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In 2016 General Electric (GE) sold its domestic appliances division to Haier from China. The American company reached a dismal situation wherein it needs to repay a large debt and streamline its businesses. Selling the consumer-oriented business may have seemed to the management, led at the time by previous CEO Jeff Immelt, as a means to relieve the company from a business that is out-of-line with its other mostly industry-oriented business areas. However, that division was an asset whose value could not be measured just in financial terms — it was more than a capital asset. It provided a valuable support to the brand of General Electric, together with the lighting business. The incoming CEO John Flannery is planning even more drastic changes to the company’s composition, but removing the appliances division might turn out as an obstacle to his mission. The industry brand of GE could benefit from its long appraised consumer brand.

General Electric is engaged in a range of business areas. In some of them the company has obtained or enhanced its capabilities through acquisitions during the tenures of CEOs Jack Welch (1981-2001) and Jeff Immelt (2001-2017). The businesses of GE feature: (1)  Additive –advanced manufacturing technologies (e.g., 3D printing); (2) Aviation — engines, components and electric systems for jets, and avionics (e.g., innovative digital pilot dash-boards); (3) Power, including gas, steam and nuclear power; (4) Industrial Connections, including electrification, grid and control; (5) Healthcare — medical technologies such as ultrasound, MRI  & CT, digital integrated care (i.e., data sharing and management), patient monitoring, surgical imaging and more; (6) Renewable Energy, including wind, solar and hydro, and innovative hybrid solutions; (7) Transportation — digital automation and industrial Internet-of-Things (IoT) solutions for  locomotives, marine (drilling) and mining.  The businesses of GE today are directed largely to industrial, commercial, and public clients. The last business that targets consumers at least in part is Lighting, offering advanced LED bulbs (e.g., smart IoT-controlled, HD-quality), linear fluorescents, and other products.

Noteworthy, digital transformation is omnipresent through most of the businesses of the company, entailing advanced computer-based digital systems, interfaces, and mobile applications (e.g., IoT apps developed in co-operation with leading hi-tech companies). Much of the digital activity seems to be originated, planned and developed at the Digital division or unit of the company (e.g., industrial apps serving IoT products, Predix — the online platform applying IoT data and predictive analytics, manufacturing software, as well as cybersecurity). Internet-of-Things functionality applies also to lighting products for consumers; it was supposed to be implemented as well in their domestic appliances. In practice, the appliances may still be reliant on GE for IoT technology even after the transition.

For many years the Appliances of GE were commonly associated by consumers with quality and durability — having a refrigerator carrying the art-graphic logo sign of GE in the kitchen was taken as a symbol of social status. In 2015 the appliances division generated revenues of $6.34bn, 7.1% of GE’s total revenues. The combined revenues of GE from appliances and lighting, as reported by the company, stood at $8.8bn (an increase of 4.8% from the previous year). Combined profits were $700m, a margin of 7.7% as percentage of revenues (GE 2015 report on financial results, Segment Operations: Appliances and Lighting). GE overall reported a loss in 2015 (see Chart 2). The company first tried to sell its appliances to Electrolux but the deal was objected by the American Department of Justice. A new process for selling the division started with Qingdao Haier, and after six months of negotiations a deal was closed in June 2016 at a price of $5.6bn. The range of appliances in their new ‘home’ includes refrigeration, cleaning (dishwashers), cooking, laundry (washing machines), accessories such as water filters, and air-conditioning.

The division of appliances is now identified as ‘GE Appliances: A Haier Company’. This company is in an interim period of transition, alas outwards its status creates a bit of confusion about who is really in charge. The company’s website is resident at a domain titled ‘geappliances.com’ and the company retains the brand identity of GE. The association with Haier does not seem too committing. For example, whom consumers should expect to be responsible for their appliances? Or, how to distinguish between appliances that originate from GE or from Haier? The headquarters of GE Appliances remains for the time being in US territory in Louisville, Kentucky, under American executive leadership. Recently, the new company announced the creation of appliance connectivity — operation command by voice and through mobile apps (IoT). Yet the technology is reasonably a direct extension of GE’s development of capabilities of Artificial Intelligence and IoT in their businesses for industry.

Haier has thereof received a strategic foothold on US soil, in hope to strengthen its position in the country and establish a long sought market share in the American market; American consumers have refrained from buying appliances of Haier. The Chinese manufacturer rose from a failing refrigerator factory in Qingdao of thirty years ago by instilling over time quality standards that were much higher than those accustomed in China. Zhang Ruimin, leading the transformation, succeeded remarkably in turning the company into a major national appliances manufacturer in China with global extensions. However, the quality standards at Haier remain behind those of developed countries and therefore the company’s efforts to sell in the ‘West’ have been lingering (1). Haier still has a challenge of closing a gap in quality and credibility, which the acquisition from GE is expected to help overcome.  Many consumers in the US as well as in other Western countries will probably remain concerned by ambiguity about the source of their appliances, being of GE (United States) or Haier (China). Haier also gained important American technological know-how (e.g., in AI) from the American company. General Electric apparently gained a financial relief, but one that may be only for a short-term, and the company may have to pay for it in the future.

The new CEO of GE, John Flannery, revealed in an annual ‘Investor Day’ meeting last month (Nov. ’17) the company’s plan to focus on three business areas: power, aviation, and healthcare. It will exit completely some of its existing business operations (e.g., transportation, lighting, industrial solutions, electrification) while reducing its effort and involvement in others. For example, the company will retain its digital unit or division to develop and sell apps to customers for operating and monitoring equipment reliant on Predix platform, yet with a smaller budget. Flannery was less clear on the future of some areas such as renewable energy where the company is not completely willing to leave and some other arrangement may have to be found. Strategically, the plan is to reduce the span of businesses the company engages. In addition, the CEO informed analysts that the company will have to cut in half its dividends.

The share of GE climbed from a level of $25 to $30+ in late 2015 and held its price as high through 2016 with small fluctuations. Then, the price started to slip down continually through 2017. So much for the effect of selling GE Appliances on equity. By August 2017 the share price already came back to $25. Since Flannery entered the CEO office, and subsequently following the announcement of his plan and the harsh cut in dividends, the share price steeply fell to about $18, as low as the band of $15-20 in which the share fluctuated in 2009-2011.

Chart 1 GE Share Price

Analysts were left unsatisfied and critical about the turnaround plan at GE. They complain for instance that the company is too expansive, and that it must increase efficiency and reduce duplicate costs across the organization (Reuters, 13 Nov. ’17). Others express concern in particular about the debt at GE, and that the plan includes insufficient measures to fix problems with the company’s businesses (CNBC.com, 14 Nov. 2017 — also noted, GE share underperformed S&P 500). Part of the cure will have to include exit from some businesses (e.g., where GE entered by acquiring another company or where it did not build a substantial advantage). Nevertheless, increasing efficiency and reducing duplicate costs can be achieved also by merging some associated areas and consolidating them into a new division, though perhaps narrowing the scope of operation in each field. One example for doing so may be in the area of energy: sources, production or distribution (i.e., power, renewable energy, connections). Another area to consider is ‘digital’ — balancing between development of original technologies and solutions in a central unit, and their implementation for specific systems and equipment in the various business divisions. Letting go of the appliances business could be seen as a logical way to free resources for advancing industry-related areas of expertise that remain. But solving problems of over-expansion and inefficiency in the industry-oriented businesses did not have to come at the expense of the consumer-oriented business in which the company developed product and brand advantages over decades.

The company has to come to terms now with damages from excessive expansion-by-acquisition, a strategy led by Welch and followed by Immelt. The ‘elephant in the room’ for the company is GE Capital, the investment bank of General Electric, whose troubles particularly since 2009 inflict on the whole company. Now the company under Flannery plans to heal by letting go of some more of its genuine businesses such as transportation and lighting (Matt Egan, CNNMoney.com, 20 Nov. ’17), that is, in addition to the appliances already shed by Immelt. The company has built an expertise in transportation, especially locomotives, during the past hundred years. Lighting can be regarded as a founder’s asset of the company (i.e., attributed to Thomas Edison); as described by Egan, lighting “symbolizes the company’s history of innovation”. General Electric could find it very difficult to continue after removing parts of its heart and soul.

The intensive occupation of the company with allocation of capital was initiated and developed by Welch but it spiralled out of control under the leadership of Immelt. The latter quadrupled the amount of capital invested in the company (from $42bn in 2001 to $163bn in 2009) which involved a significant increase in borrowing. By 2011 it was recognised as a major problem with the management of Immelt. Geoff Colvin of Fortune described how Immelt as CEO remade the portfolio of GE, for instance by entering new “future industries”  (e.g., healthcare, green energy). However, his aggressive expansion came at a high cost. While the CEO already tried to unburden the company from some businesses (e.g., NBC and Universal Studios), it was seen by analysts as insufficient. The real issue at GE, as Colvin noted, was capital allocation, and it became more so critical at GE Capital (2). The decision to quit the involvement of GE in TV broadcasting and online media (NBC) as well as cinema productions (Universal) sounds very reasonable. Conversely, the claim supported also by Colvin that Immelt was waiting too long to unload appliances (executed only in 2016) and lighting (never completed to-date) from GE should be much less applauded because these business areas made-up a distinct branch at GE with deep roots, and were also carriers of its consumer brand, a valued non-tangible asset.

In a highly critical opinion column in the Financial Times, John Gapper argues that focusing management on capital allocation could kill GE as an industrial company. It would make GE operate more like an equity fund. The company needs to shift because it may no longer be sustainable to run a manufacturing conglomerate as in the 1980s. However, it does not require to treat the business units as equity holdings for capital optimization: “Once efficient allocation becomes the priority, it is hard avoid this cycle.” It cannot be surprising for Flannery to continue this path, following the leadership of Welch and Immelt, considering his long career at GE Capital, up to the latest post he held as head of that division. Culture and a style of management have kept the units of GE stick together like a glue for many years. Without them, Gapper wonders how longer GE can hold together (FT.com 15 Nov. ’17).

