Note: This is a manifesto of sorts from Gawker Boss Nick Denton about changes at the company. As usual it’s a good read for anyone interested in media.
The 2011 template represents the most significant change in the Gawker model since the launch of Gizmodo and Gawker in 2002. One could go further: it represents an evolution of the very blog form that has transformed online media over the last eight years. The internet, television and magazines are merging; and the optimal strategy will assemble the best from each medium.
You can already see 2011 layout on the beta versions of Gawker and other titles. The blog scroll, long the central element of the page, is shifted to the right column, still prominent but subordinate; that reverse-chronological listing of the latest stories goes from about two thirds of the active area of the front door down to one third; and only headlines are displayed.
Every inside page will hew to the same template as the front page. No matter whether the visitor keys in the site address or arrives from the side by a link on Facebook or elsewhere, he or she will be greeted not just by a story but by an index of other recent items. This scaled-down but omnipresent “blog” column gives one-click access to the next item, much like the headline pane in a feed reader or Apple’s email app on the iPad.
In place of the original content column: one visually appealing “splash” story. This would be the most recent top story, often centered on compelling video but with the associated text running in full. At its best, a splash will match in visual impact the cover of a magazine or a European tabloid newspaper; and exceed it because the front-page image can actually move.
Outside observers will note that this layout represents some convergence of blog, magazine and television. That’s true in the abstract but it’s more of a description than an argument. Here are the concrete reasons for the evolution of the Gawker template beyond the straightforward blog format.
1. THE POWER OF THE SCOOP, REDISCOVERED
Gawker blogs once consisted almost entirely of remixes of other organisations’ news — with an added dash of commentary or knee-jerk snark. There wasn’t that much difference between the day’s worst and best-performing posts; the volume was lower and more manageable; the audiences were small, homogeneous and passionate. The blog column worked as long as one assumed that items were indistinguishable and the core readers would scan everything. It does no longer.
One law of media competition applies as strongly to web properties as it did to their predecessors: scoops drive audience growth. Gawker Media experienced that rule, painfully, as Harvey Levin’s TMZ eclipsed our overly bloggy Hollywood site, Defamer. TMZ’s growth was built upon three gigantic stories: Mel Gibson’s meltdown; Michael Richards’ racist outburst; and Michael Jackson’s death.
We learned our lesson: aggressive news-mongering trumps satirical blogging. Gawker.com’s growth since 2008 — from 300,000 people a week in the US to 1.4m — came in steps. After each story-driven spike — Tom Cruise’s Scientology pitch video, Montauk Monster, Eric Dane’s hot-tub non-orgy, iPad security breach, Christine O’Donnell’s Halloween sleepover, etc — the audience settled back down, but at a higher level. The same pattern holds for Deadspin, which has ridden a sensational series of scoops culminating in the revelation that Brett Favre had stalked a buxom sideline reporter.
Now these stories don’t themselves bring in advertising revenue. We can’t predict a surge in traffic; and often advertisers don’t want to be associated with scandal, however enticing it is to readers. But the experience of Gawker, Deadspin and other sites shows that — once the dust has settled — advertisers flock to buzz and growth. It is only in the last few months that Deadspin, for all its earlier critical acclaim, has been specifically requested by alcohol and other advertisers.
If we’ve demonstrated that a scoop generates audience, which in turn generates advertising, then what’s the problem? For that, let’s look at the biggest exclusive of all — early shots of the iPhone 4 — which made Gizmodo into a household name. That episode more than any other demonstrated the bankruptcy of the classic blog column.
In order to keep video of the iPhone prototype at the top of the reverse chronological flow, Gizmodo actually stopped publishing for several hours. How ridiculous! In any sane medium, a story as powerful as that, one which was drawing more than 90% of the site’s traffic, would be given commensurate real estate; and it wouldn’t require a hack to keep the item prominent. Hence the splash story; now we can finally create front pages that match the visual impact of a tabloid wood or magazine cover; and we can leave them up as long as they’re generating interest.
