What we can learn from Gawker’s editorial experiment

Is the Web provocateur’s headline-obsessed, data-driven mindset the shot in the arm sorely needed in corporate communication?

No, we at Ragan.com are not suggesting that you add to your communications mix videos of gas-passing babies or Chinese soldiers playing hot potato with a live grenade.

But our curiosity was piqued by a Nieman Journalism Lab analysis of Gawker’s editorial experiment of garnering eyeballs through shameless link-baiting.

Could the purveyor of online snark and satire offer lessons for stodgier organizational communications?

Nieman tracked Gawker’s experiment, announced by its new editor, of assigning a different writer each day to post whatever he or she feels will generate the most traffic.

“While that writer struggles to find dancing cat videos and Burger King bathroom fights or any other post they feel will add those precious, precious new eyeballs,” wrote Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio, “the rest of the staff will spend time on more substantive stories they may have neglected…”

Stipulated: A corporate communicator would be shown the door after trying to drum up intranet interest with photos of “man boobs” or a video of a confused young woman in her underwear making out with a tree.

But if communications pros can learn from Dr. Seuss and the TV show “Lost,” what lessons does Gawker’s strategy offer?

Be dynamic

Jonathan Rick, director of Levick Strategic Communications, says Gawker is a step ahead of the pack, as always.

“Just as its blog redesign anticipated the transition of blogs from journals to publications,” Rick says, “so its new editorial strategy anticipates the future of online media as one that mixes link-bait with hard news.”

Gawker’s experiment-engaging, headline-obsessing, data-driven mindset is sorely needed in corporate communications, which privilege what is deemed “news” over “fluff,” Rick says. Boring email subject lines and lifeless intros communicate an “utter lack of respect for the reader,” he adds.

Court new visitors

Jay Baer, president of Convince & Convert, notes that everyone is faced with an information avalanche, and therefore attention is currency.

“Gawker understands the ‘headline is everything’ nature of modern, snackable content,” he writes.

The bigger takeaway, Baer says, is Gawker’s emphasis on new visitors. They understand and embrace customer relationship management principle that “to become a loyal reader, you have to become a first-time reader,” he says.

“The quantity of content they create and the absurdity of much of it may put it (thankfully) beyond the reach of most companies, but the lessons at the heart of their program apply broadly,” Baer says.

Curate content

Communications strategist Shel Holtz says Gawker’s strategy works because it makes money on ad clicks, whereas brands curate content in order to become a trusted guide to useful or entertaining information. Trolling for link-bait could hurt a brand.

But Holtz adds, “That’s not to say there aren’t any brands that could leverage these [curation] concepts, assuming they identified a theme.”

A pet food retailer like Petco or Pet Food Express could also curate content, he says. Purina did so with its Pet Charts, which used an automated curation tool to scour the Web for relevant items, such as a machine that fires a tennis ball for a dog to fetch.

Posting with integrity can drive traffic, too

Joe Meyer, CEO of the fast-growing urban transit site HopStop.com, says Gawker is a statement on our times. It may have editorial integrity in its more ordinary posts, but it has no intention of achieving integrity through its traffic-driving “crazy posts.”

He cites Nieman figures that undercut the experiment. Posts that court readers with Web wackiness (“traffic-whoring,” in Gawker’s parlance) drew a mean of 55,000 page views per post, compared with 60,000 for the more serious, non-traffic-driving days.

“Is it worth the less-than-stellar reputation that’s occurring as a result of those crazy posts?” Meyer asks.

Daulerio, the Gawker editor, did not respond to my email seeking comment.

Know your purpose

At Monster.com, the massive job-search site, a major part of Charles Purdy’s mission as senior editor is to help his audience manage careers and find great jobs. Stories that serve this purpose—say, about job-interview fundamentals—won’t necessarily set the world on fire, but they are important for Monster’s audience, he says.

That said, Monster also has to drive straight traffic (it was credited with 14 million unique visitors in February) and create broadly appealing stories, Purdy says. Its stories featured on the Yahoo home page must be interesting.

“A company like Monster couldn’t follow Gawker’s example exactly, because we’re not just counting eyeballs—we are not primarily a content organization,” he says. “Above all else, we have to be a trusted source of tools for job-seekers and employers.

Have fun

Ann Handley, chief content officer with MarketingProfs.com and co-author of “Content Rules,” says Gawker’s snarky strategy is perfect for that publication but can’t be replicated. Still, communicators could draw inspiration.

“The broader lesson here is: Feed your audience a varied diet of content—in other words, some cupcakes and fun cotton candy, and not just platter after platter groaning with heavy pot roasts,” she says.

“A little fun goes a long way toward making your content palatable. And it’s a great way to highlight your human side and brand’s personality.”

After all, if you aren’t having fun creating content, she says, you’re doing it wrong.


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