Nick Denton is betting the future of advertising is conversational

When we spoke with Nick Denton recently, the Gawker Media CEO talked about how the new commenting system he launched last month would shape the future of the company — and he hinted that this would involve the business side as well as the editorial side of the New York-based operation. Now we know what he was referring to: in an internal memo on Thursday, Denton announced the formation of a new sales unit that will focus on helping advertisers and brands take part in the new commenting system. Gawker is also launching a content-driven commerce arm that will focus on affiliate links and in-page transactions.

According to the memo (which is embedded below) Gawker is creating a new content unit within the sales department that will be headed by Ray Wert, formerly editor of the Gawker-owned automotive blog Jalopnik. This new unit will take over responsibility for all of Gawker’s branded content functions, as well as marketing communications and events — and the purpose of the unit will be to promote the new Gawker discussion platform as a way for marketers and brands to engage with customers in an open forum. Says Denton:

We all know the conventional wisdom: the days of the banner advertisement are numbered. In two years, our primary offering to marketers will be our discussion platform.

Denton says conversation with brands is the future

In the memo, as well as in his interview with GigaOM, Denton talks about how the seminal “conversation marketing” book The Cluetrain Manifesto was published a decade ago, but few companies have really put its principles into practice (although Federated Media has been promoting the idea for some time). By using its discussion system as a platform for critics and advertisers to discuss issues in the same place that articles appear, Denton says Gawker will be able to test some of those principles.

But if the Gawker commenting system is open to anyone, and any commenter can effectively turn a thread into their own hosted discussion — which was one of the principles Denton said he was most interested in — then why couldn’t advertisers just show up and say whatever they want without paying Gawker for the privilege? According to the memo, the new unit will “recruit and identify a client’s spokespeople and advocates, advise them on web etiquette and language, and help make their most persuasive case.”

In an email response to some questions I sent him about the move, Denton said that advertisers will pay for the promotion of discussions they participate in — in the same way that Gawker currently offers sponsored posts:

Advertisers will pay for promotion of the discussions in which they engage. Just like any marketer can go into Twitter — but sponsored tweets give them more prominence. They will also be paying for our help in discussion management. Just like they currently contract with us to create sponsored content in the voice of the web and the Gawker readership.

But will advertisers choose Gawker instead of Facebook?

During our interview last month, I asked Denton why advertisers would want to come to a site like Gawker instead of a more friendly and less-contentious place like Facebook if they wanted to have a discussion about their products. After all, if they can have a “fan” page where they control what happens and who gets to comment, isn’t that much better than a blog? The Gawker CEO, however, maintains that Facebook is “a great place to get information to people who are already fans, but not a great place to try and convince people.”

In Denton’s view, advertisers and brands will want to come and hash things out in the comment section of a blog post at Gawker. In our interview, he described how AT&T (s t) got criticized for its poor cell coverage not long ago, and how the new commenting system would allow AT&T to have an engineer or someone with knowledge of the situation come and address those criticisms directly. But will companies actually want to do that? I’m not convinced. Why not just put up a statement or discussion on their own blog?

In addition to the discussion-marketing unit, Denton said Gawker is also launching a content-driven commerce operation that will include everything from “affiliate marketing to in-page transactions.” The Gawker CEO noted that the company has actually had working affiliate links to gadgets and other products mentioned in its pages for some time, and that in December it “made $70,000 from Amazon without really trying — no seriously, it was an accident.” The full text of the memo is embedded below.

Note: We’ll be discussing these kinds of media issues and more at paidContent 2012: At The Crossroads on May 23 in New York City. Register today.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Jeremy King