The financial figures of GE in 2015 and 2016, as published in the Fortune 500 ranking, show little so far in favour of the impact of exiting from some business activities such as Appliances, measures taken by Immelt to heal the company in his last years in office: The revenues have fallen, but moreover the return on revenues has also decreased from a level of 8%-10% in 2011-2014 to 7% in 2016, after recovering from a loss in 2015 (Chart 2 below). It should be noted nonetheless that the value of assets has already shrunk by 50% between 2011 ($717bn) and 2016 ($365bn).

Chart 2 GE Revenues and Profits

  • General Electric descended from former 6th-9th positions in the ranking of Fortune 500 (US) to 11th place in 2015 and 13th in 2016.

The products of GE for consumers, both appliances and lighting devices, were the ‘face’ of the company to the wide public and a closer form of connection with consumers. Their contribution is in providing stability and longevity to the GE brand, identified by name, logo, and other associated elements. Above all, the brand was represented in products, equipment and devices, in millions of homes, to be useful in the everyday lives of the consumers and make their lives more comfortable. The domestic products also were a channel to implement some of the technological progress and innovation of the company and demonstrate them to a wider public audience. Consequently, exposing consumers (who also happen to be small investors) to GE could help to increase public confidence in the company, especially in turbulent times.

General Electric did not depend on the appliances and may do well without that business. The same may be true for the lighting business. But removing them will not bring the cure either– the selling of GE Appliances apparently has gone wasted so far. Instead, keeping the consumer products would have enhanced the corporate brand. The management could perhaps have gained some peace of mind while reforming their industry-related businesses. In the medium term, making reforms could be a little harder for Flannery and his top-management team to push through. In the longer term, leaving consumer products out of the company — as already happened with the appliances and is expected to repeat with lighting — may remain as a wound, something amiss, in the reputation and brand image of General Electric.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) “Zhang Ruimin’s Haier Power”, Michael Schuman, Time (Europe), 14 April 2014 (183 (14)).

(2) “Grading Jeff Immelt”, Geoff Colvin, Fortune (Europe), 28 February 2011 (163 (3)).

 

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For Shufersal, the leading food retailer operating supermarkets in Israel, it looks like the sky is the limit. This is a message strongly received from the CEO of Shufersal, Itzhak Aberkohen, in a recent interview given to Globes business newspaper (for its annual publication of consumer-based equity-ranking of brands, July 2017). Shufersal is already a major national retailer, but since the collapse and sell-off of the main competing food chain Mega last year the road ahead is clear more than ever for Shufersal to ride on to stardom. The plans presented by the retailer’s CEO are definitely leading in that direction on different fronts.

  • Note: Shufersal has also been known as ‘Supersol’ but it appears that the retailer is moving to suppress that name in favour of enhancing its Shufersal brand name. The original name chosen for the retailer almost sixty years ago was composed by joining two words: ‘Shufra’ from Aramaic meaning excellent and ‘Sal’ which means basket in Hebrew. The retailer founded the first modern American-style supermarket in Israel in Tel-Aviv in 1958. Israelis frequently name the retailer ‘Supersal’ or ‘Shufersal’. The official choice of ‘Shufersal‘ by the company should make the consumers happy while remaining as true as possible to the legacy name.

The retailing company Shufersal operates over 270 stores. They are divided into multiple sub-chains of different store formats, designed to target different consumer segments or accommodate distinct shopping situations or goals. Three main sub-chains are: “My Shufersal” (the core sub-chain of ‘classic’ supermarkets in neighbourhoods); “Shufersal Deal” (large discount stores); and “Shufersal Express” (small convenience stores in neighbourhoods). Like most food chains, the stores offer in fact not only food and drink products but a larger variety of grocery and housekeeping products, and may sell as well toiletry or personal care products. Shufersal operates in addition a channel for online or digital shopping. It also has its own brand of products carrying the retailer’s name. The CEO seeks to enhance the company’s capacities in these domains, and then extend further. An important aspect in his plan is the digital transformation of the company’s retail operations and services.

  • Note that supermarkets in various countries may selectively add in different times and locations other product ranges (e.g., books and magazines, electric home equipment, housewares).

Shufersal is now on the verge of making a strategic entry into the field of ‘pharma’ retailing with the acquisition of New-Pharm, the second-sized pharma chain in the country. The food retailer already sells toiletry products in its stores, as indicated above, but it has no access to cosmetics (e.g., perfumed lotions, make-up) and non-subscription medications (via pharmacy departments). Taking over New-Pharm would provide it with this capability through the pharma-dedicated and licensed stores. The dominant leader in pharma in Israel is Super-Pharm, which gets the respect of Mr. Aberkohen as a successful and highly professional retail competitor in that field. Shufersal should be able to get better terms for purchasing toiletry products for its supermarkets and other stores, but the addition of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals seems less fitting its current line of business. It makes sense if the retailer had department stores where one of the departments would sell cosmetics, but that is not the case of Shufersal; it would probably have to operate the pharma stores separately. Undertaking the responsibility of operating pharmacies could create even greater complications that may outweigh the benefit of margins from selling OTC medications, nutrition supplements and other devices.

The deal is still awaiting approval of the antitrust supervisor by the end of August 2017. The main obstacle comprises 6-8 flagship stores that the supervisor may not allow the food retailer to have. Aberkohen has said in the interview that the acquisition of the pharma retailer would not be worth it without those stores. There could be additional restrictions due to vicinity of “Deal” stores and “My” supermarkets to some New-Pharm stores.  Aberkohen believes that the increased variety and assortment of toiletry products the company will be able to sell together with the new categories will make an important contribution to its sales potential but will also create a more balanced competitive challenge against Super-Pharm (i.e., as two equivalent retail powers) that will benefit consumers in personal care and grooming. The suppliers are concerned, however, that the bargaining power of Shufersal will become significantly, perhaps exceedingly, stronger in toiletry, and that the retailer will link the trading terms for their presence in New-Pharm stores with presence of their products in the Shufersal stores (Globes [Hebrew], 15 August 2017).

Shufersal’s CEO seems to have little regard for its follower Mega under a new ownership. Most of the chain, neighbourhood supermarkets (“Mega City”, 127 stores), was bought from a holding company (“Alon Blue Square”) in a rather bad state by a medium-sized food retailer of discount warehouse-like stores (“Bitan”) in May 2016. Other discount stores were sold and distributed among some smaller discount retail chains. Since then a few more supermarkets of Mega were apparently sold or closed. Bitan has roughly more than doubled the total number of stores in its ownership since acquiring Mega (on a scale from 70-80 to 180-190). Aberkohen argues that Bitan seems to be taking hold of the operation of Mega City but there is still much work ahead to re-organise its whole retail business. Occasional signs in the stores imply that the new owner is still grappling in effort to manage the additional supermarket chain. There will also come a time to deal with the effort and redundancy of keeping two unconnected brands of the two sub-chains of discount stores and supermarkets (“Bitan Wines” and “Mega City”, respectively).

Mr. Aberkohen has no greater regard for the other discount food retailers (the more familiar and popular of them is “Rami Levy” with 44 stores, increasing by 10 stores in the past year). In his view, Shufersal does not consider itself as opposed to Rami Levy or the other players; it is engaged in its own plans and mission with a focus on innovation. A key to success in the long-term, in his opinion, is an emphasis on managing existing (‘same’) stores and innovation, not adding more and more floor area. He thus maintains that while the competitors, particularly Bitan/Mega, are so busy handling the additional space in new stores, Shufersal will have the time it needs, as a window of opportunity, to create innovation (e.g., Internet, robotics) and gain an advantage of 3-5 years ahead.

  • So far consumers have not gained in terms of cost of shopping from the deal of selling Mega. According to Israeli business newspaper “Calcalist” there are worrying signs to the contrary. Mega under its new ownership has not been pressuring prices downwards (attributed to financial obligations of its owner Nahum Bitan), and Shufersal that had identified this weakness, took the opportunity to raise prices in its stores while gaining in bargaining power vis-à-vis its suppliers. A rise in prices (i.e., index of barcoded products) and an increase in sales revenue in the food retail sector (including non-barcoded outlets) point to a change in trend from 2014-2015.

The CEO of Shufersal is looking forward to digital transformation of retailing and shopping experiences, involving innovation both in online self-service customer-facing platforms and in the preparation and delivery of online orders. He expects great advances in the operation of logistic centres where robots and humans will take part in collating products from shelves for online orders and packing them for dispatch and delivery to customers. Three centres are in development. Enthusiastically, he proclaims that the online apparatus will involve a lot of automation, digital (features) and robotics.

Shufersal is clearly adopting the new language of data-driven marketing, Big Data, and digital automation of interactions with its customers-shoppers. The company is said to pull together to that aim its information systems, supply chain, and data pools from its customer loyalty club and club of credit card holders. This will enable it in the future to customise offers and services much better to its customers. Aberkohen talks of providing services to suppliers based on their platform of big data but he may have to think more in terms of collaboration, especially with the stronger manufacturing suppliers (i.e., sharing data on shopping patterns in exchange for support and aid in resources for analysing the data using advanced tools and methods of data science). Aberkohen believes that in the future we will see fewer stores, and smaller ones, due to transition of shoppers to online ordering and direct delivery to their homes or offices (currently online orders account for 12% of sales at Shufersal).

Moreover, the CEO is expecting a considerable expansion in ranges of products the retailer will make available to its customers via online shopping. This will include also orders from overseas (e.g., through partners in the US). He refrains from likening Shufersal to Amazon but is surely getting inspiration from the international online master. It could relate to: (a) A wide variety of products that a retailer can offer on the Internet (besides, Amazon could be getting more deeply engaged in food retailing with the recent pending acquisition of Whole Foods); (b) Employing robotics and humans in logistic centres; and (c) Advanced and dynamic analytics to customise offers to shoppers.

  • The measure of consumer-based brand equity of Globes/Nielsen is based on three key metrics: willingness to recommend, intention to buy tomorrow, and favourability. The top brand of food chain stores is Rami Levi (discount stores). This position may be credited to the personal character and initiative of Mr. Levi and his high media profile (e.g., proclaiming to fight and act for the good of consumers). Shufersal is in the second-best position in the eyes of consumers. The original brand of Bitan is ranked 7th whereas Mega City has fallen down to the ungracious 11th place (one before last).