2. AGGREGATE OR DIE
Facebook has only increased the returns to exclusive editorial. Zuckerberg’s giant social network and other social sites speed the spread of popular stories. Referrals from Facebook have increased sixfold since the start of the year; and audience spikes appear to be larger than ever before. We can turn more of those drive-by visitors into regulars by turning every page into a front page, as shown above.
But Facebook and Twitter are as much threat as opportunity. Let’s be frank, they have taken over personal blogging. The river of news that each provides is personalised, comprehensive and sifted by the reader’s social network. And they can make pages much more cheaply than operations dependent entirely on original content.
How can we compete? Our strength as an aggregator remains editorial curation; but we’re limited even in that by the blog format. The more short items we run, the more rapidly our high-value scoops are pushed off the page. There are no career distinctions made between our editorial aggregators and the expert packagers and creators of original work.
And — in our current layout — there is no meaningful distinction between the quick post and a deeper story. Simple blockquotes and other short posts rapidly push our big exclusive down the page. If you’re a writer, why bother expending energy? Pursuing one objective (effective aggregation) undermines another (the promotion of big stories and features.) The skyline only helps a little.
The solution? First, the creation or recognition of two different classes within the editorial teams: the curator or editor; and the producer or scoopmonger. Second, it means we have to abandon the single blog flow — and separate out the strongest stories in a zone much more substantial than the existing skyline.
We need a few breakout stories each day. We will push those on the front page. And these exclusives can be augmented by dozens or hundreds of short items to provide — at low cost — comprehensiveness and fodder for the commentariat. These will typically run inside, linked by headlines from the blog column, so the volume doesn’t overwhelm our strongest stories.
One analogy might be the programming mix of some of the new networks. A channel such as AMC needs one or two hits (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) to make it a must-have for a cable system. But it would be way too expensive to fill the entire schedule with material of such quality. So it is with the Gawker sites. Each site needs a gigantic breakout every few months; a few more modest hits every week; but the daily news diet can be satisfied quite happily with short posts, blockquotes (linked to the original, of course) and republished material.
3. DEMONSTRATE A ROUNDED PERSONALITY
Gawker Media’s greatest weakness, an agency executive told me recently when I asked, was that we were seen as being of the “gutter.” That’s the price one pays for publishing the stories that others won’t touch, for embracing the sensational. It’s the price we’ve paid for our audience of 20m people in the US each month. We’ve made that trade. But the rate of exchange doesn’t need to be that high.
“Gutter journalism” may have brought titles like Gawker and Deadspin into the public consciousness. But there is so much more to each site: smart opinion; gorgeous photography and videography on titles such as io9 and Gizmodo; helpful how-tos on sites such as Lifehacker.
An undifferentiated blog column is such a poor showcase of our talents. We would laugh at any marketer that scrambled its message with such a random assortment of content, dozens of points to a page.
A prominent “splash” slot on the home page — taking up the two-thirds of the page — can promote the most compelling gossip and scandal. But it also provides the opportunity to display our full editorial spectrum. The front page is our branding opportunity. It’s a rebranding opportunity, too, a way to demonstrate intelligence, taste and — yes, snicker away! — even beauty.
I’ve sent around that gorgeous Iceland video so often that it’s become a running joke. Why do items like that matter so much? Because they act as a palate cleanser, an antidote to the gossip and snark that might otherwise overwhelm our public image. And that appeals not just to readers but to advertisers, who love our audience but shrink sometimes at the methods we employ to garner attention.
4. THE WEB IS A VISUAL MEDIUM
We weren’t always so gung-ho about video. The neighbourhood video reports on Gawker were fun for Joshua David Stein; but they took about five times as long as a standard post for only twice the payoff in traffic. They broke our editorial formula.
