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eCommerce in Publishing: 3 strategic considerations

This is an excerpt from our free-to-download report, eCommerce in Publishing: Trends & Strategies

A number of publishers were already embracing the potential for eCommerce. However, the growth of the subscription economy, coupled with changing COVID-era consumer habits – and the likelihood of their continuation – has encouraged more media players into the eCommerce fold. 

In December 2021, the Wall Street Journal announced it was to launch a commerce offering focused on offering audiences product and service recommendations. Meanwhile, companies such as Meredith and Future continue to see their eCommerce profits grow.

Against this backdrop of increased consumer spending on eCommerce, greater engagement from media players, as well as the continued evolution of online shopping habits, it is not surprising that more publishers are asking whether eCommerce is a fit for their business. 

With that in mind, here are three key considerations for publishers looking to move into – or deepen their engagement in – this space.

1. Cultural and Content Fit

The first question that publishers need to address is whether eCommerce is the right fit for their brand(s) or audiences. Online shopping won’t work for every title, or vertical, whereas there are others (reviews, travel, cooking etc.) where it’s a more obvious extension to this output. 

In this regard, publishers are tapping into what Jonah Peretti – BuzzFeed Founder & CEO – noted in 2020 was the media’s “attribution problem.” 

Peretti observed how some “content creators provide the inspiration to buy a new product, go on a vacation, or watch a new show – but don’t capture much of the economic value created,” as consumers – suitably inspired by what they have read or seen –  go elsewhere to make these purchases. 

“We see a real opportunity for us to reclaim some of that profit,” Peretti said, in a sentiment arguably applicable across much of the industry, not just BuzzFeed.

Image: Graphics showing BuzzFeed’s aspirations to bypass third parties to capture revenue 

Arguably, the best eCommerce products are logical brand extensions, ones which build on the next steps a user may already have been planning to undertake. 

By way of an example, between November 18th and December 1st 2021, during a two week period that included Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Future plc saw more than 1.6 million sales transactions and $137 million in eCommerce sales across North America. Much of this was driven by audiences coming to their sites with a purchase already in mind. 

“Technology publications at Future – including Tom’s Guide and TechRadar – experienced a 21% increase in page views and drove the highest sales over the Black Friday period, where the top products were gaming hardware, computers and laptops,” they stated in a press release.

In a similar vein, brand extensions such as Tasty’s partnerships with Walmart, have been logical forays for BuzzFeed. Audiences might be inspired by the videos and recipes they have seen, so the next step is to make it easier for them to buy the ingredients and kitchenware that they need to make this at home.

Similarly, Trusted Media Brands’ decision to launch cookware and bakeware – as well as a quarterly subscription box – based around their Taste of Home publication, and Marie Claire’s Beauty Drawer (an “editorially approved bespoke beauty sampling service”), also feel like natural continuations of the consumer journey.  These moves are a good cultural fit for the relationship audiences already have with these publications. 

Screenshot for Taste of Home’s Special Delivery subscription box (December 2021)

2. Application Challenges

Cultural fit isn’t just about brand alignment and the consumer journey. It also has the potential to change hiring practices across the business, the types of partnerships you embark on, as well as redefine elements of your editorial proposition. 

At many publishers, many eCommerce leaders come from technology, sales or product backgrounds. They seldom come out of the newsroom. This reflects the types of skills and experience that are typically needed to implement successful eCommerce strategies. 

In January 2022, Hearst announced that April Lane had been named their chief eCommerce officer. Lane had previously spent just under 12 years at Amazon. 

This followed news in December 2021 that Hearst is creating “The Tower” a luxury eCommerce marketplace launching in Spring 2022. Featuring online stories from Elle, Bazaar, Town & Country and Esquire, the move is led by the fashion and retail industry veteran Ken Downing, who was made the chief brand officer of Hearst Luxury Collection Commerce.

Aside from broadening their team by adding people with a broader range of business, UX and marketing skills, publishers may also have to navigate an editorial tightrope. 

As a feature in Folio on affiliate marketing – just one facet of eCommerce – observed back in 2019, “talk of optimizing conversions against content are still fighting words for many editors and will always raise questions about the integrity of content decisions.”

eCommerce’s potential to challenge church and state traditions means that there needs to be clarity – for newsrooms and audiences alike – around how eCommerce may shape editorial decision making and the nature of any possible financial relationships. 

One way to address this is to provide clear statements on your website, and individual articles, about how any affiliate dynamics work, as well as the editorial process that shapes content reviews and other content.