Shufersal’s own brand currently captures about 20% of total sales. The CEO aims to increase this share to a level of 40%-50% to be in par with similar retail chains overseas. The retailer will have to walk on a thin rope when cutting down purchases of branded products from national manufacturers without ruining relations with them. Shufersal already offers milk, cheese and meat (beef) under its private label (a precedent in Israel), yet the CEO admits they still value and need their relationship with the leading national producer of these food products (Tnuva). In the past Shuferal has also had a bitter battle with another producer of dairy and other food products (Strauss). Other categories in which the retailer markets under its name include baby diapers and milk formulae; the CEO has the full intention to add more product types to this list and expand the shelf space and volume assigned to Shufersal’s own brand. The proposition according to Aberkohen is to bring quality products at value-for-money. Shufersal has taken additional strategic steps in recent years to tighten their control over the display of products in their stores: assigning their own workers to place most products on shelves in-store instead of allowing representatives of suppliers to do so, and bringing-in most products to stores independently from their logistic centres.

The CEO of Shufersal is cognizant that many consumers do not strive to shop in large discount stores that are usually located at the outskirts of cities or in industrial areas. Often enough consumers prefer convenience to lower cost. People who work long hours, including young adults early in their career, and even students, cannot afford the time or pass over the option of shopping in those stores. It may be added that for older consumers (e.g., pensioners), discount stores may simply be out of reach, especially if one does not drive. Supermarkets in shopping malls (so-called ‘anchors’) are also considered by Aberkohen as obsolete. These consumers-shoppers prefer visiting (at least during the week) a supermarket or even a convenience store in their neighbourhood — they are too pressed in time with duties or other engagements to bother about the somewhat higher cost (Mr. Aberkohen brings his own daughter as an example). Nevertheless, if the neighbourhood stores do not work out as a practical option, they will probably order online.

To top the list of the plans of Shufersal’s CEO, he sees the retailer engaged in a variety of peripheral services consumers may like to have at easy reach such as non-banking financial services (e.g., loans), insurance, travel (including holidays abroad), and optometric (eye-glasses). Some of the services are likely to be made available only online (e.g., insurance, travel), next to additional shopping options Shufersal expects to generate. Although Aberkohen does not refer specifically to the mobile channel, it is reasonable that much of what he describes in relation to an online channel is necessarily applicable these days in a mobile channel.

Shufersal’s CEO has high aspirations for the retail company he leads. Aberkohen’s plans may change not only the consumption culture in the country, as he maintains, but also the nature and character of the company itself. Hence, Shufersal’s management will have to watch carefully what areas it is about to enter and how qualified the company is to make those extensions. They will have to consider, for example, how to integrate the business areas of New-Pharm into the portfolio of Shufersal. They should not underestimate the trouble that discount retailers can cause them. Moreover, as Shufersal makes more moves to fortify its retail business, its management must act with sense and sensibility amid tensions that such moves cause, and are likely to continue to cause, with suppliers as well as consumers. The expansion and addition of products and services for the benefit of consumers is a positive venture, but Shfuersal still has to convince them as such, every day.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The digital transformation of customer service in retail banking is changing the depth and form of relationships of banks with their customers. The increasing shift to direct digital self-service channels re-shapes how consumers interact with retail banks. As explained in the first part of this article, the effects of this transformation can be seen and felt at physical bank branches and away from the branches through remote online channels (including web-based service platforms and mobile apps). Furthermore, ‘customer service’ practically entails the customers’ operations of regular account maintenance but also their acquisition of various banking services and financial products (e.g., deposits, loans, equity and bonds). Hence the digital transformation is affecting broadly and simultaneously retail banking service as well as marketing to customers.

The focus of the first part of the article was a review of the ways in which the five main banks in Israel approach the digital transformation in the domain of retail banking, and especially how the banks choose to balance between the digital and human modes of interaction and service in their relations with customers. It considered the observed forms and methods of implementing their approaches and discussed their implications regarding the digital-human balance. Particular attention was awarded nonetheless to the effects that digital channels of interaction may have on the premises of retail bank branches — their organisation, interior design, and functions.

The approach taken by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may be seen as surprising to digital advocates because it is ‘going against the stream’, yet it is tapping on some sensitive nerves of  consumers. The advertising campaign of the bank — carrying the title “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity” — commits not to sacrifice contact with human bank representatives in the sake of digital self-service. This is a promise of reassurance for many bank customers who still do not feel comfortable and confident with over reliance on supposedly self-sufficient digital channels. But a question remains to address: Does the campaign stand on a solid strategic ground? One would want to know if there is substantive managerial commitment behind the campaign and a plan to execute it.

A declaration of the bank on its latest strategic plan offers an affirmative answer. According to a press release published by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot in November 2016, the strategic plan for the years  2017-2021 stands on three legs: (a) intensifying the focus on business sectors and expanding activities directed to them; (b) sustaining and solidifying the bank’s stature as a leader in the retail domain; and (c) being a central operator of financial assets in banking (22 Nov. ’16, origin in Hebrew). Regarding the second goal on retail that is of our interest here, the bank specifically qualifies its goal as “providing personal and human service supported by innovative technology”. In this statement the bank emphasises the order of priority between ‘personal and human service’ and technology, whereof the role of the latter is to facilitate and enhance customer service. As explained by Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, the strategy is on the one hand service-driven and on the other hand aimed at reducing prices by applying a unique and advanced technological platform (i.e., the platform’s purpose is increasing efficiency in operating and delivering customer service).

The strategic statement clarifies that the bank is not about to put its technologies ahead of its customers, how it treats and serves them. It maintains that the role of the digital technologies is to increase efficiencies (e.g., saving time, facilitating processes) and not to replace human service. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot is not shy on utilising customer-facing digital tools and facilities for interface and information processing, but it does so as a supplement to human service. Already six years ago the bank initiated a ‘hybrid banking’ programme designed to smooth communication between a customer and his or her ‘personal banker’ at the branch via phone, e-mail or SMS services (they called it ‘an ideal combination between personal and digital’). Lately the bank has recognized a need to highlight the connection between ‘personal’ and ‘human’ as contra to the increasing reliance on digital service channels in other banks. The intention declared by the bank to increase its number of branches also asserts that it does not intend to make itself more distant from customers and less physically accessible to them. It is perhaps not a ground-breaking attitude yet it offers stability, credibility, and confidence in bankers to be there in person for the customers.

However, there are still certain aspects the bank can further develop: For instance, applying digital technology is not just about efficiencies and prices, especially when utilised in direct customer-facing services; how customers experience the digital service is highly important (e.g., it should be visually fluent, easy-to-use, effective). Digital self-service should not claim to improve customer service overall by replacing human service, but it can contribute to improved customer service as a whole. The strategy statement is not clear about the experience of customers when applying digital technologies. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot should also clarify how web-based and mobile app elements of its platform are integrated in its overall view of personal-human and digital customer service (e.g., enabling chats with human bank assistants and not with virtual assistants [chatbots]). Additionally, as suggested in Part 1, the bank can develop its own service model for combining digital self-service stations with human assistance and guidance within a branch.

Let us now take a brief look at the strategy in other Israeli banks:

Bank HaPoalim is seeking to reflect flexibility in its balance between human and digital banking. The bank’s Head of Retail Division said in October 2016: “we are not requiring the customers to choose between human and technological, instead providing them with a right combination between the two” (press release, 26 Oct. ’16, origin in Hebrew). The declared strategy of the bank is offering human, personal and technological banking. However, other expressions used by the bank suggest that the balance is weighed more heavily to the side of technology. For example, the bank uses  ambiguous terminology such as “more advanced and human technology“; its real priority or emphasis is revealed in the impressive expression “digital empowerment of the customers”. The new services the bank is taking special pride in, as presented in the press release, are a ‘virtual branch’ in a mobile app and human guidance in its new ‘Poalim Digital’ branches on how to use an iPad for banking services.

The senior bank executive is not insensitive to consumer concerns about the use of advanced technologies — he recognises that some customers perceive them as threatening, creating an emotional distance, and lacking in personal touch. Yet the bank appears to be pushing too hard to impose technologies that many customers may not be ready for yet, and implicitly pushes its human bankers to the sideline. Bank HaPoalim is trying to strike a difficult balance between the technological (digital) and human factors by attempting to be ‘human as well as personal as well as technological’ altogether.

In Bank Leumi digital banking (‘Leumi Digital’) is put at the centre, as manifest in its website-based platform, information ‘kiosks’ in physical branches, and its mobile app. More recently the bank added its ‘virtual assistant’ chat utility for customers to seek assistance in using the online and mobile account applications. In its strategy statement, Bank Leumi refers to “organizational and technological capabilities, efficient and innovative” (origin in Hebrew). It also commits to upgrading its service model and value propositions as part of a customer-centered culture. However. the bank does not make specific reference to integration between ‘technological’ and ‘human’ in its relations with (domestic) customers. As commented in Part 1, the mix between digital and human modes of service seems to be incomplete, as if working in separate compartments (‘silos’) of service.

The vision of Bank Leumi is accordingly to “lead initiating and innovative banking for the customer”. Overall, the key words most salient in the vision and strategy statements of the bank are technology, efficiency and innovation. There is no specific mentioning of the human factor. Bank Leumi must be credited for its consistent and prolonged support for providing banking services through direct channels that free customers from arriving to the branches. In the late 1990s this bank was a pioneer in Israel in establishing a ‘direct bank’ based on its telephony call centre. Later on a website was added. Whereas the initial entity was cancelled, the foundation was laid out, tried and proven for further development and assimilation in the main service operations of the bank. Advanced digital technologies, as they are better known these days, could come only natural to this bank. The next challenge of Bank Leumi would be to streamline its connections between human and digital modes of interaction and service to customers both in physical and virtual/remote domains. Admittedly, the suggestion made here may be contrary to the leading view at the bank; however, customer service should feel seamless and unified, not  like living in two different worlds of ‘digital banking’ and ‘human banking’.

