Moneyball Comes to Publishing

“Moneyball” may not have won best picture at last weekend’s Oscars, but the underlying concept of looking at numbers in a radical way and throwing out the old gut feeling reaches far beyond the baseball diamond. Is the online-publishing world ready for sabermetrics?

The standard publishing mantra is that popular content equates to higher ad-rates because the more people seeing content means the more people see ads on that page. That needs to be rethought in a new era, according to Michele DiLorenzo, CEO of JumpTime, an analytics startup that aims to help publishers find and double down on winners.

“For some of the decisions publishers make, they don’t have a good metric,” she said. “These publishers are forced to look at usage metrics: pageviews, how many hits from a traffic source. They don’t have what we call a value metric. All digital assets have a value: every story, every video. What is it worth to me to expose to an audience.”

JumpTime isn’t alone in moving analytics from a backward-looking solution to something more crafted for the immediacy of publishing in Web speed. Chartbeat has caught on with many newsrooms with its ability to track, in real time, the numbers of people reading specific content on a site at a given time. The goal, as any publisher would attest, is to find the winners.

Think of the publishing problem in baseball terms. Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane found that looking at different, less-heralded metrics, like on-base percentage not only told a different story but also provided a higher return on investment for a particular player. Beane’s analyses went beyond putting more weight on existing metrics to invent completely new ones that all aimed to do the same thing: find the diamonds in the rough.

Publishers can do pretty much the same, DiLorenzo said. JumpTime has found that measuring all the assets (story, video, photos, headlines and modules, like most emailed) on a page can help publishers get an exact revenue value for any piece of content. The company calculates the value of every piece of content in a publisher’s network in real time.

This represents a big change. Historically, publishers have put an emphasis on technology to help attract an audience (think SEO or SEM) and then looked to monetize that audience (think ad tech, targeting). The flaw in this, according to DiLorenzo, is that most of what a publisher does is present content in front of an audience. What they should be doing, she argues, is getting an audience to the content that is most valuable. It’s like weighing a ball player’s batting average to determine if a team is going to win games rather than just looking at the raw numbers.

“[Publishers] don’t know what their value is,” she said. “All these things under-deliver on the monetization front in the absence of good data. What we recognized is that people needed a value metric.”

Hearst began implementing the JumpTime suite at the end of last year in San Francisco and has rolled out the tool across all its newspaper outlets in the past month. JumpTime also works with MSNBC and The Nation.

“If we have a photo gallery performing well,” said Karen Brophy, director of digital product for Hearst, “then maybe we’ll leave it up longer than we would have. Or we’ll see there are stories at the bottom of a section that are doing well, that people are interested in, and we wouldn’t have known without JumpTime. It helps us find content that performs.”

DiLorenzo argues that assets don’t sit in a vacuum; they sit in content. Every piece of content has two jobs: monetize and discover. Content needs to immediately monetize and meet user needs, but because the content is in a network, every piece of content has second job: to help the user discover new content and, in doing so, create a future value component.

“Publishers need to have to consider both pieces of value to know what assets work,” DiLorenzo said.

The issue is that publishers aren’t helping themselves by focusing on the popular content. Content that attracts users but doesn’t encourage them to continue throughout the site is a waste of time, energy and money. There’s limited value in it. JumpTime’s dashboard provides analytics for publishers to see what works, what doesn’t and how to move users through the site. It suggests stories based on how well each piece of content was able to funnel users throughout the site. This is valuable for advertisers and publishers, as the analysis helps identify strong (and weak) performing articles that can then command higher ad rates but also drive traffic to other pages in the site. Additionally, online publishers not only get an exact revenue value for any piece of content but also the revenue potential for that content. And all in real time.

“We need the ‘Moneyball’ moment,” said DiLorenzo. “Publishers are like old coaches. If we could afford to make value-based decisions, why wouldn’t we, if we could predict things more accurately?”