Xconomist of the Week: Ben Elowitz Goes Deep with TV Gossip, Maps the Future of Media

What does “Jersey Shore” star Snooki have to do with the future of online media? Plenty, it turns out.

That’s one of the surprising things I learned recently chatting with Ben Elowitz, the CEO of Seattle-based Wetpaint, a well-financed startup that’s about a year into its newest mission: Trying to reinvent how content is created and delivered online.

Elowitz is probably best known as a co-founder of online jewel-seller Blue Nile (NASDAQ: NILE). But at Wetpaint, he’s been applying some pretty heavy-duty data analysis to the previously guess-and-shoot business of supplying people with entertainment news.

That’s where Snooki comes in. Wetpaint has found that, all other things being equal, putting the diminutive party girl in the headline of a story about her addictively crass MTV reality show gives a piece of content a 10 percent traffic bump over a headline that features another cast member.

Editors and writers have been guessing at these kinds of things for ages—ever hear the term “if it bleeds, it leads”? But learning how to write punchy headlines has always been more of an art than a science. And with the business models behind media decaying before our eyes, there’s an imperative in learning how to do things a new way.

Wetpaint set out to tackle that problem by starting essentially from scratch, and bringing a heavy technology focus to understanding its audience. From focus groups to one-on-one audience sessions to real-time tracking that shows which articles are getting shared, the company is obsessed with finding just the right combinations in a socially wired world.

And it’s attracting eyeballs. “In less than a year, we’ve gone from zero to over 3 million uniques a month, all targeted females 18 to 34,” Elowitz says. “That’s a lot faster than Groupon went in their first year.”

To do it any other way, Elowitz says, would essentially mean being out of touch with your audience—a risk media probably can’t afford to take.

“Not online—audiences are too fickle. There’s too much information,” he says. “It made sense when you had one brand and you could put a 700-page Vogue on the newsstand and have it take up this visual space with few other options and competitors. But online, when everything’s a Google search or a Facebook click or a type-in term away, there’s too many other competitors crowding it for anyone to be so haughty.”

Media purists love to hate this kind of obsession with traffic and virality, arguing that it will dumb everything down to simple goofy stories that give real news and information short shrift. But Elowitz’s work has attracted the attention of big media brands like The Associated Press, where leaders are looking for new insights into how content moves online.

Here’s a few of the top themes we explored in our recent sit-down, from capital-J journalism, to Google and Facebook, to disrupting advertising:

“In media, you have this choice of being a doctor, who writes a prescription that’s good for the patient, or you could say, ‘Hey, our job is to be a DJ and we play what the people want to hear. And they’re really different mindsets,” Elowitz says. “The challenge of hard, investigative journalism is not exactly the same as that of entertainment media, right? But I think one of the natural things is, if you can figure out how to engage an audience in some of the lighter categories, you can use the success there to fund the really noble and important things in investigative journalism.

“I’m sure there are other things we learn about the audience that are important for news and investigative journalism. But at a minimum, you can also say that when news isn’t sustainable no one wins. And pop culture is about what do people want to know about.”

The implications for hard news aren’t merely a thought experiment, either. Wetpaint’s experimental team has run some tests on how possible it could be to harness high-level Web knowledge to actually deliver quality news content.

“We look at Twitter and Facebook not just as distribution, but as content sources, too. So we can see what’s important and what are the tweets that are catching on. And we’ve even gone so far as to look at, could we use that to source breaking news before anybody else,” Elowitz says. “And we’ve got some proof points that say yes, and some proof points that say it’s hard. …

“But the other thing is, once you have a great story, how do you package that to make sure you’re exposing it—which is half the value of investigative journalism as well. If you write a great story and don’t publish it, it doesn’t have an impact. So it’s not just about the content, it’s about connecting with the audience, even in the most hardcore [news] parts.”

Even in the past year, since Wetpaint made a big switch from hosting fan-generated wiki sites to a more professionally produced entertainment portal, there have been big changes in the way content moves around the Web. Already, Elowitz says, Wetpaint has seen the importance of search dropping off as more people use social channels like Twitter and Facebook to share and find content—something that should sound familiar to anyone who’s followed the rumors of Facebook’s next suite of features.

“The most interesting thing is how relationship-oriented consumers can be with brands in a social world. And so we find our users in Facebook, for example, see us 25 times a month,” more often than their cousins, Elowitz jokes. “You can actually build a brand relationship, and that’s a flip-flop versus search, where the only relationship anyone has is with Google.”

“The second thing is that it’s totally real-time, and that’s the opposite of what was really popular in digital media in the last five years, which was to go for evergreen content that would show up in Google forever,” Elowitz says. “So that’s why eHow and Demand Media are always pumping out these how-to articles that never expire—but they also never get shared, because if I’m changing the ballcock on my toilet, it’s not the kind of thing that I’m going to suddenly share.

“So it turns out, there’s a science behind social distribution,” Elowitz says. “I think that’s the most important part. And if you can dissect the science of social distribution, you can actually put it to work to serve the audience better.”

Want to see a techie go nuts? Turn him loose on media and advertising, two establishments that have decades of legacy procedures to unwind and layers of built-up inefficiencies keeping things from changing, all while the audience quickly dumps the old distribution and advertising channels.

“TV kind of defined the game as being about the 30-second spot in a program…and then it’s just about how much reach and frequency can you hit. Particularly reach. And digital’s always been hampered because the reach has never been that great compared to TV, which is why digital’s lagged in terms of spending,” Elowitz says.

“So Madison Avenue is built to help their clients hit massive reach numbers, and the most convenient way to do that is to go to Yahoo and MSN and AOL and buy from the top down the largest sites that have the highest reach numbers,” he says. “But as a convenience, it just measures who’s been there once. And it’s been a problem for advertisers, because in the end, they’re getting the reach they want, but they’re not getting the impact they want.”

So how does a next-generation media property like Wetpaint solve that problem? It’s hard to do. The stats for engagement can show that the audience has a real relationship with the site and its content, but it’s really hard to prove how that relationship transfers to brand advertisers—which are the truly big fish in ad spending.

One way Wetpaint is trying to tackle this is by having particular types of coverage sponsored by corresponding brands—like having a fashion label sponsor the fashion coverage, for instance. And that sounds a lot like the way advertising was done in the early days of TV, where individual products were actually in the title of the variety hour or daytime drama—it’s where we got the term “soap opera.”

“I hate to whine about it because I’m not a whiner, but it’s so complexly wrapped up with different incentives at every level of the chain,” Elowitz says. “It has so many layers with different incentives that it’s not a clean system, and yet you have all these enmeshed interests. It’ll take decades, I think, to change.”

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