From bidets to meat thermometers, how publishers’ commerce businesses adapt

Last weekend, the second most-read article on The New York Times’ product recommendation site was its guide to the best bidets. The guide, which Wirecutter crowned the Toto Washlet C200 ($430 from Amazon) as the winner, has been published on the site for years, subject to recent updates. Traffic to the guide increase by 5000% compared with the same period the year before, according to the publisher. It’s a quirky but grim sign of the far-reaching impacts that coronavirus has on every aspect of peoples’ lives. 

“The coronavirus pandemic is the story, it’s a topic with a lot of confusion, there’s a lack of clarity and misinformation,” said Ben Frumin, editor-in-chief at Wirecutter. “Our role is to offer clear-eyed, sober and actionable advice for people to get through it. It’s taken over really every aspect of peoples’ lives.”

For Wirecutter, who’s 100 journalists have published roughly 36 articles on how to prepare for the impact of the virus, reader interest over the last few months falls into three categories: How to stay clean and healthy, emergency preparation kits and working from home. Roughly half of the content on site is currently related to the virus but there’s no quota. Wirecutter is one of many publishers leaning into this type of content.

Over the last two months, articles have been springing up online to help people prepare for a new world where governments and companies mandate working from home and personal hygiene is of heightened importance. As people adjust to new ways of working, publishers are adapting their strategies to offer more service content, like how to stay active indoors, the best gear for parents working from home and wellness support, like the best meditation apps. For affiliate publishers, it’s an opportunity to earn some revenue in a time when ad budgets are in flux, a recession is on the horizon and events are being canceled or moved online.

New York Media’s The Strategist started its coverage of the coronavirus at the end of January when the N95 respirator masks — which filter out at least 95% of airborne particles — were out-of-stock online and the publisher suggested alternatives. Since then, it’s run pieces ranging from the best emergency preparedness kits to the top hand sanitizer (according to enthusiastic Amazon reviewers).

As millions of employees have started to set up their own office from home, publishers like Business Insider, CNET and Wired are publishing articles on the best gear, lamps, keyboards, headsets and office chairs for a more comfortable way to work from home.

“A lot of what we’re covering is basic hygiene stuff,” said Zack Sullivan, chief revenue officer at Future, where brands like Gizmodo and T3 are pushing out content like the coffee, tea and snacks you need for working from home and the best office chairs. “We’re adjusting the content to cover it better. Anything that publications can do to help people on their journey makes sense, we all have to capitalize on areas of opportunity, now that events are pressurized.”

Apparel choices are also changing. For people looking for comfortable clothes that aren’t pajamas, there’s this piece from The Strategist: “My go-to work-from-home pants feel like sweats but make me look like Shiv Roy.” Female-focused publisher Stylist spoke with 10 retail clients last week about how to best showcase their products to an audience looking for the right working-from-home kit, whether that’s the right outfit to wear, keyboard or yoga mat via its product recommendation hub and email newsletter, Stylist Loves. The hub features articles like “what to wear if you’re working from home” with links to retailers like Swedish high street brand H&M. Stylist has prepared content solutions on Stylist Loves for department stores and athleisure brands with products people need to maximize working from home.

“The worst thing you can do in business is freeze,” said Owen Wyatt, managing director at Stylist. “People need things delivered to their house. Clients can either be part of that conversation or not. Retail clients are suffering a lack of footfall on the high street, we’re working to help high street brands build digital and e-commerce propositions. We’re not going to be doing 50 Dettol advertorials in the next week.”

Stylist Loves is showing signs of being a fast-growing product, said Wyatt. It now accounts for 25% of Stylist’s digital revenue. One brand spent £6,000 ($7,300) on sponsored content and then sold £16,000 ($19,500) worth of goods from sending out one email to Stylist Love’s database of 150,000 people.

“We’ve seen a big spike in affiliate revenues from the weekend,” said Nick Flood, managing director, digital, at Dennis Publishing. Items related to working from home were responsible for most of the sales as more employees switch to working remotely, although Flood would not share specific figures.

News publishers are being more ruthlessly penalized due to advertisers flagrantly adding “coronavirus” and associated terms to keyword blocklists, meaning they are taking a hit on revenue. Future is one of the publishers that has instructed its team not to mention the virus on content like working-from-home guides unless it’s really relevant so it’s still eligible for earning money through ads.

“For advertisers, the affiliate channel is pretty low risk,” said James Bentley, UK strategy director at affiliate network company, Awin. “You only pay for the sale, it’s pure performance: If sales decrease, expenditure on the program will inevitably reduce in line.”

“Advertisers can also control commissions by product type,” said Bentley. “If they see a big growth in stay-at-home wear they can encourage publishers through changing the commission rate. There are a lot of different levers in that channel.”

For now, publishers interviewed for this piece aren’t seeing supply restricted from their affiliate partners, although there are shortages online pushing Amazon to hire 100,000 warehouse and delivery workers. But publishers adept in content and commerce will get more creative with their content as too many working-from-home guides begin to look generic.

Wirecutter’s top-performing guide by traffic over the last weekend was this on the best thermometer for kids and adults. Because the retailers are running low on stock, this week Wirecutter is publishing a “do it yourself”-style hack piece on what type of meat thermometer to use instead and where to get it. 

“We cannot say ‘this is the best product as a result of our testing’ and then if it’s out of stock just shrug,” said Frumin. “Right now people really want something that works. It’s about solving problem, we’re meeting readers where they are.”

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