Traffic Bonuses

As part of his promised return to blogging in the new year, Nick Denton said something somewhat shocking last week — that Gawker Media, which pioneered the practice of paid traffic bonuses for bloggers, will no longer dole out rewards based on traffic in 2015.

It’s about time. Or perhaps, long past time: as Nick acknowledged in his epic year-end memo, Gawker’s traffic bonuses clearly led to unintended consequences: “Editorial traffic was lifted but often by viral stories that we would rather mock. We — the freest journalists on the planet — were slaves to the Facebook algorithm.” (Great line, btw.)

So how did Gawker end up there, at the end of such a long but seemingly obvious road?

Recall that a decade back, Gawker sites were written by a single blogger paid a monthly stipend. The company, like many young companies, ran on a shoestring. And so to both find ways to pay people a bit more money if they succeeded, Gawker implemented traffic bonuses. Made a lot of sense. Then, as the sites started to grow in staffing size, and the concept of virality (then, hilariously, what we termed “spikes”) first emerged, it became clear that traffic bonuses based on each month’s traffic didn’t make sense; one big hit could warp the math. So Gawker — by this point I was working there and helping to engineer these changes — moved to a quarterly bonus system in which three-month goals were set for pageview growth, and site leads were empowered to divide any bonus amongst their teams as they saw fit if they were successful in hitting bonus over an individual quarter.

This quarterly plan corrected for short-term hiccups, rewarding longer-term growth. But giving site leads discretion on how much money to give to who caused a new set of headaches. Complete subjectivity, and money, aren’t a great mix.

So when I shifted to running Curbed full-time, I took part of the Gawker formula — the quarterly structure — but changed the reward portion such that each team member had a bonus number they could achieve, or fail to achieve, together. (This plan was of course imperfect in its own ways too, namely that a strong team member could carry a weak team member, but I figured we had other ways of sussing out weak team members.) Given the relatively small size of Curbed’s editorial teams, this worked all the way through 2013.

Vox CEO Jim Bankoff takes a different view of traffic bonuses: that they’re asinine. Well, maybe not asinine, but that they encourage the wrong kind of behavior. And, moreover, that they’re perverse in the sense that, as Jim put it, “If we’re hiring the best people, why would we expect less than their best on any given day?”

So when we joined up with Vox Media, we did away with traffic bonuses for 2014, and never looked back. Result? Traffic across the Curbed/Eater/Racked group of sites grew 4x-10x in 2014.

In fact, traffic growth across all the Vox Media properties in 2014 was strong: the company finished the year with an audience size more than double that at the start of the year, which is remarkable considering the size of the audience we’re talking about. We did that in part with aggressive goal setting. And so we’re starting 2015 with a fresh set of goals, split across three buckets: traffic, social traffic, and video. (I won’t go into the way we break these buckets down more granularly, but rest assured, it’s pretty granular.) What do the goals serve, in the absence of a paid bonus structure? The ability to make sure all parts of the company are on the same page about what we need to achieve this year to be successful, and goals to strive for, for success’s sake. With a deeply motivated group of people, that’s more than enough.

Meantime, what now for Gawker? Denton, again: “Stories that generate attention will be noted and rewarded, but only those that Tommy Craggs and his colleagues deem worthy of that attention. A layer of subjective editorial judgment will return. Newspaper traditionalists will no doubt see this as vindication.” Putting aside the hilarity of that last line, I wonder about the “noted and rewarded” bit. If that’s a return to bonuses for work being decided on a totally subjective basis — well, that’ll be a lot of fun for all involved.

Me, I’m glad to be out of the traffic bonus game, no matter how happy that makes those vindicated Newspaper Men.