Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad, with its large pool of talented software engineers, is home to a growing start-up culture. One of the latest crop, Content Insights, is set to launch at the Global Editor Summit in Vienna on June 15-17 a product it hopes will revolutionise online journalism and reclaim the industry from the curse of clickbait.
Content Insights is at its most basic a provider of analytical tools that give editors the ability to tell exactly how readers are engaging with the online content and evaluating the performance of content in a fair way. This sounds like something others such as Chartbeat and Parse.ly are already doing. However, what marks Content Insights out is that its analytical tools are not single metrics such as page views, unique visitors and time spent that are designed primarily for marketing purposes, but instead are designed to look at how particular pieces of content are performing relative to other content on the site.
The genesis of the algorithm that powers Content Insights began when Dejan Nikolic, the editor and founder of njuz.net, Serbia’s answer to the satirical site The Onion, needed to find a way to reward his freelance contributors and discourage them from pursuing those single metrics instead of stories.
“I didn’t want to use the standard marketing metrics to measure them, like how many clicks from Facebook, I didn’t want to reward that type of behaviour since if you use page views, then you are turning writers into page-view junkies. But instead of finding a solution to this I found only lots of editors and publishers who had the same problem,” Nikolic tells bne IntelliNews in an interview. “The big guys like Forbes and Atlantic [Publishing Group] are trying to create an in-house solution, so then it clicked: if they’re trying to create something for themselves, and they already have access to every analytics tool there is, then it doesn’t exist.”
Armed with the idea that none of the single metrics can provide the big picture of how readers are using content and trying to avoid simply compounding the various metrics, Nikolic set about coming up with a way of measuring the relationships between the various metrics. “For example, if your website has a 1,000 page views, you don’t know if that is a lot or not. But if you have a 1,000 page views per visit, then you start to get a bigger picture. So you’re not just adding up values but looking at relations, scoring them and that goes into the algorithm – that’s the innovation part,” he explains.
The result is the Content Performance Indicator (CPI), which looks into more than a hundred of these relations. Although it is a compounded index, Nikolic stresses that Content Insights is not adding values of various metrics to each other, but looking into the relations between the various metrics collected from the click stream and social signals such as likes/recommends, against averages of the website or content sections, weighing those ratios according to the website goals and scoring them against averages. This holistic approach provides a unique insight into how a piece of content performed relative to other published content, and can be attributed back to authors, sections, topics, articles and the website as a whole, he explains.
By getting editors and organizations to properly evaluate the content on their sites, Nikolic is hoping to pull the industry back from its descent into clickbait, personified by sites like BuzzFeed.
Once Content Insights began testing the CPI from 2013, working with various publishers produced another unexpected its value to businesses, in that it can actually show what content best drives the particular business model. The CPI is divided into three groups for weighing purposes: that describing exposure, which is for sites with an advertising business model; that describing engagement/attention, which is for a native advertising model; and loyalty, which is for a subscription model.
“Not everyone can rely on subscriptions – why would you subscribe to Buzzfeed, you have that fluff all over the internet? But if you want the Economist, it’s the only place where you can find information like that so you will subscribe. Those are obvious opposites, but there are thousands of organisations in between and Content Insights helps publishers to understand about themselves,” he says, adding that its brutal honesty can sometimes make people “nervous”.
While Nikolic and the developers of the algorithm are all based in Novi Sad, home to the Faculty of Technical Sciences of the University of Novi Sad and a vibrant start-up scene, Content Insights is actually a registered Bulgarian company – the result of it having been put through a business accelerator there called Eleven. Investors are a mix of media industry executives acting on a personal basis, as well as media organisations such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. “We were bootstrapping for as long as we could, but we missed one vital skill for a start-up which was design, so we had to outsource that and it costs a lot of money to be really unique,” he says.
Though it already has several paying clients, including Germany’s Axel Springer and other local content producers across the world in 18 countries, the CPI will only officially be launched at the Global Editor Summit in Vienna on June 15-17, where Nikolic hopes to showcase its capabilities to the 600-plus editors-in-chief and media innovators who will attend over the three days. “After two years of testing the product, it took us about six months to get to the sales model that we felt comfortable with,” he explains, adding that the cost is a monthly subscription that is calculated on the basis of the website’s page views. “A lot of calculation has to be done by us in the back end, so the more information to process, the more it costs.”
Given the company’s backers, Nikolic is certain that following the official launch there will be news about “some big name” customers in the months ahead. But given the pricing model, Nikolic, something of a social entrepreneur as well as a dedicated journalist, wants to “democratize” the business. “We want everyone to be able to use this type of analytics because this way is the right way to do it and we believe everyone should be using it, even down to individual bloggers,” he says.
He calls Content Insights part of a big wave sweeping through the industry that will change the current business model that he believes is broken – the advertising one that pays according to page views. “I am passionate about it because I suffered from it when I worked for a large corporation and had to fight the measurements that were being used – this is not the way to measure the work of journalists,” he says. “It’s an uphill battle but now we have a weapon to fight that – the fact we designed it is just the bonus.”