, but the company still needs to make some aggressive moves if it is going to jump-start any growth at all. And since Yahoo has about $4 billion in cash on hand, it can arguably afford to make a big bet.

For Yahoo, the addition of Tumblr would do a number of things: because of the size and profile of the deal, it would make a major statement about Mayer’s intention to do whatever it takes to revitalize the company, and it would also send a signal to Facebook and Google — and even Apple — that Yahoo is a potential force to be reckoned with when it comes to potential acquisitions. Is doing that worth $1 billion? That’s for Yahoo’s investors and board of directors to decide.

Just as important, it would inject some much-needed life and energy into the somewhat stale lineup of content that the company currently relies on, which caters more to the over-50 set than it does to anyone in the much-desired 18 to 25 demographic. More than any other network, Tumblr is the platform of choice for media-obsessed teens and 20-somethings, who spend massive amounts of time sharing photos and videos and animated GIFs on the site — an engine of potential value that Yahoo desperately needs.

Tumblr gets a massive exit

This doesn’t come without its own risks, of course: As a number of observers have noted, Tumblr’s content contains a large quantity of not only mature or arguably offensive content but outright pornography, which many argue is the source of its massive traffic numbers. How Yahoo (or Facebook for that matter) would deal with this kind of content remains to be seen.

For Tumblr, meanwhile, being acquired would solve a number of problems — the main one being that the company has gone well beyond the “we’re a startup so we don’t really have to make money” stage, and is facing increasing pressure from the investors who have given CEO David Karp more than $125 million in venture financing, an investment that values the company at about $800 million. Accepting a giant check from Yahoo would take care of that problem in one fell swoop, especially if it was all in cash.

With a major company like Yahoo as a partner, Tumblr could connect its massive audience of users to the firehose of ads and other monetization methods the giant web portal has, and potentially generate much more revenue than it could have by itself. The only lingering question at that point is whether Tumblr fans decide that Yahoo is poisoning the well of social content and community on the site, and decide to flee for greener pastures. In other words, does Yahoo make Tumblr into YouTube — a successful standalone network that can grow and prosper on its own — or does it become MySpace?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / ollyy and Albert Chau

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