Last year’s predictable flow of holiday gift guides and affiliate links from major media brands has become a downright tsunami of deal brokering in the weeks before and after Black Friday. Looking zealously to diversify revenue away from shaky ad support, and always dreaming of getting a piece of the online purchases that their editorial inspires, publishers have notably more aggressive content and e-commerce models this year.
The difference involves the level of integration with content across publishers’ portfolios and the sheer scale of resources being thrown at the model. Publishers hope to render more than a mere incremental stream of income from affiliate links and retail partnerships. Condé Nast, for instance, tells Folio: that its October and November e-commerce revenue has nearly doubled this year compared to the same period last year.
This has been a direct result of increasing the amount of commerce-related content. The company had already rolled out 40 gift guides before Black Friday across many of its brands. Brands such as Allure had “24 Days of Deals” and GQ featured a series of highly curated products in its “GQ Best Stuff” hub—now the third most prominent navigation tab at GQ.com.
The Rise of the Deal Teams
The torrent of guides across Condé Nast’s brands is being fed by a centralized “Deal Desk” within the company’s dedicated commerce team. They work with retailers to get word of pending offers in advance and to secure preferable commission rates. The information is streamed into a single database that the individual brands’ editors can access to generate ideas for content.
Meredith also has greatly accelerated its centralized resources and planning around a “Commercial Content” team, according Lindsay Jerutis, VP of commerce content and strategy. “We have focused on building a central editorial team from scratch,” she says. “It grew to double digits in 2018 and will double in 2019.” Titles like RealSimple, Travel+Leisure, InStyle and especially People are proving to be strong drivers of e-commerce conversions.
BuzzFeed’s well-publicized e-commerce success in recent years, which arguably helped spark this current chase for a better marriage of content and commerce, unsurprisingly places it among the more advanced in the field. “We started the process of preparing for this [Black Friday] week in January,” says Ben Kaufman, chief commerce officer. The company formed its BuzzFeed Commerce multidisciplinary group that brings together licensing, brand design services and partnerships. “We have increased the size of our editorial shopping team and sales and development team by a factor of 15 to 20 people in the past year,” he adds.
Context and Authenticity
Media brands are banking on their ability to poke through the holiday clutter with authentic editorial voices and curation. In fact, it’s precisely during tidal waves of Black Friday retail offers that Meredith’s Jerutis sees the greatest opportunity for her magazines to stand out.
“When users are being peppered from so many places, they are looking for trusted brands, and that is where we see a lot of return,” she says.
A media company’s chief advantage is to contextualize that bargain hunting, to target editorial content toward real-world challenges like “34 Gifts That Are Perfect for Really, Really Awkward People.” “Customers love discounts and they love deals in [Black Friday] weeks like this,” Kaufman says. “We cover every type of shopper and recipient. The role we play as publisher is to act as a curator and surface the best deals and tell you how to have the easiest shopping experience.”
That is why it’s essential to maintain that editorial authenticity. Sean Holzman, Bonnier Corp.’s chief digital revenue officer, says, “Everything we write about is at our e-commerce editor’s discretion.”
Often, items in the gift guides have no affiliate links. “We make sure the readers know we do this as a service, but there may be affiliate fees that come back to the brand,” says Holzman.
Some of the larger titles like Popular Photography and Popular Science have their own editors, and others oversee multiple brands in a group of titles. “You’ve got to be true to your audience—first and foremost,” he says. “Be very transparent.”
Deals + Data + Distribution
Media e-commerce initiatives are nothing new, of course. Magazine product features have always inspired purchases. But since the early days of the web, publishers hoped that digital channels would finally help them get a piece of the sales they drove. Every media business plan of the early 2000s had to address the “3Cs” (content, community, commerce). But it was only in recent years that digital natives like BuzzFeed and Gawker aimed the traffic firehose of SEO, e-mail and social at the gift guide/listicle model to make affiliate links more than an incremental revenue proposition.
And so this holiday, we find publishers becoming increasingly sophisticated in terms of how they are driving both traffic and commercial editorial decisions. “For moments like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, SEO is a huge focus for us,” says Jerutis. “When they are looking for an item on retail, we want to be there.”
But on the front end as well, publishers are relying more heavily on the data these guides generate. Condé Nast’s holiday 2018 push is leveraging a year of input about content from different sites that register (or doesn’t) with shoppers, best converting traffic sources, sweet price spots and hot retailers.
Likewise at Meredith, “this year we have a focus on using data to inform the content strategy,” Jerutis says. “That has helped us exponentially increase revenue. We look at top line converting content and retailers, total clicks and top traffic drivers like SEO, newsletters and social.”
Media as Manufacturer
Media’s ongoing hunt for new revenue streams is also driving new twists on old models. Beyond the affiliate link, some brands are trying to get their content more deeply positioned with the retailers themselves. Holzman says that Bonnier is working more closely with Amazon on gift guides. Its newly launched Saveur liquor and wine shop is a more direct e-retail partnership that renders revenue shares rather than affiliate fees.
Similarly, BuzzFeed has cultivated deep partnerships this year with Walmart and Google. But pointing even further into the future, the company has gotten into the business of consulting with manufacturers to co-create new product brands like Goodful, a wellbeing and health brand now featured in a line of home products at Macy’s. At Walmart you can choose from an entire line of BuzzFeed Tasty-branded home products or order the Tasty meal kits online.
The next “virtuous circle” of media may not only blur the lines between content and commerce but content and products.