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 … Next Page »

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