Andrew Hossom, VP Marketing, FoxSportsInteractive

Fox Sports Interactive Listens to the Sports Fan with Web Analytics

It is easy to forget how recently broadcast and print media models controlled the way news and information were digested by the consumer. Entering the 1990s the three primary news media -- radio, television and newspapers -- operated comfortably on independent publishing cycles. "Hear it now, watch it tonight, read about it tomorrow," was the time-to-market motto of radio network juggernauts NBC, ABC and CBS, which dominated the "morning drive" and the first news of the day. Dinnertime was an opportunity to view what had been heard about earlier and breakfast was time to recap and forward older stories in the local newspaper.

These customs held until cable TV news began to upend traditional cycles, but it was the Internet that blew the old model out of the water. Broadcasters were blindsided by what would become ubiquitous access to news, minute by minute, 24 hours a day on a platform that offered free syndication for wire services, independent broadcasters -- and would eventually create secondary markets for bloggers. As Internet use exploded, the outcome became obvious: Over time, news of all types was becoming a low-value commodity, and broadcasters and publishers are struggling to this day in adapting to the new paradigm.

With this backdrop, it is difficult to understand why news media and businesses generally are only starting to differentiate themselves via the unique power of Web analytics. The Internet can provide instant feedback on consumption and traffic in ways no traditional broadcaster can measure, yet analytics have so far been exploited mostly to measure network and advertising traffic, and otherwise sell things.

This was initially the case at Fox Sports Interactive, the online arm of the Fox Sports Network. When Andrew Hossom arrived at his new job as VP of marketing at Fox Sports Interactive, analytics were primarily used to manage bandwidth and server capacity. Analytics still support engineering at Fox, but Hossom says the cultural shift has been to get the entire organization leveraging and analyzing consumer data in order to build better products and market more effectively. "Today I would say Web analytic applications are the foundation and lifeblood of our business and without them we couldn't run the business."

Verticalization and Micromanagement

The newer view of Internet activity at FoxSports begins where most companies end today, with measurements of total page views, total unique visitors and total visits. "The first thing we did was to shift the equation from total site traffic to vertical measurement and look at each sport as an independent business," Hossom says. "We took NFL, MLB, NBA and other businesses and then added 30 to 40 other data points to the three primary metrics." Another issue was the weekend cycle that dominates sports news versus the weekday cycle of political news. A small part of Fox's secret formula includes time spent per visit, movement of visitors between different sites, analysis of crossover between college sports sections and crossover between MLB and NFL when seasons start and end. These metrics are used on a daily, weekly and monthly basis and are far more comprehensive than the usual comScore and Media Metrix data.


Home Advantage: User behavior dictates the appearance of Web pages at Foxsports.com

A cross-functional reporting environment based on software from Web analytics specialist Visual Sciences is the centerpiece of information usage across functions that include sales, marketing, business development, editorial and operational functions. Editorial staff are the most constant users and manage breaking headlines and story placement on a minute-by-minute basis. "Editors will track and tweak a headline, make the caption a little more compelling and see if that has an effect on traffic," says Hossom. "It's a quick-moving environment so if a change has no effect, the story might just go away."

Special analysis cycles and metrics are built for non-recurring events such as the World Cup or Olympics. Such events can skew monthly visitor numbers, which is another reason Hossom likes to get off the old metrics. "It lets sales look at the 10 days leading up to the Super Bowl, the game and the day after. By analyzing the specific pages, the traffic and time spent sales can build projections and effectively package content to advertisers."

It's not to say managers are strictly dependent on analytics. "Editors are editors for a reason, they generally know what people want to read," Hossom says. "They use data to make better decisions but you have to push content out there in the first place to have it discovered." For all the hundreds of data points exposed by technology, little is automated and most decisions are human-influenced. Hossom likes to use scenario testing in the background of daily activities as a means improve decision support.

Mulitchannel Broadcasting

All of this happens because FoxSports.com does business in a highly competitive Internet environment where ESPN, Sports Illustrated and network properties such as CBSSportsline.com vie for attention. News and sports news especially is often driven as much by personalities as it is by timely reporting. "Everyone knows who [ESPN's] Peter Gammons is," Hossom says. "Our own columnists, Kevin Hench, Mark Kriegel and others have strong opinions and a lot of colorful style and we want to present those people in our own way. We don't necessarily use data to make those decisions." Still, a tactic pursued by FoxSports and competitors alike is to track the popularity of specific wire content versus targeted content created in-house, which in effect uses Web analytics to help senior editors make decisions about the staffing mix while they are testing products.

In a growth market, the trend is toward hiring and using new channels to bring differentiation. The high road in online sports reporting today is video, essential to broadcast and replay, but also to bring branded personalities to the fore. Fox displays video content centrally on its pages, and like its competitors has built broadcast studios in its online newsroom. Streaming analytic applications from Visual Sciences track not only total views, but how many times a user views a video, whether it is viewed in its entirety and how the user arrives from and departs to other content on the site. The results tie directly to profitability, though Hossom is more interested in time spent on Fox's sites than he is in a particular advertisement's performance. "We create a lot of content and we buy a lot of content," he says. "I like to look at the number of video files that were created from each source as a percentage and then see how the number of files created relates to the number of files viewed. We might say 80 percent of the video files we host are our own, but the consumer is only watching 20 percent of that as a total." In fact, Fox's original content makes up the majority of video consumption, but Hossom gathers such factoids for the video group to develop strategies that lift engagement generally.


Measuring and Leveraging

There are certain nuances to the business the market has yet to navigate. For example, Ajax-driven pages update certain elements on a page without the visitor refreshing it. "From a user perspective that's great. From a business perspective we're losing page views and we've monetized our site based on page views so now we're losing money." Hossom says. Measurement is leaning toward total minutes spent onsite per user, though media buyers still like to measure by impressions, a conflict that buyers and content providers will adjust to over time. "We can't stop measuring time spent because it really reflects how we are performing," says Hossom, "no matter what the buyer thinks."

On his own desktop, Hossom uses an Excel plug-in that pulls directly from the database and lets him apply financial measures, such as revenue per thousand pages or revenue per visitor for specific content groups. The macro also lets him append other operational data. "We are evaluating our products based on consumer engagement and reach, but we also apply revenue data to that same data set and determine whether it's a profitable product or not."

The core expertise is not technology but execution against unique content. While editorial is a point of pride at Fox, all the networks have fantasy football, live scores and good writers. Today's investment in broadband video is focused on Fox's rich exclusive content, which includes the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Daytona 500 and the BCS championship. The Internet poses unique rights issues to re-broadcasting those events, but FoxSports can leverage all the "shoulder" programming that supports those events online. Fox also supports several affiliate sports networks, a soccer channel and an action sports channel. "We have probably more content at our disposal than anyone else so we look at video as our 'run to daylight' as my boss likes to say," says Hossom. "That's our differentiation and that's what we're hanging our hat on. We are going to measure the consumer very closely in real time so we are all maximizing our own time."

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