5 Lessons Brands Can Learn From Gawker

On Monday, Gawker published its last story.

It was the media world’s favorite blog, and its shutdown inspired hundreds of thinkpieces. I wrote my own brief memoriam here. But since I cover content marketing for a living, I couldn’t help but contemplate what lessons brands can learn from the site that we loved to hate yet still visited every day.[note]Some people just straight-up hate Gawker. If you’re one of those people, you’re going to disagree with most of this post.[/note]

The first lesson, of course, is don’t release someone’s sex tape without permission. (I’m looking at you, Denny’s.) Gawker shuttered because then-editor A.J. Daulerio published Hulk Hogan’s sex tape in October 2012. That post resulted in a $140 million verdict against Gawker Media and made its flagship site too risky for a major acquisition, even as Univision scooped up the rest of Gawker Media for $135 million last week.

But there are many other lessons here about building an incredibly powerful brand, inspiring loyalty, nurturing talent, and publishing fearlessly.

I’m not saying that a brand should ever attempt to emulate Gawker. Even at Contently, a tech company that gives my team a great amount of editorial freedom, that would be insane. Gawker was controversial as hell and disgusting to some. Its editors published stories that would make most brand managers nauseous.

But it was also a site that started as an industry trade rag and became an independent media empire. A site that thrived as most other independent publishers either withered or were eaten by a bigger fish. Gawker grew until its last day and ranked among the 20 most-read media companies on the web.

1. Be honest and transparent

Marketers always say they want their content to have a voice that’s authentic and genuine and human. But the “human” they typically constructed is someone you’d never want to meet—a person who puts a bland, positive spin on everything and can never admit its faults, even in crisis.

Gawker, however, found a way to be legitimately genuine. Writers and editors never hesitated to admit when they messed up a story, either via an update or in the comments section.

That commitment really shone through in one of the site’s darkest moments. Last July, Gawker published a story about a Condé Nast executive making arrangements with a gay escort. Many found the story objectionable (I sure did) and advertisers threatened to pull their ads. Gawker’s managing partners, led by founder Nick Denton, voted to remove the post. Gawker Media’s executive editor, Tommy Craggs, and Gawker’s editor-in-chief, Max Read, subsequently quit. They believed the business side of the company had committed an unforgivable sin against editorial.

It felt like Gawker might implode. The Hogan suit, which had yet to go to trial, hung over the company. Many thought Craggs and Read would lead an exodus of Gawker’s top talent. The site risked alienating its readers.

What I believe helped stop the bleeding was a brutally transparent post that revealed every conversation going on behind the scenes.

This story revealed every ugly angle of the controversy, including fights between managing partners and the honest perspective of everyone involved. Writers, readers, and editors all weighed in with comments and debated the decision. It wasn’t pretty, but only a few staffers quit, readers understood how the decision was made, and the brand recovered to set new records. Compare that to how brands handled any of these blunders.

2. Embrace self-deprecation

Gawker was never afraid to make fun of itself—of its reputation, its faults, its writers and their biases. (This sendoff of writer Sam Biddle and this post on Gawker’s biggest mistakes by Ashley Feinberg are just two excellent examples.) For many, that made it lovable—the snarky friend who embraced self-deprecation.

I’m shocked that brands don’t adopt a more self-aware perspective in their content. There’s so much that’s funny about being a brand that’s trying to connect with people. We need more of this:

And less of this:

3. Nurture talent

There’s a common theme in Gawker’s obituaries from the past week: The site was an incredible incubator for young journalists.

Writers were generally given the freedom to pursue whatever stories they wanted, which resulted in some incredible journalism from unknowns. (Slate rounded up some of the best and most ridiculous examples here.)

This culture became a playground for writers who were deeply curious and devoted. Adrian Chen, a former Gawker writer who is now one of The New Yorker’s finest investigative reporters, put it beautifully:

One of Gawker’s key innovations was … putting writers in front of a mass audience while still encouraging them to express themselves however they wanted, as long as they wrote a sufficient number of posts and attracted a decent number of page views. Connection was transformed into attention, while the authenticity of the personal blogger’s voice became a performance of authenticity, which was almost as gratifying for the writer, and more fun. Critics of Gawker and other online media of the time often mistook accumulating page views as the end in itself, attributing blogging’s incivility to a craven pursuit of an audience. (Gawker’s bonus system, which was tied to page views, helped to cement this reputation.) But the drive to connect with as big an audience as one could was self-generated, at least in my case. Page views only gave you a sense of whether you were succeeding.

4. You’re as good as the content you create

“When the writers were great, the site was great, and when the writers were less than great, you get the idea,” longtime writer Hamilton Nolan wrote in his goodbye post to Gawker.

Nolan was referring to the unique freedom Gawker offered its writers, but it’s true of most every publication. You’re only as good as what you create. The only real boundary to a brand creating a great publication is the limitations of the people who build it. Often, those limitations are imposed by the brand and its desire to play it safe.

Yes, it likely takes longer for brand publications to earn people’s trust. But if you show up and tell honest, clever stories, people will come to respect and trust you.

5. Protect your audience

More than any other site, Gawker represents the golden age of blogging. That beautiful time in the early 2000s when the homepage still mattered and publishers weren’t at the mercy of Facebook’s algorithm to keep the lights on. As other publishers jumped to publish natively on Facebook and Google as soon as possible, Gawker was more hesitant to cede control of its audience.

There are a lot of reasons to like distributed content as a strategy, but there’s also reason to be worried about giving up your audience. In recent months, Facebook traffic to publisher sites has taken a serious hit. Even when Gawker started publishing some pieces directly to Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, it still created a way to also pull in some of the reader comments. Those comments are half the fun of reading Gawker, and they gave readers on other platforms a reason to click through and actually visit the site.

In a digital world completely dominated by Facebook and Google, we just lost one of our greatest guerrilla fighters. Gawker is the media’s Che Guevara, and the legend of its demise will live on forever. It’s only fitting that we learn a thing or two.


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