Here we are in mid-April, and the baseball season is very much underway. We're seeing some surprise rookies emerging, veterans battling slumps, a couple of entertaining fights, and no shortage of untimely injuries among some of the game's best players.
My Detroit Tigers sit at .500 today, quite an accomplishment for a team that isn't expected to do a whole lot this year. But that's why we love baseball – you never know what's going to happen until those two teams take the field.
Radio is a lot like baseball. It's a LOOONG season (radio's “season” technically never ends), and there are always surprises that belie the statistics and the research. But that doesn't stop baseball experts and radio mavens alike from doing everything possible to use the data to their best advantage.
That idea took flight with the Oakland A's back in the early 2000s when the team's GM, Billy Beane, hired what we now call “data scientists” to create innovative ways to look at player metrics. Unlike teams like the Yankees or the Red Sox where the money flows, the A's were a low-budget organization, forcing Beane to come up with a unique way of evaluating talent.
Beane's “system” became a best-selling book called Moneyball by Michael Lewis. It cataloged the A's' unorthodox statistical approach leading them to acquiring overlooked players and ultimately, winning a lot more games.
Moneyball was later made into a hit movie starring Brad Pitt as Beane, and Jonah Hill as his young, out-of-the-box statistician. It was a better book than a movie, but the bottom line is that Beane's secret was out.
The “Moneyball” system worked – really well. And it helped lead the once hapless A's to a respected team that earned a number of playoff appearances. But as most MLB teams adopted many of Beane's “best practices,” his team started looking very mortal.
A revealing article in Study Finds by Ben Renner highlights a new study by Ramy Elitzur, a University of Toronto professor of financial analytics.
The big takeaway? Any strategic advantage dwindles when it become ubiquitous across the competitive landscape.
When most of the teams in the league adopted the same analytics philosophy as Beane innovated with the A's, it neutralized his team's edge.
Here's the way Professosr Elitzur explains it:
“It's like having a ‘secret sauce.' When you have a ‘secret sauce' and nobody else knows about it, you have a competitive advantage. Once the ‘secret sauce' was outed, which was what happened with the book, everybody could imitate the Oakland A's.”
Now, think about how things work in the world of radio. Similar to the edge that Billy Beane was able to use to his advantage, early innovators are in the pole position.
Think about the first station that first “discovered” the Voltair audio processing “black box” that amplified encoding for PPM meters. The company that developed this technology – Telos Alliance – made their “black box” available to more broadcasters. That was the capitalist thing to do, but once most of the competitors in the market plugged their own Voltairs into their rack rooms, those first movers lost their “secret sauce.” Now, no one talks about coding advantages these days because no one has the pole position any longer.
Similarly, those first stations that figured out the “bow tie” commercial break clock architecture had an edge in the early PPM battles. But once Arbitron started talking about this strategy with multiple companies, seemingly everyone started placing their stopsets at around the same place. When you've got a dozen stations in the market all playing commercials at the same time, you've lost that whatever ratings advantage – and then some. Sayonara, “secret sauce.”
Or all those national “collective contests” that offer the same cash price in hundreds of markets. It's not uncommon in many big and small markets to hear many stations essentially running the same contest for the identical amount of cash. The stations (and their companies) on the ground floor enjoyed an early edge. But when there are scores of stations in the same market executing essentially the same contest for the same cash prize, well, the benefit becomes incremental.
Whether you're the general manager of an MLB team, the program director of a Hot AC station, or the news director at a News/Talk station, the onus is on you not just to mimic other successes, but to find a way to do something strategically or tactically unique and different.
In other words, cook up your own “secret sauce.”
Of course, it's a lot harder innovating something new and different than it is slapping “Second Date Update” on the morning show. But as Billy Beane learned – perhaps the hard way – he gained much celebrity and credibility during those “Moneyball” days. But the collateral damage was done. Once his “secret sauce's” recipe became common knowledge – and the book lays out the metrics in detail – Beane was no longer in the cat bird seat.
So, when you discover that next advantage that no one knows about – and you see it begin to produce results, Professor Elitzur has some advice for you:
“If you have a built-in advantage, don't ever talk about it.”
Mum's the word.