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The internal and external culture shifts needed for publishers to embrace eCommerce

As increasing numbers of media companies begin to explore the revenue potential of eCommerce, there’s a growing recognition of the impact this may have on an organisation’s business culture and practice. 

Publishers need to be cognisant of this, as eCommerce has the potential to change dynamics beyond the business side of a company. More widely, it can also impact on hiring practices, the nature and shape of your newsroom, as well as publishers’ relationship with audiences. 

Here’s how eCommerce is redefining practice and work culture at The New York Times Company, Associated Media Publishing in South Africa, New York Media, as well as BuzzFeed, Marie Claire UK and NBC News.

The New York Times Company

The New York Times, which purchased the reviews website Wirecutter in 2016 for “slightly more than $30 million,” has described the acquisition as part of a tonal shift, “rethinking The Times’s role as a guide,” given that “readers are hungry for advice from The Times.”

Wirecutter’s electronics recommendations homepage. Via WWD

Alongside being part of wider efforts to broaden The New York Times Company’s revenue base, CEO Mark Thompson admits that they’re also exploring the potential for a closer integration between sites and products, like Wirecutter, and the NYT’s “core” news output. 

Unlocking this potential, will require a different mindset and behaviours from both Times employees and their audience, if this strategy is to be successful. 

Nonetheless, the hiring in 2019 of Roxanne Emadi – previously Head of Audience Development at BuzzFeed News – as Wirecutter’s new Director of Audience Development and Editorial Strategy, speaks to this intent.

Associated Media Publishing (South Africa)

As Julia Raphaely, CEO of Associated Media Publishing, has stressed, just putting eCommerce opportunities “out there” is not enough. To be successful staff, audiences and advertisers all need to buy into a publishers’ eCommerce goals. 

Raphaely argued that in order to drive adoption of new digital behaviours, like eCommerce, publishers must also show audiences how these approaches can benefit them. 

“You’ve got to be focused on the end-point which is getting people to see your brand as relevant,” she said, speaking at the 2019 Digital Innovators’ Summit.  

Discussing their October 2018 QR code campaign, Raphaely told the Media Voices podcast: 

“We started placing QR codes around the magazine but in a very integrated way, because you don’t want to suddenly become a catalogue. We also had to upskill our editors who were curating the product because you can’t just plunk any product in your inverted commerce shop window.”

Examples of AMP covers with QR codes. Via Associated Media Publishing

Ultimately, “we see this as a natural progression,” Raphaely has said. “We are closing the gap between content and commerce across all our channels, leveraging AMP’s (Associated Media Publishing, not Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages) editorial influence, brand authority and audience insight to serve our content consumers better.”

AMP’s “Ready to Shop” campaign. Via IAB South Africa

The Strategist (New York Media)

Other publishers have taken a different approach, stressing continuity rather than evolution.

The Strategist, from New York Media, is a website designed to help people “shop the internet” and “surface the most useful expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape.” 

Discussing the development, David Haskell, New York Media’s editor for business and strategy, noted that this type of content could be found right back to the first edition of New York Magazine in 1968. 

Nevertheless, there’s a substantial shift – for publisher and existing readers alike – in migrating from being a section in a biweekly publication, to a standalone website “ publishing three to four times daily.” 

The Strategist launched as a standalone site in late 2016. It was part of the deal which saw Vox Media acquire New York Magazine and the websites (including The Cut, Grub Street, Intelligencer, The Strategist and Vulture,) owned by the parent company, New York Media, in September 2019.

Developing a consumer and product focus

“In the past, as a magazine publisher, we used to think of readers, readers, readers — and obviously everyone does read, whether you’re on a digital or print platform — but, at the end of the day, you’re not talking to readers, you’re talking to consumers,” suggests Julia Raphaely, CEO of Associated Media Publishing in South Africa.

This type of language may make some people feel uncomfortable, but it’s the type of conversation – and audience framing – which is increasingly becoming the norm. 

