Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
7 mins read

Why trust, consistency and transparency are essential for publishers’ eCommerce strategies

The scope and range of possibilities for eCommerce will grow rapidly in the next decade, driven by a range of technological developments, as well as a desire by publishers, retailers and advertisers alike to effectively harness eCommerce’s burgeoning potential.

Given this, it is important for publishers to determine their role in this rapidly evolving space. 

In an era of content proliferation, a publisher’s reputation – and the ability to act as a trusted guide in a crowded, cluttered, often confusing, world – can be part of a publisher’s secret sauce. 

This principle doesn’t just apply to traditional verticals. It is also applicable to the wider online experience, including eCommerce, as media companies navigate an increasingly noisy digital environment; one where content and eCommerce increasingly intersect.

The emergence of eCommerce as “service journalism”

“You go to the front page of Amazon, you try to buy a gift for someone. You have literally every option under the sun,” says Ben Gafni, VP Business Development at StackCommerce. 

“So the best publishers aren’t just presenting people with a list of deals and discounts, they’re using the power of their voice to talk about things that people might not have heard about.”

Outlets such as Dennis Publishing and New York Media, often describe this type of activity as a form of “service journalism.” Discussing the launch of the Strategist in November 2016, David Haskell, New York Media’s editor for business and strategy, wrote

“Our Strategist editors are first in their class at helping readers navigate life… In its digital form, the Strategist will apply its service journalism to online shopping — which has fast become where most of us buy most of our stuff — with extremely useful shopping advice.”

It’s an approach that Marie Claire UK’s former Managing Director Justine Southall also recognised. At the launch of the brand’s shopping platform Marie Claire Edit in 2018 noting:

“The job we do as magazines is to inspire, curate, edit, recommend and help our readers and customers make choices. Marie Claire has tried to anticipate the way that women want to engage with us and to shop, and with Fabled by Marie Claire and now with the launch of Marie Claire Edit, we have taken that into new territory. 

Now the power and influence of Marie Claire’s trusted fashion editors extends even further to offer brands and retailers a new way to engage with consumers through quality native content.”

Marie Claire Edit emphasises the role of the Fashion Editors. 
Via: Fashion Network

Will eCommerce mean the end of Church and State?

eCommerce activity like this, which often heavily features advice and recommendations, risks blurring the traditional church and state lines that many publishers have in place. As a result, these manoeuvers need to carefully navigated. 

One key reason for this, as the New York Times has effectively observed, is that the lines between many of these content areas are effectively becoming murkier.

“Magazines have long blurred the line between commerce and editorial content, tacitly supporting advertisers in their fashion shoots. Recently, some have begun venturing into e-commerce with various products in their pages (sometimes even taking a cut of each transaction). Stylists and photographers who produce editorial shoots are often the same ones behind ad campaigns.”

This can enable brands to benefit from a consistent look and feel, but for audiences it risks muddying the waters between editorial, eCommerce and advertising. Moreover, as the Times notes, “synergy like this, where the dots are connected out in the open, is rare.”

Editors and publishers work hard to develop trust among their core audience. However, as they expand further into the realms of eCommerce there’s a risk that this may be eroded. 

As Raju Narisetti, Global Publishing Director Elect at McKinsey & Company, and the former CEO of Gizmodo Media Group, explains

“Putting in ‘buy’ buttons just because you have a big audience is a failed idea, but if you think about it as commerce becoming a byproduct of your reader trust — and trust being the main product — then I think you have the ability to succeed.”

Practical steps publishers can take to build trust

In reviewing numerous websites for last year’s report, The Publisher’s Guide to Ecommerce, I found little consistency in signposting and labeling eCommerce related content. It was often unclear if clicking on links to recommended products might result in payment to a publisher. 

That’s an issue which clearly needs to be addressed.

Similarly, in some cases, these arrangements would be clearly signposted in one area of a site, but not in another. It was confusing, to say the least. Publishers need to ensure that they offer a consistent user experience across their sites. 

Moreover, few sites also explained – or had clear links to – their editorial policy, and how this influenced (or not) the products they wrote about, or the external links that they provided. 

With levels of trust in the media and journalism, around the world, at low levels, there may be merit in the industry as a whole thinking about the use of common labels and terms, to ensure consistency of experience (and transparency) for their audiences. 

In a world of shoppable ads, branded content, native advertising, affiliate links and marketing, as well as the rapid rise of recommendation focused journalism and websites, helping audiences to differentiate between these types of content is essential. 