The environment has changed. Web users obviously have faster computers and bigger screens than they did when we first experimented; Youtube has made web video ubiquitous and commensurately familiar; Facebook has made it easier for people to share video with friends; smartphones and DSLR cameras have encouraged an explosion of amateur film-making.
And we ourselves have learned more efficient techniques: curating video already posted up to Youtube or Vimeo, for instance; illustrating an app or video game with a quick screencast; creating a video slideshow out of high-definition images and text overlay; or making mashups from TV.
I used to think that our expertise was text; that TV companies would have an unmatchable advantage when it came to web video. But what is increasingly evident is that traditional media companies are encumbered by old formats in video as much as they are in written journalism. Gawker bloggers, once they’re as familiar with iMovie as with cut-and-paste, can beat them.
Timing is everything. 2005 might have been too early for the big video offensive; but the conditions are now right. Half of the top 100 stories (ranked by new visitors) are already built around video, slideshows or other imagery. Just think through the list of Gawker Media’s greatest hits: Tom Cruise Scientology video; Brett Favre voicemails and cock shots; Redbook photoshop scandal; sneak pictures of the new iPhone 4. All audiovisual.
That proportion will only increase; and we’re going to hurry along the process. The presumption in the new layout is that every single substantial item will be built around imagery: a video, a gallery, a striking image or, if the words are strong enough, a text graphic. This visual slot will be 640×360 pixels in size — that’s 64% larger than in the current design — and be in the most prominent location on every page, above even the headline itself. Viewers will be able to toggle to a high-definition 960×540 version — a full 3.7 times larger than the current video standard.
Stronger presentation encourage sharing by readers and improve the performance of videos we currently publish. (Video experts such as Jesus have tried to jump the gun in their enthusiasm.) But we expect the layout will affect editorial behaviour in addition; it will make obvious in a way no memo could that Gawker’s editorial focus is shifting to video.
5. THE GROWTH OF VIDEO ADVERTISING Not only is it web editorial that is becoming ever more visual. A growing proportion of web advertising too is built around video. Already, some 30-50% of agency RFPs indicate that the client has video assets, typically a 15-second spot. These are often edited versions of commercials made for TV, so the production value is much higher than that of low-budget web banners — and much closer to our own editorial content in imagination and quality.
As I stated above, the new layout increases the central imagery on each page by 64%, dominating the browser. One corollary: we can’t run more than one such piece of imagery without making the page too heavy and sluggish. That goes not just for other posts; but for advertising too. The new video ads can only realise their full impact if they run at a size equivalent to editorial video and if they’re a seamless part of the experience. But the only way we can run both in conjunction is to insert ads between posts — and not simply in the margins of the content.
That’s another basic concept borrowed from TV. Web publishers can tap not just the emotional and brand-building power of television commercials and not just (see below) the draw of appointment programming. We can even appropriate the idea of the commercial break.
Pre-roll advertising is extremely limited because much of our visual content consists of photographs or graphics; and Gawker’s video content is often curated rather than made in house. But we can run a 15-second video commercial in the 640×360 slot between two autonomous editorial items almost as if it was a spot leading up to the next segment — deeply integrated into the content flow.
6. APPOINTMENT PROGRAMMING
We’ve had some success with the editorial calendar that we built out at the start of 2010. The theme weeks provided structure; the list ensured we covered topics that might otherwise get washed away in the web news cycle; and they provided brands with attractive context against which agencies could place their advertising.
But the week-by-week calendar — as befits its origins in the magazine world — was rigid. The forward planning required is not our strongest suit. Some themes, enthusiastically adopted at the start of the year, became a burden as they approached and a chore during the week itself once the obvious stories were already mined. Online advertisers find it as difficult to plan ahead as we do. It was only rarely that their campaigns coincided with our theme weeks. And we cannot predict the popularity of these one-off sections.