Bank Discount is actually delivering a very clear message about the place it reserves for ‘humanity’ in its approach to customer service. Its actions on transition to digital banking seem to be more mild compared with the two leading banks. The strategic plan of the bank for 2015-2019 states: “We at Bank Discount have set before our eyes the experience of personal, human and professional service for all our customers. We believe that we should integrate humanity with professionalism, and to that aim we direct our actions every day” (launched in 2014, origin in Hebrew). The words are very positive: the bank is truly seeing the customer at the centre, not the technology, and the way to serve customers better is to do it professionally (possibly the bank’s sought competitive advantage).

Bank Discount is doing whatever is necessary to utilise up-to-date technologies in banking but not as proactively and forcefully as in Bank HaPoalim or Bank Leumi. Its direct banking operations include the TeleBank call centre, a web-based platform and a mobile app for account management; it also offers a personalised information app My Finance (providing market data etc.) and has recently introduced a ‘virtual assistant’ utility. Bank Discount may still be required to be more explicit about its view on the digital front, but foremost it can further clarify its approach to integrating digital and human modes of service and balancing between them.

Bank Benleumi is going along, combining traditional and digital banking facilities and utilities. Unfortunately, however, the bank does not disclose much information about its strategic plans, views or priorities. Hence it is difficult to tell where the bank is heading in implementing digital banking services nor how they would be balanced vis-à-vis human banking modes of interaction and service.

In its profile (Hebrew) Bank Benleumi states that it is “acting to increase its hold in the retail sector” with reference to its acquisitions of two smaller banks (and their branch networks) aimed at particular segments, and completing the merger of an upscale private banking business as a division within the bank. It also lists the general types of banking services and advanced digital channels that are seen as vital to strengthening its hold in the retail sector. As other banks it delivers direct digital banking services through a web-based platform and a mobile app, information ‘kiosks’ and a SMS update service; Bank Benleumi was early to launch a ‘virtual assistant’ utility (named ‘Fibi’ after the ‘mother’ holding company). Yet the bank remains vague about the nature of customer experience one can expect in future at the bank in its branches and in virtual digital domains, and specifically what place a digital-human balance will take in customer relationships.

Banks need to plan and configure carefully how to tie together the different advisory and operational (transactional) services they provide to their customers in human and digital modes of interaction, especially so when performed in the premises of a physical branch. These modes should not be just combined but integrated and complementary. It should be done both cleverly and sensitively.

A digital-reliant branch should prove what advantages it avails customers to patron such a branch as opposed to conducting their operations on the website or a mobile app: for example, it could be more convenient to work on devices and screens at the digital branch, offer value-added functionalities, be easier to find information or to complete successfully the required banking tasks. Nevertheless, a mixed human-digital branch can provide an important additional advantage: a customer who has just finished to search independently for product information on a work-station or watch an instructional video at the branch, can right away turn to one of the professional (human) advisors to clarify remaining issues and perform relevant actions with the help of the banker-advisor. That is an essential implication of a ‘digical’ (digital + physical) approach to retail banking (Baxter and Rigby, 2014).

It is not suggested in any way that branches of the future in every bank should look and function all alike. However, each retail bank can use a core model of a ‘mixed’ digital-and-human branch and adjust its design in every aspect according to a degree of balance its management sees fit and desirable between the digital and human modes of interaction and service, assigning more weight to the digital factor or the human factor. Moreover, a bank may choose its preferred balance in a typical branch, balance the human and digital factors across a few branch formats, and not least co-ordinate between services provided in a branch and away from the branch. Banks will undoubtedly find they have a lot of flexibility and room for creativity in setting the appropriate and differentiated strategy for each of them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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The digital transformation of retail banking is clearly apparent by now. The way consumers manage their banking accounts (e.g., deposits, savings, investments) and run their finances keeps changing by relying on digital channels and tools to perform more and more account operations.  Most dramatically in recent years, the organisation, design and function of retail bank branches is going through re-conception and change.

Two fundamental dimensions of this transformation may be detected:

(A) Away from a branch: Account operations are shifted to digital channels of direct banking detached from bank branches. That is, banking operations are performed more frequently without requiring customers to visit a branch (e.g., using an online web-based account-management platform or a mobile app), and furthermore without interacting with human bank representatives (e.g.,  talking by phone with a representative at a bank’s call centre).

(B) At a branch: The physical environment of a bank’s retail branch is transforming by re-allocating space, facilities and human versus digital resources at the branch between banking activities. This means distinguishing between banking activities that are performed in self-service by the customers using digital working-stations or ‘kiosks’, and activities that involve human bank professionals. The transformation is affecting the site of a branch all around, within the branch and areas next to it. A salient implication of this process is the elimination of human tellers within a branch; many of the ordinary account operations will be performed with minimal or no interaction with a bank representative within a branch or in adjacent areas. Interaction with human bank professionals will be mostly reserved to consultation and for purchasing more complicated bank services (e.g., loans) or financial products (e.g., investments).

Obviously those changes are not wholly new — customers are familiar with and use various self-service, direct digital channels, as they add-up, for different lengths of time (e.g., ATMs, enhanced digital information kiosks , websites, mobile apps). The current change is in acceleration and extent of utilisation of digital technologies: the frequency in which customers are using them; the degree of customers’ freedom in choosing between digital and human modes of service for any particular activity; the types of services or products that will be diverted to digital platforms (e.g., certain loans will be arranged without meeting a bank advisor in person, perhaps by video conference); and re-shaping the environment and activity in banks’ branches.

The article explores the digital transformation by reference to the five main banks in Israel. It will especially discuss how banks balance between the human and digital factors in serving their customers. Some additional aspects of the transformation will be explained in the course of this review.

To remove any doubt, it must be emphasised that all five banks are engaged in implementing digital self-service platforms and facilities in serving their customers and offering them financial products (in addition to the now ‘classic’ direct banking by call centres). They differ, however, in how they propose and plan to balance between their digital and human channels and modes of service.

The two leading banks in Israel (Bank HaPoalim [‘workers’] and Bank Leumi [‘national’]) seem to take the transition to digital banking the most seriously and most extensively. These banks compete neck and neck for many years, swapping between them the first and second market positions occasionally, yet both are distinctively greater in scale and market dominance than the three other main banks. Both banks appear to follow more closely on the vision of digital banking transformation conveyed last year by Dr. Hedva Ber, Banking Supervisor at the central Bank of Israel, and her projection of how this ‘digital revolution’ should proceed. Nonetheless, these two banks differ on some issues in their approach to implementing the transformation.

Bank HaPoalim is advancing an initiative to establish digital-reliant branches — five branches already exist, two of them in the Tel-Aviv area. Customers utilise tablets (iPads) or larger screens on table-tops to perform their needed operations in self-service in principle; they may ask, however, for assistance from a bank representative in the branch. There are no visible desks for personal meetings with banking advisors for consultation. The branch in northern Tel-Aviv, for example, is one large open space with long white desks in the centre, a large screen on the wall, and a sitting area with personal ‘working stations’ on the left side of the branch. It has a look resembling an Apple store, elegant and flashy. One cannot find in this space the traditional partitions where customers can sit for more private and intimate consultations with banking professional advisors. This digital branch is built on site of the old-model branch.

This is a rather radical move that may precede too early the formation of mixed branches recommended and applied in other countries as the core model. Indeed most of the bank’s branches (more than 260 in total) are still more traditional; the bank plans to reduce the number of its branches and replace some of those traditional branches with new digital ones. Yet by doing so the bank could miss an important stage of preparing the public for the change.

Bank Leumi is going in a somewhat different direction, encouraging its customers to utilise mostly its direct channels that do not involve coming to one of its branches. At the branches, the bank is in major progress to eliminate all its counters of human tellers; customers are referred to enhanced information kiosks (‘Leumi Digital’) that also allow for some account operations, and to ATM machines. These stations are located in a separate interim lobby area before entering the main hall of the branch, which is dedicated only to personal sittings with banking advisors. The bank is working overall to reduce the number of its branches (currently about 250).

The bank is taking a positive move in the right direction, and yet it is not complete because the bank does not truly mix digital with human service resources in the branch. What Bank Leumi is doing is more of a re-arrangement than genuine re-modelling. Indeed it eliminates the function of human tellers, but it does not integrate the digital and human modes of service in a hybrid model and design.

Many bank branches in the country have three ‘service areas’: (a) A couple of ATMs and digital kiosks outside the branch (i.e., on street front); (b) A few ATMs and digital kiosks in a protected lobby area that customers may enter and use also outside working hours of the branch; (c) A main hall of the branch where customers can receive service or consult more privately with bank representatives and professional advisors. Some branches may have a ground floor for assistance usually with the more basic functions and a second floor for consulting on more complex issues. Bank HaPoalim created a new branch version primarily reliant on advanced digital facilities; Bank Leumi eliminated human service for basic teller functions but keeps the digital facilities outside the branch per se — it does not welcome customers using those stations to enter inside the branch.

However, the intention of a new model being developed for bank branches is to entail a combination of digital and human modes of service working next to each other. In a common hall customers can use one of the digital working stations or sit with an advisor on any specific issue more complex and financially significant. A customer may use the digital station while standing or sitting on a couch, read materials on products and perform operations. He or she may also watch instructive videos on a large screen. It should be a much more convenient and pleasant setting than using the information kiosk machine. A bank representative should be available for guidance and assistance with the digital self-service stations. But when more serious consultation becomes necessary the customer can approach one of the expert advisors sitting in partitioned meeting corners. Digital and human channels are thus in immediate access close to each other.

  • Best examples of layout, design and organisation of the new form of bank branches around the world can be found in the website of The Financial Brand: Branch Design (also see their latest Design Showcase from Fall 2016). Give special notice to the mixture of self-service stations and private zones for consultation with bank experts-advisors within the branch.

