CNN dips into commerce with a new digital product guide

CNN is the latest publisher to chase e-commerce dollars with a new online shopping guide called CNN Underscored. The guide, launching on Nov. 2, will live at and recommend products and services in style, tech, health and travel. CNN will make money when people click on product links and shop, a model common to many publishers.

CNN Underscored will have about 20 posts at launch, and then the staff’s two full-time writers will produce about 40 per month, which puts it somewhere between The Wirecutter, which publishes occasional, exhaustively researched reviews; and a site like Business Insider, which spits out multiple e-commerce posts a day.

Kristi Halford, vp of business development for CNN Digital Worldwide, who’s overseeing the new venture, said items would be chosen based on criteria including research, independent studies and consumer ratings. A $1,199 Pure Green mattress, for example, was described as having a top Consumer Reports rating, while a $25.90 Sleep Master sleep mask was called a top seller on Amazon with “thousands” of four-star ratings from customers.

CNN isn’t the first news organization to tap e-commerce revenue as digital advertising becomes harder to come by. A year ago, The New York Times validated the model for news publishers when it paid $30 million for The Wirecutter.

CNN considered launching its shopping guide under a brand-new name, not connected to CNN, but ultimately decided it wanted to trade on the name of its famous namesake brand, Halford said. At the same time, it’s taken steps to keep CNN Underscored separate from its news operation. CNN Underscored will have its own staff (of six, for now, supplemented by people working in other parts of the business) that reports to the network’s business development team under Halford.

CNN said the news side won’t be involved in reviewing products. The Underscored has a white and black logo, which differentiates it from the red and white news logo. Posts will have a disclaimer at the top stating that they’re separate from editorial and that CNN get a cut of the sale. CNN Underscored will be promoted on CNN’s product but in general won’t be integrated into news coverage, Halford said.

The commerce guide will have its own social handles and accounts, separate from the news side. It will occasionally be promoted on CNN’s editorial social handles, but labeled as separate from editorial.

“We want to make that connection with the brand and also make a distinction that it’s not a CNN news product,” Halford said. “The brand of CNN is the most important thing, so if we create an experience where folks are confused about what they are entering into, we’ve lost our consumers. We’ve damaged our brand.”

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