Front-page “roadblocks” — usually a combination of custom ad units, sold as an exclusive for the day — allow more precise scheduling by clients. Viewership can be estimated with reasonable accuracy because front-page traffic is so much more consistent than that to inside pages. But the client doesn’t have the ability to target against time of day, the associated mood (cocktail hour, anyone?) — or content. And these day-long exclusives are often sold out on busy sites such as Gizmodo.
The editorial calendar will remain for event and seasonal programming such as CES and holiday shopping. But many topics are less time-sensitive and they will be moved to a programming grid which owes more to TV than to magazines. (We’re not alone: AOL, our closest competitor, is experimenting with a morning news show produced by Ben Silverman.)
So how would it work? Lifehacker’s personal finance coverage is popular with both readers and advertisers; like much of our more helpful content it is often lost in the blog flow. From next year, it will be showcased at a regular time, say Fridays at 3pm, a personal finance hour.
Now readers will still of course be able to consume personal finance articles any time they want; if news breaks on another day, it will be published as quickly as we can; and advertisers such as Visa can as now buy space adjacent to all the personal finance content, no matter when the posts published or when they are read.
But the aim is to publish the best personal finance feature of the week to the front page at a set time, as the lead story in Lifehacker’s Money Hackery hour. Other personal finance stories will be clustered around that time. This is appointment web programming. And, just as in TV, the hour will be available for sponsorship.
Visa, for instance, could buy not just contextual advertising; but also the exclusive sponsorship of Lifehacker’s personal finance hour. Not only would the programming be “brought to you by Visa” but a sophisticated advertiser would also have the ability to run a storyboard of advertising during the reader’s session, explaining sequentially a set of features and benefits, for instance.
We may even be able to revive topics that, while appealing to advertisers, could not sustain independent sites. Our travel site, Gridskipper, never even reached 2m monthly pageviews despite editorial spending in excess of $30,000 per month. (Our smallest site now runs at 20m pageviews per month.) Few people want travel news, day in, day out. They want travel reference, when they’re about to travel; and they might be willing to read Gawker’s regular weekend getaway tips on a Thursday evening, if we were to introduce such regular programming.
7. GAWKER IS A BRANDING VEHICLE
Media buyers may know many of their measures of performance are misleading; the savvier ones know clickthroughs are an indicator of the blindness, senility or idiocy of readers rather than the effectiveness of the ads. But — on the agencies’ spreadsheets — garbage inventory from garbage sites aggregated on garbage networks often shows a lower cost per click. Many web advertisers, even those that buy banners, treat it as a direct marketing medium.
For premium media properties such as ours, this is a contest that should be avoided at all costs. It’s a race to the bottom — for the lowest quality ads and the least valuable visitors.
Gawker Media has already put distance between our properties and those of the commodity ad networks. We booted them out from our titles five years ago; they were cheapening the sites and devaluing the brand benefits to our directly sold campaigns. Today, a large proportion of our sales depend on those “roadblocks” which offer a marketer an exclusive presence on a front page for the day. These are branding opportunities which the ad networks cannot easily match.
Critics say internet advertising suffers from limitless inventory, which depresses prices. These exclusive front-page sponsorships are not limitless. If HBO doesn’t move quickly enough, Showtime can buy out Gawker and Jezebel for the key fall TV season. On any individual day, there isn’t room for both of them; and that’s healthy. After falling by half from 2004 to 2008, revenue per page has now stabilised.
But we can take further this successful initiative. By bringing in sponsors for scheduled programming, as described above, we can create several exclusive advertising opportunities in addition to our core offering of the front door buyout. And the client, with both the prominence of front-page placement and predictable traffic to that page, can also be confident that their campaign will run against appropriate content: a cable show trailer with the weekly entertainment guide, for instance; or Visa’s new credit card next to personal finance content.
If the model sounds like TV, that is no accident. There is no future in low-end web advertising, at least not for a media company with any aspirations. We will offer a larger canvas for both our editors and advertisers; and pair their offerings in the way that the web has so far failed and TV has done so well. —
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