Banks may build in addition to mixed primary branches also secondary smaller digital branches (e.g., in shopping malls) to provide a convenient, quiet and pleasant place for customers to work on their bank accounts vis-à-vis using a bank’s app on their smartphones. Being similar to the model of the new “Poalim Digital” branches, they are not supposed to come in place of a cross-mode primary branch. Likewise, offering working stations in a lobby, to be used almost any hour, adjacent to the branch is not supposed to be in place of a self-service digital zone within the branch with a human assistant  (formerly a teller) ready to guide if needed. Bank Leumi should not confuse the two types of self-service by digital means. Moreover, the bank must have a digital zone integrated in the overall design of the branch that will be welcoming, visually pleasant, convenient and friendly.

Two of the smaller main banks (Bank Discount and Bank Benleumi [‘international’]) maintain at large the traditional branch format and offer in parallel a variety of digital channels with their facilities (e.g., information  kiosks) and applications (e.g., website, mobile app). They do not make yet any clear or particular stand on the balance they see fit between the digital and human modes of service. Hence, while they make sure to be up-to-date on the technological front of digital direct banking services, there is no apparent major move beyond that which would reflect a more strategic approach to a desirable human-digital balance.

But then there is Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot that has chosen to take a more distinct approach to the digital-human balance by assigning greater weight to the human factor — more precisely, committing not to sacrifice human interaction in favour of digital channels. The bank may have thus found an important dimension to differentiate its brand from the competing banks.

The bank is aiming to solidify its position as the third largest bank in Israel, climbing one position up by pushing back Bank Discount. Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot currently operates about 150 branches, and contrary to the leading banks it plans to increase this number towards 200 branches. In September 2016 the bank launched an advertising campaign, emphasising human touch, with a tagline (translated from Hebrew):

  • “On the things really important, there is no substitute to humanity.”

It purports to persuade prospect banking customers (as well as its own current customers), who still seek and prefer human interaction, that at this bank customers will continue to be able to find a human representative to talk to. Billboard ad posters, displayed until recently, proposed that the bank will cater to consumers’ concerns as they complain to their banks as follows (exemplar statements translated from Hebrew):

  • “Is it no longer possible to talk with a human in this bank?”
  • “Enough with apps, give me a human” [to talk to] — the ad “answers” that if you want to talk to a human, call a specific number.
  • “You closed the branch on [X] street. Is only the ATM left now? What is happening with you?” (the original Hebrew phrase plays on dual meaning in using the word ‘closed’)

The bank implicitly commits to maintain human reference for customers on banking issues that matter more or less. Indeed the bank does not fall behind in offering a variety of digital facilities, applications and tools for customers to manage their accounts. Yet the bank steps forward to assure customers that addressing a human representative at the bank will not be sacrificed in favour of the digital direct channels. For instance, the bank offers customers the possibility to talk by phone not only with a human representative at the call centre but also with one’s personal banker (account manager) or advisor at the branch where the account is held, reached through a direct (seamless) phone extension.

Without undermining their commitment for human reference, Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot may still modify the way it delivers certain services (e.g., teller-type) with human assistance at a branch. A new model may involve a zone equipped with digital self-service stations but supported with stronger human presence or qualifications of bank assistants for customers than what may be offered in other banks. The human resources dedicated to fulfill these positions and the tasks assigned to them should be planned anew.

Of course promises have to be tested in the reality of customer service at the bank. The bank has to prove it can deliver on its commitment to make human representatives available to customers when necessary. A critical reason banking customers turn to direct digital channels is being dissatisfied with either the long time customers feel they have to wait to reach a human representative or the level of assistance they get (e.g., professional, efficient, courteous). Nevertheless, there always remain the more complex and significant issues in which customers may need more serious consultation and human guidance in making a decision and completing a procedure (and sometimes being able to negotiate terms), help they cannot receive adequately through a self-service digital channel. Trust in customer-bank relationships is also dependent on that.

With regard to the advertising campaign of Bank Mizrahi-Tefahot, an imminent question arises: Is the message delivered in this campaign backed by a more profound vision and strategic plan? In other words, one would want to know that the campaign stands on solid ground and is not only a marketing communication idea hanging-in-the-air. A second part of this article, soon to come, will address this question, and will also examine what strategic position and attitude take the other four banks on balancing between digital and human resources and modes of service.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

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Tremors continue to shake ground in the field of television viewing since the start of this decade,  especially with respect to how televised content is consumed. It is possible to say that the concept of television is being transformed. The move of Netflix away from rental of DVDs, delivered by mail, towards online streaming, seems to have signaled the start of this transformation which is affecting the consumers and the media industry together. Netflix is of course not doing it alone, changing how televised video content is made available to consumers — other digital services include Hulu, Amazon Prime, and YouTube, as better known examples. Many consumers, most of all Millennials, are attracted to having better control and discretion of what, how and when they watch video programming content of the kind we are used to associate with TV.

Two primary shifts in TV viewing need to be considered: (1) watching less TV programmes in real-time; but more important and characteristic of the changes in the past decade: (2) watching less TV on the screen of a TV set in favour of screens of personal computers, tablets and smartphones. The first shift is not so new — watching a programme not at the time of its scheduled broadcast can be traced to at least thirty-five years ago thanks to the VCR (Video Cassette Recorder); later on came the DVD, but most DVD sets used by households were non-recorders.

The popularity of watching TV content in shifted-time has increased somewhat more with the introduction of new devices and services, namely Digital Video Recorder (DVR) and Video-on-Demand (VOD). The VOD service has actually created new options for viewers to access a special video library and watch programmes or films that are not available on broadcast channels (not available at all or not at that period).

The second shift noted is more closely associated with the Internet availability of video content, including TV programmes, that is not dependent on traditional broadcasters (networks, but also cable and satellite TV services). Whether the application for watching the content is web-based or a mobile app is less crucial to our matter. Streaming potentially breaks the tie between the televised content and the physical TV set (but that is an option, not a necessity). It is not surprising that new-age digital media companies that offer video content by streaming have been followed by the TV networks worldwide that now allow consumers to view their programmes online (viewing may be free or by paid subscription).

As we look into greater details of various possibilities of viewing televised content, we may find that defining TV viewing is not clear-cut. For instance, if one is streaming the content of a programme (e.g., a comedy episode) ordered from Netflix to a laptop that is connected to a TV set (or streaming directly to a Smart TV), is he or she watching TV? Apparently, 79% of US streamers primarily stream the video content to their TV sets! (CSG International, Insights Blog, 8 Sept. 2016). Vice versa, if one is watching a programme (e.g., evening news) at the time of its broadcast but on a laptop by live streaming, is he or she not watching TV? It can be confusing. Consumers stream TV content of the type of TV series episodes (e.g., comedy, drama, crime), documentaries, news editions, as well as cinema films. The key to achieve greater coherence and consistency may be to define ‘TV’ by the kind of its programming content, not by the technology of devices or distribution platforms (BARB’s Annual Viewing Report: UK’s Viewing Habits, April 2016, pp. 6-7, also see pp. 8-9).

Many consumers, mostly the younger ones (under 35), are turning away from fixed timetable TV programming. They are more selective in regard to the programmes they wish to watch at the time convenient to them. The choice of more savvy TV viewers is getting more in a form of cherry-picking. They may receive recommendations what programmes to watch from friends who have similar tastes or from the online content provider based on their stated preferences and past viewing behaviour (possibly adding what similar-in-kind programmes others are viewing). Consumers may choose to watch, for example, legacy TV series or programmes of a particular genre, as well as new selections of TV-type programmes produced independently by video content providers such as Netflix, exclusive to their subscribers.

For consumers who have less leisure time it may also become a matter of efficiency in allocating their limited TV viewing time to the programmes they really want to watch, thus not being constrained by the programmes scheduled for those hours. People watch only a small portion of the channels available to them in their TV cable or satellite packages, and are less comfortable with their inflexible programming plans. TV viewers wander to other channels such as a VOD service of their regular provider or by streaming from online video content providers.

When looking at ‘traditional TV viewing’, which includes live TV (aka real-time or linear) and adjunct time-shifted services like DVR and VOD(†), the number of weekly hours US young persons ages 18-24 spend watching TV has decreased across all quarters from a level of 23-26 hours in 2011 to a level of 15-18 hours in 2015, and further to 14-16 hours in 2016 (excluding Q4). In addition, when comparing between age groups, it can be seen that the 12-17 years (teenagers) and 18-24 years age groups are most similar to each other in the number of their TV watching hour(decreasing between Q1/2011 and  Q3/2016) and are now even closer to each other than five years ago. There is a decline in number of weekly TV watching hours also in the 25-34 age group, and though more modest a decline, also among those ages 35-49, but there is no discernible trend in age group 35-64 and even a small increase among seniors 65 years old and above (based on data from Nielsen, visualised by MarketingCharts.com). Note that the band of weekly hours mounts as the age rises. Another chart summarises those differences more sharply: the number of hours spent watching TV per week decreased in the younger age groups (12-17 & 18-24) by 37%-40% in five years, 28% still in age group 25-34, and only ~11% among ages 35-49 (weekly hours increased 7% among 65+).

  • Note: The original figures by Nielsen indicate that most traditional TV viewing time is still ‘live’ or linear, accounting for 85%-90% of time, and the rest goes to viewing programmes by DVR or VOD (figures of BARB for the UK indicate a similar ratio).
  • † Clarification: ‘Live’ TV includes of course live programmes or events that are taking place and filmed as they are broadcast or transmitted, but ‘live’ refers here more generally to programmes that are viewed at the time scheduled by a TV company for broadcasting, to be distinguised from programmes watched at a time chosen by a viewer. One possible development is that the concept of VOD will be expanded dramatically.
  • Statistics about streaming usage are still difficult to obtain. Figures brought by MarketingCharts from a less familiar source (‘SSRS’ online and mobile survey company) suggest that the number of hours Millennials spend weekly watching streamed content through various modes increased gradually and almost continuously in 2013-2015, though the overall level is still modest (~1.5 hours in 2013, rising up from 3.3 to  4.5 hours during 2014 until standing on a plateau of 5.5-5.7 hours in 2015).

Research of the British Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) notably shows that, other than the TV screen, personal computers (desktop/laptop) and tablets are the  more frequently used for watching TV content on their screens, usually in the evening, while smartphones remain much less popular — smartphones are probably less accepted for TV viewing because their screens are too small to enjoy the images and are not convenient to watch for an extended time. Furthermore, with no evidence showing otherwise, it seems a greater part of time spent viewing not on a TV screen in the UK is still done at home (BARB’s Annual Viewing Report, April 2016, pp. 10-11).

