One of the biggest trends in digital journalism for some time now has been performance pay — the practice of paying writers based on how their stories perform, usually in terms of traffic and social shares.
Performance pay can be smart because it invests journalists in the business metrics that publishers care about, ensuring that everyone is working towards the same goal.
Gawker’s Big Board, which hangs prominently in the Gawker’s headquarters tracking the top performing stories, has long been lauded as a key to the success of Nick Denton’s publishing empire. Even old school publishers like Forbes have embraced performance pay.
So does performance pay make sense for brand publishing? Let’s examine some of the pros and cons.
PRO: You’ll get your writers invested in your brand publishing efforts.
A lot of times, brand journalists feel like mercenaries: willing to trade their skills for cash, but not truly invested in the project at hand.
Adding performance incentive to pay can make brand journalists much more invested in the project’s success, and more likely to promote their branded work to their social graph and other audiences.
CON: Brand publishers have different success metrics than media publishers.
For most media publishers, traffic is paramount, since they’re running an ad-based business. As a result, publishers often most value content that performs well in search engines and generates shares on social media, since new visitors are usually acquired through SEO and social.
While brand publishers want the pieces they publish to perform well on social and search, they probably don’t want that to be the top priority of their brand journalists. The tone, message, and quality of the piece is significantly much more important. After all, Gawker can make a traffic push by publishing an edgy post featuring a celebrity’s topless tweet and get a big traffic win. If HSBC does the same thing, they might get a lot of traffic, but it’ll be a big disaster.
PRO: Your journalists will be more likely to tell you when an assignment is a bad idea.
If a brand journalist’s pay is tied into how well her piece performs, she’ll be much more likely to speak up when you give her a boring assignment that likely won’t perform very well. Instead of just banging out the piece and pocketing the cash, she’ll suggest an improved alternative.
CON: Performance pay will scare some journalists off.
For journalists, performance pay at Gawker — which has SEO juice and a huge audience/social following — is one thing; performance pay at an upstart branded magazine is another thing all together. How does a journalist know that their posts will receive any traffic at all? Some will think that they’re being set up for failure.
In addition, some journalists are simply promoting their branded work to their own social networks, which performance pay encourages. You definitely don’t want to miss out on top talent because of performance pay.
Performance pay can definitely provide brand journalists with incentives that will boost their productivity, but it can also raise serious issues. Brands that want to experiment with performance pay should make it a small percentage of overall pay (5-10%) and give brand journalists the option of a flat rate without performance pay.
We’re still in the early stages of the brand publishing movement, and performance pay is definitely an issue to keep an eye on.
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