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Why, oh why, did it have to die?

That has been the lament of sports and pop culture fans all over the U.S. since last last week, when ESPN revealed it was suspending the publication of Grantland, a site whose stories were deftly devoted to those subjects.

In a statement, ESPN said it wanted to direct its “time and energy going forward to projects that we believe will have a broader and more significant impact across our enterprise.”

It’s not an unfamiliar explanation for an idea that expired far too soon. But did it have to end this way? And, more importantly, is there something to learn from Grantland’s premature death?

The Stats

One explanation for the site’s demise, according to Deadspin‘s Greg Howard, was the departure of key staffers. Specifically, four top editors simultaneously left the site a few weeks ago “to join [Grantland founder Bill Simmons] at a still-unannounced project,” Howard writes. Another top staffer left the site to work for MTV. Simmons himself left the site (and ESPN as a whole) back in May.

There’s also some evidence Grantland–decorated as it was–wasn’t exactly setting records for traffic. Deadspin‘s Kevin Draper has pointed out that the site trailed its key competitors (including Deadspin itself). In March, according to comScore, SB Nation totaled roughly 20.3 million unique visitors, while Deadspin totaled 8.8 million. Grantland, for its part, totaled 6 million, while The A.V. Club totaled 4.4 million. “And this is with Grantland receiving the powerful traffic fire hose from prime placement on ESPN.com, one of the 100 most visited websites in the world,” Draper observes.

There’s one thing almost no one–not even ESPN–disputes: Grantland was a home for strong writing, great ideas, and good times. So, did it have to die?

Rethinking the Usual Formula

It’s fun to speculate about whether Grantland could have survived in a world where there was a different way of measuring success. For example, what if there was a way to determine the excitement level of your unique visitors, as they read the articles? Yes, you can measure how long someone stays on a particular web page. But that’s not the same as knowing whether what they’re reading reaches them emotionally–in the brain and in the gut and in the funny bone.

A metric like this would go a long way with advertisers, who are already dubious of the power of static online stats like page views and impressions. As Ad Age noted earlier this year, there’s a trend away from those static stats and toward “attention metrics.” Advertisers want to know if viewers are excited and alert. A page view, which often counts the same if you’re on the page for 10 seconds or 10 minutes, just can’t tell the whole story.

To some extent, social shares are an indication of reader excitement. But it’s not the most reliable indicator. You might, for example, share something that bores you to pieces, but is relevant to a loved one or a coworker.

Grantland’s articles were meant for opinionated, detail-obsessed, diehard fans. For example, over the weekend, most basketball junkies were foaming at the mouth after Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson rejected Miami Heat forward Chris Bosh’s dunk attempt:

It’s a great block. But if you’re a super fan, what you’re wondering about is why the Cavaliers’ Kevin Love seemed so lost on this defensive sequence. Was he really lost? Or was he trying to cover for a teammate’s mistake? More often than not, you could count on Grantland to analyze questions like this.

A new formula for measuring (and, thereby, monetizing) how passionate web readers are could go a long way to determining the future of online content–and, by extension, the future of online businesses.

In business history, there are examples of companies whose formative insight was a new formula for capturing the strength–and differentiation–of their business model. For instance: Once upon a time, business thinkers openly questioned if Walmart could compete with traditional department stores.

That may seem hard to believe. But it’s true. Clayton Christensen, the decorated Harvard Business School professor, explained this to me last year. On a blank whiteboard behind me, he drew two basic multiplication formulas in green marker:

40% 3x 120%

20% 6x 120%

The upper formula represented how department stores created 120% returns on capital invested in inventory. Their margins were 40%, and they turned over their inventory three times a year. Forty times three equals 120.

When Walmart came along, Christensen said, there were skeptics who wondered whether the store’s 20% margins would allow them to compete with department stores. For the skeptics, it was a simple matter of 20% margins being less than 40% margins. Only when they realized that Walmart turned over its inventory six times a year–therefore creating the selfsame 120% returns on capital invested in inventory–did the skeptics realize how competitive Walmart could be.

The point of the story, he said, is that “the formula has to be different.” But the bottom line result has to be the same.

Whether or not Grantland could have found a way to live on in this complicated era in publishing is far from clear. But Christensen’s point is worth taking to heart next time you want to justify big spending on endeavors–innovation or R&D–where the results, especially in the short-term, won’t be so easy to gauge by commerce’s commonplace formulas.

It might just be that you need a new formula: something that explains to the bean counters that the power and passion of what you’re creating can’t be measured by conventional means.

Source: Why Great Ideas Have to Die (Sometimes)

    

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