Denton’s vision for Gawker Media’s editorial product is very much moving towards comments and away from posts, and he reckons that advertisers will follow him in that direction if he blazes the trail. Expect Gawker’s blog posts to get shorter, in future, and sometimes just be a headline, at least in the first instance, so that the conversation can get going before a pretty post can be put together. And if Denton’s scheme goes according to plan, when you follow a link to a Gawker website, it will often — or maybe even usually — be a link to a comment, rather than to an original post. Eventually, it’s possible to envisage a world where the distinction between the two is erased completely.
This is a very ambitious vision. Historically, Gawker has been pretty weak with respect to technological innovations, and so it’s reasonable to take an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it approach any time that Nick Denton claims to have invented a revolutionary new technology. As Wert said to me, forums have been around on the internet since the 90s, and no one’s managed to reinvent them yet. But a few companies like Reddit and Quora have pointed in interesting directions, and Wert was quite open about wanting to ape Reddit’s AMA (“ask me anything”) feature for his new advertorial conversations.
The idea is for these things to be more a PR/marketing product than a brand-advertising product. The idea is to get challenger brands, in particular, to take part: they tend to be very open and transparent about what they’re up to, and they love the idea of engaging with the public as much as possible, if they can do so in a reasonably controlled environment. When that kind of a brand has some kind of news they want to share, doing so through a Gawker Media sponsored post will be a pretty effective way of getting the news out to a large number of people while at the same time sending the message that they’re trying to be as transparent as possible and are happy to answer lots of questions in a friendly and conversational and open manner. The metric for success, says Wert, isn’t going to be the number of pageviews they get; rather, it will be the amount of earned media they get — the degree to which other media outlets pick up on the initial announcement and the rest of the information that the company reveals in the comments section.
The conversation will probably only go on for a day or two, but after that the post — and all its associated comments — will live on in perpetuity, a much more open and accessible record of the announcement than any press release could be.
The problem here, for Denton — and the reason why he got an editorial guy to run this new project — is the old one: how to persuade his websites’ readers to read the sponsored posts and to engage in their comments sections. Wert’s stated ambition — and you can hold him to this — is for his sponsored posts to be so well written and newsworthy and generally high quality that the editors of Gawker’s websites will love to be able to feature them on their home pages. There have been very high-quality sponsored posts in the past, but Wert is going to have to work very hard, I think, to turn boring PR announcements into something of Gawker-level juiciness.
What’s more, this move of Denton’s is to a large degree a reversal of his stated aim back at the end of 2010, when he did his big network-wide redesign. Back then, I explained the departure of sales chief Chris Batty, now at Quartz, as being a function of the fact that Batty was a huge fan of the sponsored post, while Denton’s redesign “essentially sacrifices the idea of having a sponsored post on the home page—something Batty was almost religious about—and replaces it with interstitial videos which aren’t nearly as sharable, aren’t extensible, and quite possibly won’t even have permalinks.” This move of Denton’s, then, is a step backwards, in many ways, towards the Batty vision which he rejected two years ago.
Still, I do like the fact that Denton’s constantly trying new things, constantly trying to reinvent what an online media company can and should be. Really ambitious brands, indeed, won’t need Wert’s help at all: they’ll have the ability to dive straight into existing non-sponsored editorial posts and respond to commenters directly, much as they’re already responding to people who talk about them on Twitter. But I suspect that the brands which do that will actually be more receptive, rather than less receptive, to Wert’s sales pitch — they will already understand the power of conversation.