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How Marie Claire UK not only survived but thrived, using affiliate marketing

At a time of discontinued print runs, ad revenue declines, COVID lockdowns and sharp competition from social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, how does a fashion and beauty brand like Marie Claire UK not only survive but double its 2019 revenues? 

Such has been the title’s success over the past year, Marie Claire UK recently received wider recognition by winning the ‘Best Diversification of Commercial Strategy’ at October’s AOP Digital Publishing Awards 2020.

To answer the question successfully, it’s necessary to row back twelve months to 2019, a time when Marie Claire UK faced an almost perfect storm. The brand was hemorrhaging readers, and print sales were declining at precipitous rates of almost 25% year-on-year, not to mention the associated knock-on effects of reduced ad yields.

By year end 2019, the brand’s previous owners – TI Media –  threw in the towel and ceased production of the print title altogether, with a spokeswoman telling the BBC, “Marie Claire operates in a challenging fashion and beauty sector and consumers and advertisers have accelerated their move to digital alternatives”. 

The spokeswoman added, “This has had a significant impact on the level of print display advertising. Across the fashion and beauty sector, print display was down (25%) in 2018 and continues to decline at rates in excess of (30%) in 2019.”

Digital-first, second and third

TI Media immediately pivoted to a digitally-based business model with TI Media’s CEO Marcus Rich stating that Marie Claire UK would put “full focus on its digital platforms” and “create media-first brand extensions” in a bid to harness the potential of its web audience which now numbers somewhere north of 3 million monthly unique users.

Behind the scenes, the transition to digital-only had been quietly taking place prior to the print closure. Key to this transition was building Marie Claire’s ecommerce and affiliate revenues which in 2017 accounted for just 2% of revenue. Marie Claire UK appointed Emily Ferguson, an ecommerce veteran who ran her own fashion start up, to unlock new non-traditional affiliate revenues.

With a limited budget, Ferguson set about creating a new brand extension, Marie Claire Edit in late 2018. The digital brand extension, which WNIP covered in depth within our Publisher’s Guide to Ecommerce report, arrived with the tagline ‘Shop the brands you love. Fashion Editor approved’. The web portal offered point of purchase, approval badges from Marie Claire Editors and the ability to browse and shop over 50 stores and 1m products in the same place – all fashion editor approved. Participating brands included Selfridges, ASOS, Topshop and NET-A-PORTER. 

As Retail Dive noted at the time, “Separating Marie Claire Edit from the core magazine site may mitigate concerns about sales links overloading editorial content or too much content getting in the way of sales efforts.” 

The results for TI Media were rapid and in August 2019 an updated version of the site was released featuring new navigation and shoppable editorial content. The “proof of concept” site had, according to Retail Dive, delivered an average 6% conversion rate, and average basket size of £397 pounds ($478).

“We are now ranking for over 18,100 key shopping terms in Google such as ‘Arket dresses’ terms that with content alone we would never have been able to reach.”

Emily Ferguson, Ecommerce Director, Marie Claire UK

Marie Claire UK also undertook a number of brand promotions to raise awareness of its Edit brand extension, including teaming up with Farfetch and Pinterest to persuade consumers to create Pinterest boards with their favorite looks from Marie Claire Edit in order to win a Farfetch fashion voucher.

Twelve months later and the data is impressive – Marie Claire ecommerce revenues account for 40% of all digital revenues representing 675% annual growth, partly off the back of creating touchpoints to purchase from the top to the bottom of the ecommerce funnel. Speaking to WNIP, Ferguson adds, “We are on target to hit 2020 revenues – which will double 2019 performance – with a 70% profit margin.” 

New beginnings

In the spring of this year, despite the COVID pandemic, Marie Claire UK was snapped up by Future Publishing as part of the wider acquisition of TI-Media from private-equity owner Epiris. 

Future has a reputation for aggressively expanding its successful revenue streams, and media consultant Colin Morrison remarked at the time, “There is a big market (in women’s magazines) and room to do a much better job digitally than what we have seen. I expect Future has big plans for Marie Claire in digital terms.”

Morrison’s predictions have proved prescient, and in August of this year Marie Claire UK launched Marie Claire Beauty Drawer, a free beauty sampling service designed to bring added value to the brand’s readership whilst also delivering a highly personalized advertising channel for its brand partners. Marie Claire UK had set a target of 6,000 sign-ups a month for its new service, but within two days of launch had already received 25,000 sign-ups auguring well for the brand extension.

Our first year as a digital-first has been about developing even more ways for our audience to interact and engage with the brand and its core values.

Editor-in-Chief Andrea Thompson, Marie Claire UK

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Whilst on the surface the achievements have been award-winning, the back end tech stack has been a source of frustration. As Ferguson herself candidly admits, “If I could do one thing differently, I would change the prioritisation of some of the technical roadmap that we used to build the site. We started the site using some old tech that was acquired by TI-Media, sometimes I think it’s better to start development on a clean slate. We have learnt so much over the last two years…”

And the future for Marie Claire Edit? According to Ferguson, the brand has plans for further expansion but with “data acquisition and customer loyalty at its heart”. This will include another brand extension later this month which Ferguson is keeping under wraps, for now at least.