The more traditional TV networks and service providers (cable and satellite) have to acknowledge that the rules of the game in the TV domain have changed: “As both traditional service providers and streaming services alike are looking to engage viewing audiences and hold on to subscribers, catering to the individual needs of each viewer is increasingly paramount” (CSG International: Insights Blog, see their infographic of global content viewing trends). Indeed we can see that TV networks and service providers try to adapt at different levels of extent and pace to changes in the competitive environment and shifts thereof in viewing patterns of consumers. Networks are getting more deeply into the Internet space, availing at least some of their content to viewers by streaming on their websites or through mobile apps, and even greater programming content may be offered to customers by subscription (e.g., BBC iPlayer). Especially in the area of news, we see news websites inserting more video content into their reports, including live coverage. The cable and satellite service providers are working to enhance their channels and VOD libraries to bring content that viewers may be seeking by streaming (e.g., HBO) and thus dissuade customers from churning to other services.

The media industry, most broadly speaking, sees a lot of movement in recent years. It seems that media companies, mainly the larger corporations, are trying to get into each other’s territory — TV (broadcast, streaming), digital media content (Internet & mobile), telecom infrastructure, TV and cinema production, etc. The new business and technology mixtures are created through mergers and acquisitions, accompanied by integration of different functions (horizontal and vertical) that will enable companies greater capabilities along the wider spectrum of the production and transmission of video content to consumers. Notably, there is emphasis on delivery of digital content through various platforms in combined modes (e.g., text, still images, video and audio). Content characteristic of TV programmes is just part of the media ‘basket’ companies are planning to offer their customers. A further implication is that content of different domains in Internet and TV formats will be increasingly blended on the same screen — from news information and education to entertainment and shopping.

In a highly remarkable merger in sight, AT&T is planned to acquire Time Warner for $85 billion. The deal between the parties is already agreed, but approval by the American antitrust authority is still in question (peculiarly, a political matter is also involved because of the bitter dispute between President Trump and CNN owned by Time Warner). This merger would combine the competencies of Time Warner mainly in content (including production and broadcasting) with the telecommunication infrastructure and services of AT&T in Internet and wireless (‘mobile’) communication. It should allow the integrated corporation to reach a wider audience with a richer and greatly varied content on screens of TV sets, personal computers and mobile devices.

Time Warner holds a broad and impressive portfolio of TV channels, production units and digital services for delivering their content. The most famous brand is probably CNN which includes its American and International channels. But Time Warner also owns HBO for TV programmes and Cinemax for cinema films, both available to subscribers by streaming. In fact, Time Warner also owned in the past the AOL Internet company. In 2015 AOL moved hands to Verizon telecom company, and just within months Verizon also acquired the troubled Internet company Yahoo. The expansion of Verizon is yet another example of an integration of telecom infrastructure and services with digital  content capabilities, but it does not have yet a strong TV presence.

  • Time Warner spun off its print arm of magazines in 2014, identified now as the independent company Time Inc.. Some of its better known magazine brands include the Time magazine of current affairs and Fortune magazine of business affairs, but overall the company publishes magazines in various areas of interest (e.g., entertainment, fashion & beauty, photography, home and design, as well as politics, business and technology).

The TV business is reshaping. Frahad Manjoo of the New-York Times (October 2016 [1]) foresees a future of TV “built on lots of bold, possibly speculative experiments”. Advanced digital technology companies (information, Internet & mobile) of the kind of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix may readily disrupt efforts of the large telecom and “old-guard” media companies. When TV viewing habits also are fluctuating and reforming, business decisions involve much “educated guessing”.  In another article, Barnes and Steel [2] consider repercussions of the AT&T-Time Warner deal on other media and telecom companies. While some of those companies declare their objection and intent to fight the merger, they may follow a similar trail.  The cases of four companies are reviewed:

  1. The Walt Disney Company insists on its market position as a predator and not as a prey to technology companies. Its current objective is to bring more premium TV channels directly to consumers by streaming; that may entail the purchase of desired brands (e.g., Pixar, Marvel, ESPN).
  2. Comcast, a telecom company (cable [TV] and broadband), is also the owner of TV networks or channels  (e.g., NBC and MSNBC), as well as film and TV studios. It may not sit idle and may try to take over another telecom company to complement its coverage (e.g., extending to wireless).
  3. 21st Century Fox (cable TV, films) is claiming to have no plans of expansion and entering into new areas. It previously failed to acquire Time Warner (2014). But the recent AT&T-Time Warner deal may change their plans. (The Murdoch family is currently aiming to take full control of UK-based Sky satellite TV).
  4. CBS and Viacom engage together in TV broadcasting, a cable TV service, and TV and cinema productions. The controlling owner (Redstone family) may now be encouraged to unite the sister companies (once again) into a single corporation.

We should not rush to assume that watching TV programmes on a TV set or watching programmes in real-time are about to end anytime soon. Traditional live TV viewing and digital video viewing are complementary, possibly preferred on different devices at different times and in differing circumstances (eMarketer, 14 March 2016).

There may be personal but also social benefits or incentives to watching programmes or films in the ‘old-fashioned’ way. First, enjoyment and visual comfort, particularly for certain types of video content, are expected to be greater when viewed on a large screen (37” and above). Second, there is real value in watching a programme such as an episode of a popular TV series at the same time with others so that one can share impressions and discuss it with acquaintances the next day or right after the show. A similar argument can be made for watching live a sports contest, on top of the thrill of watching the event as it unfolds. Third, there is still pleasure and enjoyment in watching TV together with family or friends on a large TV set at one’s home (and in some cases in a pub or bar).

The new technological developments in distributing and displaying video content in high quality, offer opportunities for consumers to improve and enrich in several ways their experience of viewing TV programing and other types of video content. Consumers would be given more freedom of choice and flexibility to watch TV as they truly like. Companies in the wide spectrum of media, telecom and Internet may also find new business possibilities to enhance their services to customers, including in particular TV-like content. But it will take more time to see how the TV domain shapes-up.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

In New-York Times (International Edition), 26 October 2016:

[1]  “A Risky Bid With the TV Industry Up for Grabs”, Farhad Manjoo,

[2] “A Chilly Reaction to AT&T Deal”, Brooks Barnes and Emily Steel

 

 

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Touch-screens are becoming the norm of display and interaction on mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets — devices with screen sizes in the range of 4” to 10”. Maximal area of the device’s face is dedicated to the screen, leaving a thin surrounding frame with enough space primarily for the physical ‘On’ button (e.g., awakening the screen, returning to the ‘Home’ display). Most controls for operating a smartphone or tablet and their applications are now virtual, represented as visual icons, symbols and keystrokes on the screen. Users can interact with the device (even for dialing a phone number) by pointing, swiping and similar hand (finger) gestures applied to the screen’s display. It all sounds and feels great, and mostly functions alright, but not all is bright — there is still much room for improvement and better fine-tuning.

The focal devices of this article are smartphones with screens normally between 4” and 5.4” and tablets that carry mostly screens in size of 7” to 10” (extra-size smartphones, also-known-as ‘phablets’, embody a screen larger than 5.4”). They essentially enlarge the real-estate of the screen by doing away with physical controls on the device (buttons and keypads). Operation of the device and interaction with its applications is delegated almost wholly to the touch of virtual controls and other finger-gestures.

This new form of handheld computer-type devices provides a highly advanced class of viewing verbal and pictorial content and interacting with them through manual gestures. Touch-screens were available already in the turn of the century with Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). The touch-screens of smartphones and tablets are yet empowered in several important aspects: (1) they can be operated with the touch of fingers without need for a pen or stylus; (2) the screens are larger; and (3) the images are in much higher quality. The differences do not end here, if only to mention the communication abilities of the more recent mobile devices. Smartphones in particular can be said to converge a phone and a PDA in a single device, but with some additional capabilities that neither mobile phones nor PDAs have had in earlier times.

The first critical problem to address with touch-screen mobile devices concerns writing. A user is likely to encounter difficulties frequently when writing text with a virtual keyboard — it is rather easy to miss target character keystrokes. The difficulty is not simply in typing text but in getting the words spelled correctly, and overall avoiding character typing errors. The difficulty to produce a text without errors is likely to turn out more acute and agitating with smartphones and the smaller tablets (i.e., 7-8”). It may also cause users to leave spaces in the wrong places, and inversely to concatenate words. Correcting errors can be furthermore annoying when the user cannot find the direction arrows or point his or her finger to stand at the right position of correction; going backspace is not useful if one already moved to another line when the earlier error is noticed or any other correction of text is demanded.

Mobile devices foster writing correspondence texts (e.g., e-mails, chatting, social media updates and comments) even faster than with other modes, specially when users are in motion.  People tend to write correspondence as such more quickly and haphazardly, taking less care to avoid mistakes, and textproofing before sending is usually not in high priority or time-affordable. The result is that producing a well-thought and error-free text message on a touch-screen with a virtual keyboard may be an irritating mission (e.g., either abort message or send it with some errors).

  • Writing alphanumeric text with a 12-key physical pad is hardly convenient, and is usually time-consuming. In that sense QWERTY-type keyboards, physical or virtual, are better. There is yet an important difference to notice: The keys on a physical keyboard (e.g.,  Nokia E5 that followed on the original Blackberry phones) can be quite small but they feel like separated bumpers (i.e., giving the user a tactile feedback where the finger rests) whereas a virtual keyboard is completely flat and smooth. The cost of the physical keyboard is of course the smaller screen.

Mistyping is mostly associated with failure to accurately ‘hit’ the intended character keystroke with one’s index finger, and often enough with the thumb (e.g., when in motion and only one hand is free to hold the device and write). That is because virtual character keys tend to be too small for our fingers used for texting (less so on 10” tablet screens). The kind of errors that may result are typing the wrong character, typing the same character inadvertently twice, or  not typing the designated character. Apparently, failing to execute selected actions also occurs with images, such as when having to press virtual buttons or activating icon and text hyperlinks. These controls could be related to the device and its utilities or embedded in websites and imported apps. These issues are well-explained by Steven Hoober in an article in UXMatters (“Common Misconceptions About Touch”, 18 March 2013). Hoober makes an important distinction between seeing clearly text and icon targets and touching them effectively, and he recommends target sizes for them (in measures of points and millimeters).

