Best Branded Content: Netflix’s Documentary Club on Gawker

Entertainment aficionados have never known a better era. From live-tweeting broadcasts to accessing streaming and on-demand content, viewers are able to watch more and engage more deeply than ever before. And content creators and channels get to see their numbers climb.

But there’s one major drawback here: On-demand entertainment and real-time social conversation are mutually exclusive. Viewers have always had to choose between engagement and access. Some think it’s the one thing keeping Netflix from totally dominating broadcast TV.

The streaming giant is trying to change that. Netflix recently partnered with Studio@Gawker—Gawker Media’s content marketing arm—to bring real-time conversation and on-demand streaming together through their Documentary Club. (Full disclosure: Studio@Gawker is a Contently client.) Launched in late December and now running for 11 weeks, the program invites viewers to participate in weekly discussions through Gawker Media’s Kinja platform about a documentary available on Netflix.

“We were thinking about a space where you could connect with others who are watching something that may not be new, but it’s new to them,” said Studio@Gawker Content Director Megan Gilbert. “Netflix was interested in promoting their documentaries. It ended up being kind of a no-brainer.”

It was book club-meets-online forum, and it could be the start of something big for digital entertainment.

A new breed of commenters

Comment sections are widely acknowledged as the internet’s Ninth Circle of Hell, so if your instinct is to scoff and mumble something about “a nightmare,” that’s probably fair. User reviews on Netflix tend to contribute to that reputation. What saves the Documentary Club from being laughable from the get-go, however, is its home on Kinja, Gawker’s aspirational attempt to overhaul online comment culture.

“Our sites cover such a broad readership, and the community is very vocal,” Gilbert said. “They’re very dedicated to the platform, but the smartest contributions are getting the most eyeballs. The smarter and more active they are, they get more visibility.”

According to The New York Times, Gawker’s intention with Kinja, which currently hosts the comment sections on Gawker properties such as Jezebel and Gizmodo, is to “further blur the line between reporters and readers and explain readers’ rights. Among them, there is ‘the right to experience legible conversations’ on the site.'”

A native success

Doubt if you must, but legible conversations were exactly what came out of Netflix’s Documentary Club.

“I think indie game is starting to look too much like mainstream video game developers,” begins one comment on a Documentary Club thread about Indie Game: The Movie.

“Yeah, that brings up a good point. What actually defines an ‘indie game’?” asks the next participant.

“Well that’s a tough one! If someone small makes a game but its published by a giant company, is it indie?” replies another.

Wait, what? Where are the grammatical errors, offensive slurs, and non-sequiturs? Are complete sentences even allowed in online comments? Or politeness for that matter?

Participant behavior in the Documentary Club was strikingly human and notably robust. Gawker pulled that off by targeting readers with native content. Posts promoting the project ran across the company’s various channels, including Jezebel, io9, and Gizmodo.

On the women’s-issues-focused Jezebel, for example, appeared the very Jezebel-ish headline, “Get Yourself a Nice Epidural Cocktail in The Business of Being Born.” Those who read the article were prompted with an announcement that Netflix’s Documentary Club pick of the week would be a movie about childbirth, and they were invited to join an online discussion about the film that Friday. With 483 replies on the discussion page, it appears Jezebel readers got the memo.

Gawker also managed to build hype for the program by kicking off the series with a blogger contest, through which they sought to hire a “Netflix junkie” eager to “live the dream” and write Documentary Club content for them. They simply tapped into what gets readers going: being heard. Focusing on this well-groomed audience of commenters paid off; the maiden Documentary Club post received 90,000 page views, and the club’s 19 conversations earned 573,000 views, including an average of 115 comments for each.

“We definitely wanted to tap into our readership,” said Gilbert. “There is a track record for commenters on Gawker, and a lot of them have been hired to write for us.”

The Kinja potential

The Documentary Club was clearly a Netflix experiment. But Kinja didn’t begin as a sure-fire move either, and yet, Gawker couldn’t be more confident about its potential.

When BuzzFeed surpassed Gawker in page views last November, Gawker founder Nick Denton cited Kinja as his main source of confidence that those numbers would soon be reversed.

So, what does this mean for Netflix? If they keep their wagon hitched to Kinja’s star, the success could be twofold for the video streaming giant. First, projects like the Documentary Club could become weekly incentives for more viewers to stream more content from the site. That alone could help Netflix’s neck-and-neck race with cable viewership among young adults, which happens to be Gawker’s primary demographic.

“We are interested in working with Netflix again and we are talking with them about future programs that are similar to this,” Gilbert said. “It was a positive experience all around.”

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