Screenshot of the homepage for The Strategist – highlighting by the author – showing how the site references commissions and their editorial independence (December 2021) 

A further area of important consideration for publishers is in the area of partnerships. This comes in a myriad of different forms, from technology providers to fulfilment. 

Some of these efforts are produced in house. Future’s proprietary tech stack enables the company “to drive almost instant revenue growth,” Abi Watson, a senior research analyst at Enders Analysis told Digiday. At the heart of this is Hawk, which compares prices of products from sellers across the internet in real-time.

Image via Future PLC’s 2018 eCommerce Media Pack

Lastly, there’s also a recognition that publishers need to balance their editorial mission and revenue interests. In particular, there’s a risk that bombarding consumers with messages and affiliate links may be off-putting. Yet, at the same time, there are certain sites where too much content (e.g. fashion, reviews) may have the same effect and reduce the likelihood of an online purchase. 

There’s no one size fits all solution to this conundrum. The sweet spot will differ from publication and vertical, which is why metrics and data are integral to these efforts

3. Changing Technological Realities

As eCommerce becomes increasingly engrained across our media experiences, our ability to make purchases online is easier than ever. This presents both challenges and opportunities for publishers and content creators.

Perhaps the most obvious of these is the potential threat of social commerce and the ability to make purchases on social networks, both on desktop and apps, on sites like Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. 

The latest Statista Digital Economy Compass indicates that, on average, internet users spend 142 minutes a day on social networks. Although that figure is slightly down (by 3 minutes) from previous year’s, that’s still a lot of time each day. 

eMarketer predicts that U.S. social commerce sales will rise by 35.8% to $36.62 billion in 2021; arguably making this a marketplace that is too big for publishers to ignore. Media companies – and not just brands and influencers – need to be eyeing up the potential for eCommerce on these different social networks.

However, as Chris Sutcliffe cautioned in the Media Moments 2021 report: “It is incumbent upon the traditional publishers to ensure they do not become over-reliant on those platforms for eCommerce and affiliate revenue as they once did for advertising revenue.”

Image via eMarketer

At the same time, some social platforms are also flexing their editorial chops. Amazon launched has its own TV shopping channel Amazon Live in 2019, while in October 2021, Pinterest announced they were working with brands and creators to launch Pinterest TV, a series of live, original and shoppable episodes on the network. 

Much of this content is the type of material that has been a mainstay of magazines and cable shopping channels for years. The revenues that these have generated risk being cannibalized by digital platforms.

Image via Pinterest demonstrating how Pinterest TV looks

Publishers also need to be aware of other tech-led developments which may impact their eCommerce efforts. One of these is changes to Google’s search algorithm. 

In December the company decided to update the way in which product review pages are ranked. Ostensibly designed to remove “fake” reviews and reward “authentic” and quality content, these efforts can potentially have a knock-on effect for publishers. 

Aside from potentially changing the ranking of content on Google Search, it may also require publishers – and their partners – to do things differently. In this instance, Google said, “users have told us that they trust reviews with evidence of products actually being tested, and prefer to have more options to purchase the product.”

As a result, the search giant determined that best practices – to take effect in a future update – should henceforth: “provide evidence such as visuals, audio, or other links of your own experience with the product, to support your expertise and reinforce the authenticity of your review,” and “include links to multiple sellers to give the reader the option to purchase from their merchant of choice.”

The emphasis on links to multiple vendors potentially aids publishers like Future who already prominently feature price comparisons on many of their sites. They also acquired the owner of the price comparison website Go Compare back in late-2020. 

This purchase offered a number of potential benefits including a new avenue for late revenues, deepening their tech stack and consumer data, as well as creating new content opportunities for editorial written around the types of products – such as broadband providers, car and home insurance, mortgages and other financial services – featured on the GoCompare website.

Image via The Drum

Sovrn Holdings (who co-sponsored this report and acquired Monetizer101, a price and merchant comparison shopping solutions provider for publishers such as Mail Online, TI Media and The Telegraph, in the summer of 2021) has also argued that these types of tools can drive more eCommerce revenue for publishers who use them.

“Price comparisons can provide up to 179% higher earnings per click and up to 200% more clicks and conversions,” they commented in a blog post at the end of last year, also noting that “traditional affiliate links are limited, because they can only promote one merchant at a time.” Subsequently, “if the product happens to be out of stock or the price isn’t competitive, the consumer will shop elsewhere – and you’ll miss out on the revenue.”

Image via Sovrn

Originally published in What’s New in Publishing earlier this year. While some of the data points may have evolved, the analysis and conclusion remain highly relevant.