As a feature in Folio on affiliate marketing – just one facet of eCommerce – observed late last year: 

“Talk of optimizing conversions against content are still fighting words for many editors and will always raise questions about the integrity of content decisions.”

Yet, consumer behaviours – as well as advertising models – are changing, driven by new platforms and fresh ways of getting information. And publishers need to move with the times.

Simon Owens, a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC, has succinctly summed up how these developments are manifesting themselves, and why publishers should get on board:

“…As more and more consumers eschew brick and mortar retail stores in favor of online platforms like Amazon, they’re increasingly turning to online review sites to suss out which products are worth buying. The Wirecutter has ostensibly replaced the Best Buy store clerk who could walk you through the features of each television or laptop on sale.”

To remain relevant, many publishers will find want to respond to these developments. 

The rise of review sites – from the likes of tronc, New York Magazine, BuzzFeed, the New York Times Company (through their ownership of Wirecutter) and others – is just one way that increasing numbers of publishers have already done so, with new sites, sections and approaches.

The value of outside skills and experience

It’s notable that, when looking at publishers, many eCommerce leaders seldom come out of the newsroom. 

Emily Ferguson, the Fashion and Beauty Ecommerce Director who created, and manages, Marie Claire Edit, a fashion aggregator site with over 6,000 brands – including NET-A-PORTER, MATCHESFASHION, Italist, ASOS and Topshop – had previously been an analyst for Barclays Wealth Management. Ferguson’s CV also includes roles as an entrepreneur who founded her own online affiliate marketing fashion website, and time at the Telegraph as an eCommerce Business Development Manager. 

Launched in November 2018, Marie Claire Edit enables consumers to shop by category, as well as select from items hand-picked by members of the Marie Claire UK team. Data shared by the company in August 2019, which identified that the site has a 6% conversion rate and an average basket size of £397 pounds ($478 dollars).

Shop our edit‘ from the Marie Claire team

Similarly BuzzFeed’s former CMO, Ben Kaufman previously ran his own start-up, before joining the company in 2016. Kaufman left BuzzFeed at the end of last year to concentrate on his latest venture, Camp, “a retailer built to engage and inspire young families through immersive and ever-changing thematic experiences.”  

Led by Kaufman and his 65-person team, BuzzFeed generated $50 million in revenue during 2018, through a combination of commerce and advertising. 

Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed Founder & CEO, outlined at the start of the year how “In the past few years, we launched new businesses and today 70% of our revenue comes from these new businesses.” eCommerce is at the heart of this diversified strategy. 

As we highlighted last month, Tasty, BuzzFeed’s food brand, is one of its most successful products, having broadened its reach – and revenue streams – far beyond BuzzFeed’s core site and social media channels.

Image via BuzzFeed, March 2020

Meanwhile, Jennifer Birkhofer, Director of E-Commerce, NBC News Digital and the TODAY Show, came to the TV giant after being responsible “for bringing in alternate sources of revenue and traffic for the NYMag.com sites,” such as The Cut and Vulture. 

As well as managing eCommerce and affiliate partnerships, she helped launch The Strategist, New York Media’s “first vertical funded primarily through affiliate revenue rather than advertising revenue.”

Birkhofer’s background is agency based, having previously worked for Neo@Ogilvy (now Neo Media World) and MRY.

The Strategist, via Facebook

What these examples demonstrate is that, if eCommerce’s potential is to be realised by publishers, then this requires both an internal culture change and a shift in audience behaviours. That’s not easy to achieve, especially internally. 

To succeed, many publishers will need to do more than simply adopt a different mindset. They will also need people with different skills and experience. 

For most publishers, ensuring that your eCommerce efforts are led by people who are entrepreneurially-minded appears to be key. As such, we can expect to see publishers placing more emphasis on hiring people with these skills in the future.


This article has been adapted, updated, and expanded, from our free to download report, The Publisher’s Guide to eCommerce.

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