Yahoo swears it isn’t going to screw up Tumblr — but how realistic is that promise?

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As the dust begins to settle from one of the most significant acquisitions in web-land since the Facebook/Instagram deal, the warm glow of euphoria created by Yahoo’s $1.1-billion takeover of Tumblr has given way to the harsh reality of blending — or, more importantly, not blending — two vastly different companies and cultures. In a statement about the deal, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer promised not to “screw it up,” a comment undoubtedly aimed at the sensitive community of Tumblr fanatics. But is it even possible for Yahoo to keep this promise?

Even before the news was confirmed on Monday, critics with long memories were reminding anyone who would listen about Yahoo’s track record with acquisitions, which has some rather notorious bumps in it, including two major ones known as GeoCities and Flickr. Those two deals alone have made many question whether Yahoo will be able to do the right thing with Tumblr — and while it may be unfair to lay the blame for these at Marissa Mayer’s feet, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the future of this latest acquisition.

GeoCities + Flickr: billions in missed opportunities

In 1999, Yahoo bought GeoCities for about $3.5 billion, which even at the time was an eye-popping amount. Although it was over a decade ago, which is eons in internet time, there are some broad similarities between what GeoCities was then and what Tumblr is now: both were distinctive and somewhat chaotic communities, focused on allowing individuals to create their own space. Yahoo did a number of things that arguably accelerated the demise of its high-priced acquisition, including trying to monetize it through hosting fees and cheesy banner ads.

The other stick that many anti-Yahoo types use when they want to beat the company up about its acquisition strategy is Flickr, the pioneering photo community that languished under Yahoo’s ownership until relatively recently. As many of its hard-core fans (including me) have argued in the past, Flickr was — or at least could have been — Instagram before Instagram.

There have been a number of post-mortems on what happened with Flickr, but in a nutshell Yahoo did almost everything wrong: the larger company took away or smothered much of the photo-sharing community’s most important features, prevented its employees from innovating or growing, and forced all kinds of integration between the two platforms that did nothing to benefit users — in fact, precisely the opposite. It was like the trifecta of failure, and a perfect example of why most large-scale acquisitions don’t work.

“All Yahoo cared about was the database its users had built and tagged. It didn’t care about the community that had created it or (more importantly) continuing to grow that community by introducing new features.”

Successful mergers are exceedingly rare

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It’s certainly reasonable to argue — as many of her fans in Silicon Valley have since the Tumblr deal was announced — that Marissa Mayer shouldn’t be held to account for these lapses, since she had nothing to do with them and the internet has changed a lot since then. Yahoo is also substantially more desperate than it used to be (if that’s possible), and that has arguably made Mayer more cautious about potential screw-ups.

But the bottom line is that just because Mayer is a new CEO doesn’t mean she or the company won’t screw Tumblr up somehow anyway — either deliberately or by accident. That’s because large companies like Yahoo have a way of destroying the value of the things they acquire even if they don’t mean to do so, especially when the thing they have acquired is a somewhat unique community with special characteristics, which Tumblr arguably is.

This is why successful large acquisitions of web communities or services are so rare — rare enough that almost everyone can only point to a single example: namely, Google buying YouTube (although Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram is looking like it may be another one). The question for Yahoo and Mayer is whether Tumblr can be kept as a distinct entity and yet still monetized, as YouTube has been, or whether the process of monetization will inevitably turn Tumblr into the latest example of a MySpace-style failure.

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Can Yahoo do what Google did with YouTube?

Former YouTube exec Hunter Walk took a look at what Google did right in the case of YouTube, and boiled it down to five factors, including keeping the product from getting too intertwined with the parent company and maintaining a separate physical identity. But to me the most important ones were:

Protect Tumblr from “helpful” Yahoos: This is where the accidental destruction of acquisitions often comes from — people who just want to help, but whose requests for features and other attempts at integration wound up almost “hugging us to death,” as Walk puts it. There is a powerful desire to get efficiencies out of acquisitions, but many of those attempts fail badly and ruin the thing they were trying to monetize or grow in the first place.

Stop short-term monetization that won’t scale: Walk talks about how YouTube managed to avoid the natural desire to build all sorts of easy-win monetization methods into the platform, and focused instead on longer-term approaches that were harder to sell in the early going but built more value. If Yahoo sees Tumblr as a way to bulk up its banner ad or other programs, it could wind up making the exact same mistake that YouTube was able to avoid.

In the end, much of the answer to the question about Yahoo screwing up Tumblr rests on Marissa Mayer, and her ability to stave off the desires of both the board of directors and the other senior managers who see Tumblr as either a distraction or a digital cow to be milked and then sent to the abattoir.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr / Stephen Brace and Getty Images / Chris Jackson and Pamuk Sekerli Tardis

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