As the web universe continues to expand (just like the real one—Hubbell’s Law anyone?) Kurt Abrahamson is hyper-focused on drilling down. Specifically, the recently installed CEO of ShareThis wants to change the economics of online publishing. Abrahamson is of the mind that better content and smarter advertising can be produced from data insights on sharing across the web.
He should know. Abrahamson’s experience with online data began in the nascent days of the web when he founded Jupiter Media Metrix and grew it from a 12-person publishing company into one of the leading public Internet research organizations with annual revenues of $95 million. He came to Palo Alto-based ShareThis after a brief stint at the online display ad company SocialMedia.com and seven years at Google AdSense under his belt.
Though he confesses he was one of those people who'd share content by cutting and pasting links to URLs, Abrahamson does know a thing or two about boosting revenue. Good thing, because leading ShareThis isn’t just about refining metrics.
Though the company was founded in 2005 by Tim Schigel and managed to get its widgets on a million sites (everywhere from Food Network and Fandango to LinkedIn and the Los Angeles Times), ShareThis has never been profitable. In fact, it’s only recently been focused on generating revenue, Abrahamson tells Fast Company, because the sharing widget is free to publishers.
Part of Abrahamson’s strategy to bring more dollars into the ShareThis coffers is tied to analytics. The company just launched a new way to measure the social quality of websites. Dubbed the Social Quality Index, the basic premise is simple: Because everyone shares content all the time, and shared content is more valuable to advertisers, ShareThis is putting a value on the "socialness" of online content.
The company claims it’s the first measure of site rankings across 27 key content categories. This is supposed to give publishers a way to monetize their content and advertisers a way to identify the most receptive audiences.
"It will be a dollar figure," explains Abrahamson. "Companies can capture the quality of the pages that are being shared at a higher dollar value." What ShareThis won’t do is say a particular page is out in the market for a certain price.
But if it all works according to plan, publishers will be able to demand premium ad rates and media companies get targeted insight into the value of ads based on the finer points of those shares.
"One thing I love about this release is that it’s owned by the publishers," Abrahamson explains. He’s nostalgic for the days when content was king and is confident it will happen again. "It seems to me what’s missing is quality content," he says, recalling the latest Zeitgeist Event at Google which hosted a discussion between Ted Koppel and Arianna Huffington and their opposing stances on content and journalism.
While he’s not quite so quick to choose a side, Abrahamson does say, "We support open and free sharing of content," and stresses that ShareThis is a facilitator. "We give consumers the choice of how they want to share and publishers the ability to customize the tools. We spent 4+ years making sure we got that part right before we introduced advertising into the equation."
As such, publishers and advertisers can access over 50 ShareThis interest channels and profiles on more than 400 million people, based on their sharing across one million sites. Yet Abrahamson maintains that ShareThis still doesn't intend to charge publishers for the analytics or users for shares. Monetization will come strictly from the advertisers.
So what exactly does having profiles on 400 million people mean to Abrahamson? He’s quick to point out that ShareThis is trying to be as transparent as possible about the personal information it collects from users and points to the company’s privacy page for detail. "None of the [information] we collect is personally identifiable. We are a good corporate citizen," he underscores, noting the company’s compliance with the Network Advertising Initiative’s (NAI) privacy principles and stresses again that ShareThis doesn’t intend to sell back to publishers data gathered from shares on their own websites.
Going beyond just pure rank, ShareThis can show which stories users forward and save across 27 content categories. Compared with Google or its main competitor Add This, ShareThis would appear to serve up more finely tuned data from web surfers. In 2012 ShareThis expects to offer context to the publishers based on their rank in the index, to see how they stack up against the competition.
And speaking of competition, this is how ShareThis intends to pull ahead in the race against Clearspring’s Add This. That company’s value proposition is sheer reach, as it also claims to be the world’s largest with widgets on over 10 million domains seen by over 1.2 billion users a month.
Abrahamson’s no stranger to setting lofty goals. He recalls an early meeting at with Sergey Brin, Google’s cofounder, as the time he learned the importance of setting really aggressive goals. Three weeks after the launch of AdSense, Abrahamson found himself in the first management meeting in which Brin set what seemed to be an impossible goal. Abrahamson made the mistake of crying foul. "We were only doing 10% of that goal yet everyone looked at me with my foot in mouth," he says with a laugh. That quarter, the team actually did make it, although Abrahamson admits it wasn’t always the case.
His takeaway was to strive for the seemingly impossible and align everyone behind him. "If you don’t hit the outer limit, don’t retreat and give up. As leader you might fall short but it won’t be because you didn’t try."