Future PLC drove nearly $1 billion in e-commerce sales in 2020

ecommerce changes

Future PLC’s 2020 e-commerce business boom has carried over into 2021.

The U.K. media company — which owns brands like Tom’s Guide, Cinema Blend, Golf Monthly and Marie Claire — drove nearly a billion dollars of e-commerce revenue for its affiliate partners in 2020, driven by evergreen content and shopping holidays like Amazon’s Prime Day, as more people turned to making purchases online during pandemic lockdowns. 

In the first half of 2021, Future saw the money it makes from driving sales of other companies’ products grow by 56% year over year, to around $62 million. E-commerce affiliate revenue for the first half of 2021 was £85.2 million, or roughly $116.5 million. That revenue represents more than 30% of Future’s total company revenue, according to James Nieves, head of U.S. trade marketing at Future PLC. From November 2020 through March 2021, Future made £272.6 million (or $374.0 million) in total revenue, an 89% increase year over year, according to the company’s financial report released in May.

Future sold $960 million in sales order value (or SOV, the gross value of a product sold via Future’s content) for affiliate partners in 2020 via Hawk, its proprietary price comparison platform that launched in 2013. Hawk automatically identifies products and vendors that the company has an affiliate relationship with and embeds those links in product review articles, so that readers can see prices and retailers next to products mentioned. Hawk works with big retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and Target, as well as smaller affiliate partners. 

The number of total transactions driven by Future grew by 109% in the U.S. from April 2020 to April 2021. Future declined to say what share of money from each transaction the company keeps. Commission rates can vary widely by product and retailer and can range from single- to double-digit percentages.

“We are able to produce and display real-time price changes for different retailers, for millions of different products and services,” said Jason Webby, chief revenue officer for North America at Future PLC. 

Pandemic shifts what people buy from Future

When the pandemic hit and society shifted to remote work, Future noticed certain product categories were growing as a result, Webby said. Those categories included auto (243% increase globally year-over-year from April 2020 to April 2021), photography (179%), clothing (174%) and wellness (98%). Top items sold in the U.S. were cameras, headphones, home appliances, health and beauty and gym and fitness.

The biggest categories for the company’s affiliate business, based on transactions per day, are technology and video gaming. Computing products drive an average of 1,600 transactions per day, for example. When the pandemic hit, people “needed to buy things like laptops to work from home, and were playing video games while at home… This enabled us to thrive during the pandemic,” Webby said.

‘Best’ buying guides drive readers to sites

Certain techniques help fuel Future’s e-commerce business. Using the word “best” in headlines helps surface its brands’ buying guides (a round-up of “the best” biking shoes or washing machine) in search engines. Nearly 80% of Future’s traffic from first-time visitors comes from people searching for the “best” products to buy, Webby said. Buying guides account for 60% of Future’s SOV annually. Its top performing articles (based on SOV) have the keyword “best” in the headline.

That could be enticing for brands looking to market their products and find ways to bring people to their sites. The iOS 14.5 update in April gave people more control over who is tracking their data and “shifted the entire ad world for businesses,” so that “brands need to think about how they can differentiate where they can drive traffic to their site, as advertising channels are less successful than in the past,” said Ben Zettler, a digital marketing and e-commerce consultant. Affiliate links are a way to do that.

First-party data from Hawk reveals “where a user enters our ecosystem,” such as what search terms brought them to a Future site, which article they clicked on, how much time they spent on the page, whether or not they clicked on an affiliate link and what it was for, Webby said.

“We can understand a user’s journey, across all of our sites,” he said, adding that the data informs coverage, by determining which articles are sending people to make purchases and which aren’t, based on the categories of products being reviewed. “You can’t get that [information] from third-party data,” Webby said.

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Old articles bring in new money, but shopping events are tried and true revenue drivers

Future’s evergreen content is driving sales conversions for years after being published, Webby said. Forty-nine percent of all SOV in Q1 2021 came from articles published before 2020. For example, a mattress buying guide on Tom’s Guide sells eight mattresses a day. 

These guides get “updated slightly if there’s a new version of the product, or we add in another retailer, but remain the way they were originally written,” Webby said.

But content tied to current events also support Future’s affiliate business. During this year’s Amazon Prime Day on June 21, Future drove over $25 million in Prime Day sales in the U.S. and UK. SOV was up 5% globally from last year’s event. Affiliate purchases in the lifestyle category were up over 50% compared to last year’s Prime Day, due to Future’s acquisition of women’s publisher Marie Claire in May 2021. 

Future will continue to expand into new verticals to recommend products in more categories, according to Webby, possibly by adding more media brands to Future’s portfolio. Future CEO Zillah Byng-Thorne “wants to make an acquisition every nine months,” Webby said.

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