Publishers and journalists may be able to discern the difference, and make decisions accordingly, but we should not assume the same level of media literacy among audiences.

Example of labeling on the techRadar website. 
Highlighting by the author for illustrative purposes.

Why transparency and consistency matters

Trust is hard to gain, but easy to squander. Given this, it’s imperative that publishers are transparent – when it comes to eCommerce especially – about their editorial processes and the financial implications of consumer behaviours. 

“We don’t accept unsolicited product,” Ganda Suthivarakom, Special Projects Editor at Wirecutter, told Vox, while Acting Editor-in-Chief for the site. “We have the same DNA as the Times, and we know that reader trust is the most important asset we have. We can never squander that, because without it, we don’t have a business.”

Jessica Spira, Wirecutter’s former director of revenue, and now VP Partner Growth and Management at Ziff Davis, has previously outlined how Wirecutter might publish product recommendations irrespective of the financial dynamic. 

“In some cases, we don’t have a relationship with anyone or otherwise they are products that just don’t have affiliate programs,” she said. “It’s really about the reader first, and if our editorial team has decided this guide is a reader service and needs to be published, it gets published.”

Wirecutter’s “About Us” page. Via: Wirecutter

Spira also explained how Wirecutter was careful to only link out to vendors with deliver excellent customer service. 

“We’re going to list the retailers that we believe in in terms of whether they have good return policies. They’re reputable. Their customer service is good. Their return policies are good,” she said. “We have confidence that the experience our reader will have at a merchant is a good one. If we don’t feel that way we won’t include that merchant. A merchant could say, ‘Oh, I’m going to pay you an enormous rate,’ and if it’s not a merchant that our business team feels is reputable, we will not surface them.’”

The implicit implication is that a poor experience will reflect badly on Wirecutter, even if the entire transactional relationship is handled through a third party. 

Understanding this is an important consideration for publishers venturing into eCommerce.

Similarly, publishers also need to ensure a consistency of user experience across their brands. One way to address this, as Dennis Publishing has done, is to centralise content monetisation efforts.

According to Skimlinks – a commerce content monetization platform, whose clients include Dennis Publishing, major retailers, and “half of the top content publishers in the US & UK,”

this type of central organisation “ensures [that] best practices on creating and promoting commerce-related content are communicated consistently to the editorial team.” 

At Dennis, it also meant “across the portfolio of brands, teams are supplied with content strategy around e-commerce results so they understand how best to use this data to inspire content creation.”

Ensuring a consistency of approach – behind the scenes, onsite and in terms of eCommerce fulfilment – are all important eCommerce considerations for publishers. Inconsistency in any of these areas risks consumer blowback, adverse feedback that few publishers can afford at a time when their eCommerce efforts are often so nascent.

Dennis Publishing’s Affiliate Policy. Via Dennis

Moving forward

“Content, community, and commerce when combined effectively have fuelled financial wins for many businesses, but not a lot of them have been newspaper and magazine publishers,” notes Nikolay Malyarov, the CEO, International & Chief Content Officer at PressReader.

Malyarov, in a 2019 opinion piece published by FIPP, argues that publishers are stuck in a rut, obsessing over the future of advertising and subscriptions. “Income diversification is fundamental to survival,” he says, “even if the long-term potential of some ideas are, as yet, unproven.” 

For many organisations, eCommerce arguably falls into that category. 

There is no single model for publishers to pursue; and eCommerce is a label that covers a multitude of revenue opportunities; ranging from affiliate relationships through to developing (and selling) your own products, as well as leveraging consumer insights for financial gain. 

As eCommerce continues to become more pervasive, and purposeful social media behaviours – such as using social networks to research, find and buy, products – further nudge eCommerce forward, platforms, retailers, publishers and content creators alike, will all – inevitably – strive to grab their own slice of the eCommerce pie. 

For those interested in exploring this space, there are lots of ideas out there, and examples of publishers who are successfully embracing eCommerce (to varying degrees). 

Back in 2018, Digiday found that “for most publishers these revenue streams [eCommerce] are nascent and supplemental income rather than core components of their revenues. Less than 10 percent of publishers in the Digiday survey said eCommerce was responsible for more than 25 percent of their revenues.”

Jump forward two years, and that may already have begun to change, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic potentially reshapes our relationship with retail; and the woes of the advertising industry further emphasises the need for publishers to diversify their revenue streams.

eCommerce will never be a panacea for media companies, but it can be an essential plank of efforts to create multiple revenue streams. Subsequently, this is a trend no publisher – large or small – can afford to overlook.

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