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For publishers diversifying into ecommerce, one crucial factor differentiates winners from also-rans

F+W Media, the publisher of Writer’s Digest, Antique Trader, Gun Digest, Popular Woodworking and other niche magazines recently filed for bankruptcy. In the declaration, F+W Media CEO Gregory Osberg stated that the bankruptcy was caused by several internal and external factors.

However, he emphasized that most of them related to the company’s shift to ecommerce strategy. “The company’s decision to focus on ecommerce and deemphasize print and digital publishing accelerated the decline of the company’s publishing business,” said Osberg.

“Additional obligations at a tremendous cost”

In his petition, Osberg’s acknowledges that the company vastly underestimated the costs of running an ecommerce business. He pointed towards the cost of buying merchandise, leasing warehouses, marketing products, fulfilling orders and responding to customer service inquiries.

He added that after the shift they, “realized that the technology used on the company’s websites was unnecessary or flawed, resulting in customer-service issues that significantly damaged the company’s reputation and relationship with its customers.”

The rush to scale may also have been its undoing. Chad Phelps, former Chief Digital Officer at F+W said, “In 2016, there was a major shift in strategy with the new CEO that included heavy investment in technology, squandering $15 million of investment, selling profitable assets, and shifting to a reliance on high-priced consultants.

“They also relaunched the websites, consolidated markets and increased the reliance on third-party products while simultaneously reducing internal staffing and marketing resources.”

Osberg mentions that the company entered into various technology contracts that increased capital expenditures by 385% in 2017. He states, “These additional obligations came at a tremendous cost to the company, both in terms of monetary loss, and the deterioration of customer relationships.”

It appears that the company’s efforts at scaling up its ecommerce capabilities came at the expense of focus on its core customers.

“Consistent customer service standard”

While there are many reasons that can influence the success or failure of ecommerce strategies, customer focus plays a crucial role in all cases. Several publishers have been able to tap ecommerce as a reliable and substantial source of revenue by not diluting the focus on their customers.

For example, Dennis Publishing which owns automotive magazines and websites like Auto Express, entered ecommerce with its website BuyaCar.co.uk. It started selling new and used cars in 2014 and has steadily grown since then.

The publisher was projected to make £62 million in 2018 from selling new and used cars. That would account for nearly 40% of its entire revenue. In 2019, it is confident of hitting a £100 million, said Nick Flood, Deputy Managing Director of Digital for Dennis. BuyaCar.co.uk was also shortlisted for Digiday’s “Best E-Commerce Strategy” award for 2018.

Customers are at the center of the company’s ecommerce strategy. The publisher ensures that its “systems are easy and fast for customers to use,” says Austin Collins, Managing Director of BuyaCar.co.uk.

He adds, “As the business has grown, we have developed our back-end software, updated processes to increase efficiency, and introduced new software solutions, all while maintaining a consistent customer service standard.”

“Bad user experiences: Not an option”

The publisher could have partnered with as many dealers as possible, and got a lot more cars and options for its customers. But that would have also entailed taking the risk of getting bad dealers, and the resulting customer disappointment.

Instead, it has cultivated partnerships with only the top quality dealers who would “really look after your customers,” said Pete Wooton, Chief Digital Officer at Dennis, “If something goes wrong, it looks bad on Dennis, not the dealer.”

The publisher also delivers cars to its customers’ doorstep, even when the dealership that stocks the car is hundreds of miles away. That focus on customer convenience is extended to its use of ecommerce technology.

Wooton told Digiday earlier that having any glitches or bad user experiences was not an option. “In media, if your site goes down temporarily due to some glitch, what do you lose: a few page impressions. Nothing really. If you have a glitch while someone is trying to make a transaction, it’s something else entirely. You’re not likely to get that customer back.”

Download WNIP’s comprehensive new report—50 Ways to Make Media Pay—an essential read for publishers looking at the multiple revenue opportunities available, whether it’s to reach new audiences or double down on existing super-users. The report is free and can be downloaded here.

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