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Moneyball Will Put Web Analytics on the Map

Published by John Lovett on September 21, 2011 All posts from John Lovett

So, my prediction is that the movie Moneyball, set to release this Friday September 23rd, will add a level of awareness to Analytics that skyrockets our little cottage industry straight to household status.

For many of us in the analytics and optimization business, Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball is something of a bible. I know that when I first read it back in 2003, it made me want to become a web analyst. The book chronicles the unorthodox methods of one maverick baseball manager who was forced to break the traditional paradigm of scouting and recruiting big market baseball players to build a winning team that didn’t match his shoestring budget. The manager was Billy Beane, responsible for the 2002 Oakland A’s baseball club, who irrevocably changed the business of baseball using analytics.

Back in 2009, when Steven Soderberg was directing the film, the critics were calling this a niche movie with a purported $60M budget. But since then, with Bennett Miller taking the Director’s chair, this film is set to leap off movie screens across the country. This isn’t merely because they wrangled A-listers like Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill to star in the film, but because this movie has universal appeal. Baseball, business, and Brad Pitt. What brand doesn’t want to imagine themselves as the underdog who bucked the system and came out ahead of the game? Even the biggest brands will see the potential for doing more with less as depicted in the movie. And my guess is that many c-level executives will walk into their offices on Monday and ask who’s running their analytics. Brad Pitt is about to put the sexy into analytics. While, this parallels are somewhat different, I think that just like Pitt’s 1992 movie A River Runs Through It catapulted flyfishing to mainstream status, Moneyball will do the same thing for web analytics. While there may not be a flashmob at the next eMetrics event with newbies clamoring to become Certified Web Analysts, there will certainly be a widespread awakening to what we do.

The thing about Moneyball is that despite the fact that analytics enabled the team to recognize talent and even predict what/who was likely to be successful, it also reveals that running a business purely by the numbers doesn’t guarantee your win. This is akin to the debate ignited by my partner Eric T. Peterson about whether or not your business should be data-driven. While I agree with Eric’s argument on many levels, commentary from the other side of the argument penned by Brent Dykes makes a lot of sense too. I’ll go on record as saying that I do believe that both of these guys are trying to slice it too thin by getting into the semantics of analysis because they’re both right. What we do as analytics professionals requires a balance of data and experience. So the way I see it, both these guys are arguing for similar results. The Oakland A’s got the jump on most major league teams back in their day by using data for competitive advantage. But just like many of the stalwart directors and scouting veterans likely thought, it didn’t get them all the way to the world championship. In analytics too, we need to balance data with business acumen. Tipping the scales all the way toward managing by business experience and intuition won’t net big wins any more than managing purely by the numbers.

What we can take away from analytics and now thanks to the movie Moneyball is that data can gets us a whole lot closer to the answers. While Billy Beane’s character depicts a relentless pursuit of his goal using data, his visibly abrasive personality and callous nature of treating players reveals that balance is required. The fact is that analytics are everywhere in business today. In baseball, Billy Beane still works for the Oakland A’s and my beloved Redsox hired Bill James (another Sabermetrics guru), but many NBA basketball teams reveals that numerous big leaguers are employing interns, analysts and consultants to study the numbers. And of course, businesses too. For every digital proprietor, business-to-business operation, or consumer facing brand selling today; using data to understand customers and to improve digital marketing has undeniable allure. So, have we finally made it to the mainstream? Well, I think we’re close and that this movie will certainly help.

So the next time you’re explaining to your neighbor – or grandmother – what it is that you do for work … Don’t be surprised when they say “Oh, it’s like that movie Moneyball!” Just smile and say, “Yep, it’s something like that.”

Categorized under Analytics Culture, Change Agent

  • http://www.keystonesolutions.com Rudi Shumpert

    John,

    I sure hope it puts our industry on the map. Or at least I’d settle for my neighbors to be able to grasp a better understanding of what we do ;)

    -Rudi

  • http://xfinitytv.comcast.net David McBride

    John,
    I just recently read Moneyball and had the same thoughts on its parallels to our industry. As is often the case, I was eight years late to the book, but I liked it so much I bought copies for my entire team. We’re going to have an Analytics book club one of these days. Maybe I can even expense my movie tickets this weekend!
    Thanks for the post.
    David

  • Pingback: This Week in Social Analytics #17 at TweetReach Blog

  • Alice Watson

    We had a team outing at work last Friday to see this movie, and I joked that it was work related as it explained what I did. Somehow my co-workers didn’t buy it though.

  • http://john.webanalyticsdemystified.com John Lovett

    @Rudi ~ Me too. I gave my neighbor a copy of my book just to be nice, and I don’t think he’s opened his blinds since ;-)

    @David ~ Better late than never!

    @Alice ~ That’s awesome! I went to see it with my wife on Friday too and she turned to me and said … “Wait, are you supposed to be Jonah Hill?!” I guess she wanted Brad Pitt. Ahh well…

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