Adding Commerce to Content

Publishers are on the hunt for new revenue streams to complement an ad market where supply far outstrips demand. Commerce is one attractive option, particularly with fashion or lifestyle media companies.

That’s exactly what fashion and lifestyle publication Refinery29 is doing. Refinery29 started in 2006 as a Web publication that covered cool boutiques and fashion and accessories and expanded its fashion coverage to include fashion trends and culture, food and travel, and other cultural trends that fit into the Refinery29 voice. Refinery29 recently launched its retail branch, R29 Shops, which features select brands and items that have been handpicked by Refinery29 editors.

“The commerce came directly out of our core mission, this idea of connecting retailers, designers and consumers to incredible, unique products,” explained R29’s co-founder Justin Stefano. “We’d been connecting them through content already, so the leap to commerce wasn’t a big one — the next logical evolution was to actually make products available to purchase.”

Adding in retailing as a revenue stream is attractive for publishers facing a tough ad market, where there’s no shortage of options for advertisers. Most publishers are on the hunt for additional revenue sources, whether it’s through events or selling user data. It would help narrow the gap that most publishers face in attracting audiences that haven’t, for the most part, indicated a clear intent to purchase.

“To build a really scalable media business, relying on display advertising, I just don’t know how big that gets,” said Thrillist co-founder Ben Lerer. “If you want to be transformative, you need to diversify revenue streams that go beyond just selling ads.”

Thrillist, founded in 2004, is a men’s lifestyle media company that along with its newsletters and rewards program acquired members-only online retailer JackThreads two years ago. As Lerer explained, Thrillist fully operates JackThreads and controls the full buyer experience from inventory to shipping.

Pulling off the trick isn’t the easiest thing in the world, however. The fact is most publishers don’t know much about retailing — and vice versa. Plenty of publications dabble in the area with so-so results. (See The New York Times’ Groupon-like deals service, TimesLimited.) Other companies, such as Daily Candy and Gawker, have managed to pull off the content and commerce mix.

“You really have to understand the level of sophistication that will be necessary to build a great commerce business,” explained Lerer. “I think it’s challenging to do both things in one place.”

The advantage of being a publisher as a retailer, as Stefano points out, is having the inspirational content and the audience and being able to offer them cool products that fit into the editorial voice. Unlike a regular retail site where the shopper usually visits in search of a specific product already in mind, the publisher retail experience is different. It’s about telling a story, creating a mood, entertaining your readers and then giving them the option to buy what they see.

Refinery29 already has over a million subscribers who regularly read its content, and some of them have already purchased items from the publisher’s online deals and flash sales. So it will just be a matter of time to see if readers will shift their browsing and shopping habits over to R29 Shops.

“The purchase starts with inspiration. In the same way that you pick up GQ and see a pair of shoes you love and want those shoes: With a magazine, it ends there, but with R29 it doesn’t end there,” said Stefano. “This is the direction that we think lifestyle media is going. It’s an incredible service for your readers to be able to provide that.”

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