Hoober refers to an additional sensitive and critical consideration in preventing users from taking accidentally the wrong action: he calls this ‘preventing interference errors’. He clearly suggests to avoid placing controls for actions with opposite consequences too near each other lest trying to touch-press one control could result in adversely activating the other unwanted control. This applies especially to actions associated with catastrophic results or outcomes that are difficult to undo. For instance, he recommends separating sufficiently the locations of controls for Send and Delete actions (Hoober recommends a distance of at least 8mms and preferably 10mms between centres of the controls [the target point of finger contact]).

Touch-screen devices benefit indeed from a larger screen real-estate for image display. But there is nonetheless competition on that real-estate for the content of display, and competition can be quite tough especially on devices with screens smaller than 7” in size. The competition is prominently between images of controls and the content of device utilities, webpages and apps. It applies primarily to the interface of a virtual keyboard that requires a relatively large space (in some cases up to 50% of screen area). However, there could be other controls needed for operating the device and specific utilities, websites or apps (e.g., designers may have to give up on some pictorial imagery in order to allow enough space for action controls like “Add to Basket”).

Focusing on the virtual keyboard: when called-upon to write, it pops-up and hides  other content of the display (e.g., e-mail message, shopping webpage) in the lower part of the screen. It may hide content that the user actually needs to see while proceeding in composing a message or responding to content in a website. The smaller the screen, on one hand a larger part of the underlying display is hidden, on the other hand the keystrokes have to be smaller. Unlike with a physical keyboard, the virtual one can at least be dropped out when not in use and called again when needed for writing. But it can be disturbing if every few moments one has to drop out the keyboard and surface it again to resume writing. With larger screens there should still be enough space for text in the e-mail message editor that one can scroll; with screens 7” or less one may be able to see only up to four lines at a time and even that in small type difficult to read (changing zoom may help but also cause trouble — more below).

Virtual keyboards on mobile devices are split into two or three displays due to space limitations (e.g., Latin letters as for English or German [but with some order variations], numeric figures and symbols, and an extra keyboard for non-Latin alphabets as Hebrew, Arabic, Cyrillic). But in any particular set of keyboard display, some character keys or controls may have to be forsaken for space limitations. As suggested above, it is most annoying when the direction arrows are eliminated (e.g., on a Samsung 7” tablet) because it makes it more difficult to go back and forth across a text while composing and editing it.

Relying on gestures can save space for screen real-estate and help in making interactions fluid and efficient, but working with a touch-screen has limitations. Raluca Budiu of Nielsen & Norman Group (user experience research and usability experts, 19 April 2015) lists some of the main problems that may arise for users: (1) The leading problem concerns typing, and particularly the need to continuously divide attention between the content written and the keypad area; (2) Poor tactile feedback, small keypads and crowded keys make the typing experience more troublesome; (3) The target size of controls or keys has to be considerably larger with touch interface to optimize reaching time and minimise errors compared with a mouse; (4) Since there can be many target areas on a touch-screen (especially of smartphones), it is easy to make accidental touch errors (see Hoober’s ‘interference error’) — some errors can “leave the user disoriented and unsure of what happened”. Budiu notes that respecting the Undo usability heuristic is furthermore important with mobile devices.

References to those main problems could be found in the earlier paragraphs of this article. Two more issues are addressed below:

Scrolling over a touch-screen — Mobile devices do not apply a scrolling bar — the user can scroll by swiping the index finger in a swoosh movement up or down over the touch-screen. The smaller the screen, and if one is in a landscape mode, more scrolling may be needed (shifting left and right is also possible). Trouble may start when the window display is populated by ‘clickable’ tiles or pictures: if the user does not swipe the finger quickly and lightly enough over the image, he or she may activate the underlying link rather than scroll across the window. When that happens, the user may arrive to a different window display, and one has to find the way back. More disturbing, when the content is online and connectivity can be slow on occasion, the user may remain stuck for a long time before being able to return to the desired location of content and resume work.

Zooming and automatic change of size —  Since type on touch-screens of mobile devices can be small and uneasy to read, one can zoom-in to enlarge the display appearance and the text in it. This is usually done by swiping the index and thumb fingers away from each other over the screen (conversely, one can zoom-out to reduce size but see more content by bringing the fingers closer together). But caution: one has to be accurate, and this does not always work so well. One may accidentally “blow” a picture image over the whole screen, for instance. When writing an e-mail message zooming can be helpful as one toggles between writing and reading the composed text. Yet, these devices are smart and sometimes they try to adjust the size for you according to the identified mode of use; sometimes it is appropriate but on occasion it causes trouble and nuisance. In more drastic cases, whilst trying to enlarge the type on a webpage, the system may lock in a loop and continue zooming-in until the user can see nothing coherent and has to start over again.

  • Note that the scrolling and size problems were encountered much more frequently on a Samsung tablet, either 7” or 10”, than on an Apple’s 10” iPad .

People may discover at times that although they were sure they could see exactly where their hand should reach and act, it somehow missed the target. That may happen because perception augmented by cognitive conception and processes of location and action are not the same in the human brain. These processes are connected (i.e., they share and pass information between them) but are nonetheless distinct. Visual information flows and is processed in two pathways: (a) perceptual but non-conceptual information is passed through the ventral stream to the temporal lobe where percepts are interpreted into meaningful images of scenes and objects; (b) visuospatial (location) and visuomotor (action) signals are transferred through the dorsal stream to the parietal lobe to guide, for instance, our manual movements. The ventral-temporal (semantic) visual system allows to identify a target for action yet the dorsal-parietal (pragmatic) visual system is responsible in parallel for determining where the target is and how to act upon it. Furthermore, action requires only a subset of information from percepts, including size, shape and orientation of a target object to complete a task, much less than what we perceive and even recognize as seeing. The conceptual identity of the target is mostly not required.

Jacob and Jeannerod (2003), distinguishing between Semantic and Pragmatic vision as cited above, argue that pragmatic vision processed in the parietal lobe is more complex and multi-layered than has been theorised and described in literature on vision. Humans may believe they act on whatever they perceive (as an image) but in fact they usually act on the nonconscious signals that arrive directly to the parietal lobe. Recognising and identifying clearly the target and understanding what to do with it are therefore not enough — the target should be designed in a form that permits (affords) the visuomotor system to perform the action correctly and efficiently. The semantic and pragmatic processes occur simultaneously. In some instances the semantic system may assist the pragmatic system but usually deliberate intervention is not needed. A user should not have to tilt the tablet, for example, while trying to accurately and slowly direct his finger to touch the small backward or forward arrows of the browser on the touch-screen. This is an example of an effortful action users should not be driven to.

Using mobile devices with touch-screens has advantages and can be a gratifying experience. But there is also a lot that can be done to improve that experience, moreover if the aspiration is that consumers will use these devices much more frequently for performing more tasks, and especially that they will use tablets more than desktop and laptop computers in the future. Although the touch-screen mobile devices promote to use fingers, they should support the use of a pen or stylus and perhaps even encourage it with smaller screen devices (for typing and not just for drawing). It is also helpful to enlarge the images of keystrokes, icons and symbols as one approaches to touch any of these controls. These are just hints and there are probably many more ways interaction designers can create to improve mobile users’ experiences, making them more effective and enjoyable.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference:

Ways of Seeing: The Scope and Limits of Visual Cognition; Pierre Jacob and Marc Jeannerod, 2003; Oxford University Press.

Additional recommended reading:

Mobile Computing; Jesper Kjeldskov; In Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (2nd edition, Chapter 9); Interaction Design Foundation.

 

 

 

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For the past two years the Internet company Yahoo is under immense pressure: The management led by CEO Marissa Mayer, in office since 2012, is working hard to reinvigorate the core online business of the company with new up-to-date technologies; and furthermore, creating more value, mainly from advertising. The board of directors is seeking to give management more time to find a way out of the difficult times, however it is struggling to fend off pressures from activist investors who demand a break-up of the company in order to salvage the real value they see captured in Yahoo through its stakes in external companies — Alibaba of China and Yahoo Japan. Yahoo is in a delicate and complex situation, carrying a danger that consumers-users will be left behind in the final business outcome.

The key criticism of Yahoo concerns the poor performance of its online advertising system, lagging behind other platforms such as Google (search) and Facebook (social media). The core business of the company entails its search engine and media (news in various domains), acting as sources of income from advertising (e.g., display ads, sponsored results). Display advertising is now active also in Yahoo’s Mail (e-mail service).

Underlying the poor financial performance of the advertising system are mainly two problems: (a) inconvenient and technologically outdated utilities and tools for advertisers when placing their orders for online ads (1); (b) a relatively low volume of search queries by Internet users, particularly far behind Google, and insufficient returns by visitors to the different sections of Yahoo websites. For example, according to figures revealed by the New-York Times, only ten percent (10%) out of one billion monthly visitors of Yahoo websites return every day, suggesting weak brand attachment; the reported figure for Facebook is 65% (2). It may start from failing to persuade more Internet users to make Yahoo a start homepage on their browsers.

Yahoo may be suffering, nevertheless, from a  broader problem of generating income from its online services. That is, the company should not rely only on income from advertising but create additional schemes that can generate income from use of its online services. Yahoo could monetise services, for instance, by charging users on premium plans (e.g., allowing extended storage capacity, more advanced tools or features, increased customisation, access to extended content). Yahoo may further not have a wide enough range of services on which it can charge premiums from registered (logged-in) users. Rightfully, companies are reluctant to ask customers to pay for online services, but that may be an unaffordable privilege, as in the case of Yahoo. Moreover, charging price premiums for enhanced services is legitimate and can contribute to higher perceived quality or value to consumers.

The complexity of the situation can partly be explained by the claim of investors that a greater portion of market value of Yahoo arises from its stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan than from its own activity. Yahoo originally (2005) had a stake of ~24% in the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba. Shortly before an initial public offering (IPO) of Alibaba in September 2014, that stake was valued $40 billion. During the IPO, Yahoo sold 40% of that stake as agreed with Alibaba to the latter’s requirement. Yahoo eventually collected more than $9bn, available to award shareholders or re-invest in the company (how funds were actually used is unpublished). The remaining stake of Yahoo in Alibaba (~15%) was worth some $30bn in December 2015. Investors thought that not enough value stemmed from Yahoo’s genuine activity before Alibaba’s IPO, and some seem to believe that is nonetheless apparent after the IPO.

The first two years of Mayer as CEO enjoyed a sense of improvement and optimism. Until the IPO of Alibaba, Yahoo acquired more than forty technology companies to bring fresh methods, tools and skills to the company. The share price of Yahoo climbed from a low of under $20 to above $30 by the end of 2013 and reached $50 in late 2014. But after Alibaba’s IPO, tensions with investors, especially the activist ones, escalated as patience with Mayer as well as the board was running thin. The share price also started to decline back to $30 during 2015 (it recovered to ~$36 since January 2016).

It must be noted that the board of directors together with Mayer did try to find solutions that would satisfy the investors while saving the core business of Yahoo. One plan considered was to sell the remaining stake of Yahoo in Alibaba but that solution was abandoned due to concerns about a looming large tax liability. Another solution, championed by Mayer, was to put the core media and search business of Yahoo on sale in one piece, but that plan was also just recently suspended as the process failed to mature. The most serious prospective buyer was the US telecom company Verizon; they were thinking of merging the activity of Yahoo with that of AOL, acquired last year, but executives were worried about the company’s ability to pull together such an integration effort in a short time (3).

  • Update note (July 2016): After all, a deal was done with Verizon to buy Yahoo for $4.8bn (excluding its stakes in Alibaba and Yahoo Japan.)

In the second part of this article I examine the display and organization of Yahoo’s websites with a user-consumer viewpoint in mind — visual layout, sections and services on the website, composition of content, links, menus and other objects. The examination is focused more on the content and services Yahoo provides to its users rather than its advertising.

Yahoo runs multiple versions of its website in different countries and languages. The major part of the review is centered on the website of Yahoo in the United Kingdom as a pivot exemplar. References will be subsequently made to other versions. Nevertheless, all of the additional websites visited (8) highly resemble the UK website in appearance and composition. Through the examination I intend to argue that Yahoo has not organized and designed the homepages of its website versions appropriately to expose users to, and give them the necessary inducement to access, some of its core services that would also be important sources of income. However, beyond the homepages, I also relate to the ‘portfolio’ of media topical sections and services that comprise the websites.

Some of the graphics on the page were not captured (the title name Yahoo and news bar were supplemented)

Two services of Yahoo are primary assets: the search engine (Yahoo! Search) and the e-mail service (Yahoo! Mail). Both follow the company’s website in substance from its early days. They are essential components of Yahoo’s brand. The search facility is the gate to the enormous content on the Internet. The e-mail service with its mailbox management utilities is at the foundations of the company’s invaluable customer base. Both have advanced over the years and added features, although there is argument over the nature of progress particularly with regard to the search engine. A third additional asset of Yahoo is the media content of news stories and videos in various domains delivered on the website. On the left-hand of the homepage appears a sidebar with links to services and news topics on the website; a ‘global’ heading bar appears on top of any webpage on Yahoo’s site.

As important and interesting as the news media content may be, its preview takes grossly too much space of the homepage. Conversely, the search window for initial queries, while on top, is marginalised on the page, nearly “drowning” in the news content. It sends a message to visitors that this feature is secondary or less to media content. It is little wonder that on-face Internet users perceive Google as the universal search engine (Yahoo has been relying on the powers of search engines of Google and previously Microsoft’s Bing in recent years). The icon-link to the e-mail service is not in a much better position at the top right corner. Even though three links for Mail appear on the homepage — the icon right to the search window, on top of the vertical sidebar, and on left side of the heading bar — none of these positions is central. The allocation of space on the homepage is not reasonably proportional between these three assets. It suggests that Yahoo has become a media company and has practically discounted its two other assets.

The sidebar added to the website in the past two years is a welcome contribution as it helps to quickly familiarise with or easily find some key services and news topics on Yahoo’s site. Nevertheless, icons-links for those services and topics could receive better attention and salience in users’ eyes and minds if they were arranged in a central area of the page adjacent to the Search window and Mail icon (e.g., beneath them). It would give Yahoo an opportunity to promote services or topics with a greater income potential vis-à-vis visitors’ interests and utility in using particular services. For example, the online cloud-based service Flickr for storing, editing and showcasing photos is hardly noticed on the head-bar, and if at all on the sidebar (Flickr was acquired by Yahoo in 2005). If site users could also see more instantly and clearly what functional services (non-news) are offered by Yahoo, it might be better understood why there is a Sign-In option separate from Mail.

  • Extra feature-services such as Contacts, Calendar, Notepad and Messenger (chat) are already included in Mail.

Yahoo highlights on its homepage general news, sport, entertainment and finance. On the ‘homepage’ of the news section one can find more categories such as UK,  World, Science & Tech, Motoring and Celebrity. Links to some of them appear on the sidebar of the UK homepage (e.g., Cars [Motoring], Celebrity). Interestingly, some news/media sections do behave as more autonomous sites and some have a different layout with a visual graphic display of tiles — Parenting, Style and Movies. (In the Italian version, Beauty and Celebrity sections also exhibit a tile ‘art’ display.)

The news headlines with the snippets (briefs) are useful but those do not necessarily belong on the homepage in that long a list. The ‘ribbon’ of images for selected stories would most appropriately fit on the homepage with a focal story changing on top — that is all that needs to remain on the homepage (with some enhancements such as choice of category) while the additional headlines are delegated to the News ‘homepage’. In the final display of the homepage, a concise and elegant arrangement should include the Search window and Mail/ Sign-In icons, surrounded by a News showcase and a palette of selected services or media topics.

  • A visitor has to look deeper into the website to trace additional services that may be  interesting and useful. A few examples: (1) The Finance (news and more) section includes a personalised utility ‘My Portfolios’ for managing investments; (2) On a page enlisting more services one can find Groups (discussion forums) and Shopping. Other features or services on a sidebar or head-bar refer to Weather, Mobile (downloading Yahoo apps), and Answers (subdivision of Search — peer-to-peer Q&A exchanges).

When the homepage of UK website is compared with other country and language websites of Yahoo, it is mostly noticeable that some of the links on the sidebar and head-bar may vary, apparently accounting for regional and cultural differences in public interests. Countries may also be affiliated or in co-operation with different local content and service providers. For instance: Italy assigns more importance to Style, Beauty and Celebrity, also having more invested topical sections; France has a section on real-estate (Immobilier) in affiliation with BFM TV); Australia has a TV section affiliated with PLUS7); and in Germany the Weather and Flickr services are represented on both sidebar and head-bar. It is further observed that the sidebar in Yahoo Australia includes many more links than in other site versions.

Regarding the US website, some differences can be marked. First, subject titles of appear above each news headline. Second, a reference to the social blogspace site Tumblr appears on the head-bar (in addition to Flickr) — it appears also on the site of Australia but not on the other sites visited (Tumblr was acquired by Yahoo in 2013). Third, the US site chose to mention on its sidebar Shopping and Politics.

  • The Yahoo websites exhibit anomalies implying that the company refrains from promoting some of its own in-house or subsidiary services. For instance, Flickr and Tumblr are sidelined, and the latter is exclusive to just a couple of countries. The ‘Shopping’ product search for attractive retailer offers (powered by Nextag) is more often hidden, and Yahoo homepages provide links to eBay and Amazon.

In order to design in practice the most appropriate and effective composition and layout of the homepage, Yahoo may apply usability tests, eye tracking, and possibly also tracking of mouse movements and clicks. These three methodological approaches can be used in parallel or even simultaneously to derive findings that can support and complement each other in guiding the design process. Attention obviously should be paid to visual appeal of the page appearance in the final design. As suggested above, however, emphasis should be directed to the content and services provided by Yahoo as opposed to the advertising space.

Notwithstanding, the homepage is just the start of the journey of a visitor on the website. Of course much depends on the quality of services and content in determining how long a visitor will stay on the site. For example, how the mail, e-commerce (shopping), or photo service platform compare with competition. Particularly with respect to the search engine, continued utilisation relies on relevance, credibility and timeliness (historical to up-to-date) of results generated.

Yahoo provides specialised searches of websites and pages, images, videos, answers, products and more. Yet the company acquired in the past the Altavista engine that was advantageous in retrieving higher-quality and academic-level information sources and materials but it was apparently submerged without leaving a trace; and as indicated earlier, Yahoo has turned to stronger capabilities of competitors at the expense of developing more of their own. Marissa Mayer aims alternately to create a leverage by developing a powerful intelligent search engine for mobile devices in a mobile-friendly site/app. Even though the mobile-driven approach can be a move in the right direction for Yahoo, it may not resolve the suggested problems inherent in the online website, and skeptics doubt that the company has the skills and resources in its current state to accomplish those goals.

Yahoo has a lot at stake. It should not rely on users to know how to get to its services independently or to search for their Internet addresses. The site, online or mobile, has to give a hand and show users the way to the services it wants them most to visit and apply, and there is no better place to start than on the site’s homepage. The solutions needed are not just about technology but in the domain of marketing strategy and user-consumer online and mobile behaviour. Yet, looking at how events roll at Yahoo, the decisions made could be driven by business and financial considerations above the heads of users-consumers.

  • The lessons for Yahoo should now be learnt by Verizon as it intends to merge between functions and capabilities of Yahoo and AOL, and probably rebrand them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) “Marissa’s Moment of Truth”, Jess Hempel, Fortune Europe Edition, 14 May 2014  pp. 38-44.

(2) “Yahoo’s Suitors Are in the Dark About its Financial Details”, International New-York Times, 16-17 April 2016.

 

 

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