Media Briefing: Publishers see a bump in commerce sales during Black Friday weekend despite economic downturn

The lead image shows a robot with multiple arms holding up shopping bags.

This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

This week’s media briefing looks at how publishers’ Black Friday and Cyber Monday commerce content performed compared to 2021.

  • Survey says, holiday shopping is on
  • The crypto bomb is coming for publishers
  • Suitors come for CoinDesk, women of color are locked out of U.K.’s news industry and more

Survey says, holiday shopping is on

The key hits:

  • From Black Friday through Cyber Monday, Hearst Magazines’ total product sales increased by 50% year-over-year.
  • Apartment Therapy Media’s average order value for transactions made between Black Friday and Cyber Monday increased by 101% year-over-year.
  • Foundry’s U.S.-based brands saw a 57% increase year-over-year in the total dollar amount they generated for retailers through sales.
  • Future’s content drove a total of more than 130,000 transactions in a single day on Black Friday. 

Black Friday drove more than $9.1 billion in online sales this year — a new record, reported CNBC — and publishers’ commerce businesses seemed to generally benefit from this 2.3% year-over-year increase.

Many publishers who use affiliate networks like Skimlinks and Rakuten won’t know for about a week after the end of the holiday shopping weekend just how much money they made from affiliate commerce commissions. Attribution for the sale doesn’t happen at the moment of transaction, but once the item is processed and shipped, said Riva Syrop, president of Apartment Therapy Media. 

What publishers are doing, however, is using their traffic numbers, click-through rate data and number of conversions made from their affiliate links to decipher just how many transactions this year’s Black Friday through Cyber Monday period generated compared to years prior. And so far, they say, anecdotally, that those signs indicate another successful Q4, despite the economic downturn.

“We did not know what to expect going into this weekend because there’s been a lot of uncertainty and November was often a little bit of a slower start for us,” said Emily Silverman, vp of commerce at Hearst Magazines, who did not provide figures to illustrate this slowdown. She surmised that fewer retailers were emphasizing the need to order products earlier this year than they did in 2021 when supply chain issues were causing shipping delays.

Black Friday weekend ended up being a successful period for Hearst Magazines, with total product sales increasing by about 50% year over year, though Silverman declined to share hard numbers here either. The average order value was consistent with years prior, she added, but even that was unexpected. She did not say what this number represented.

“I was surprised by that because I did hear from our commerce editors that the deals were deeper than ever so I anticipated that that might have an impact on [average order value],” Silverman said.

Eve Epstein, svp and general manager of Leaf Group’s Hunker, was also unsure of what to expect. “The results that we have seen so far are very much in line with our expectations [that we] set going into 2022 [which is] overall great news,” she said, adding that she expected the economic headwinds to impact how much consumers were willing to spend this holiday season. “That really hasn’t borne out in our data,” she said.

Revenue earned through Hunker’s commerce content the weekend of Black Friday and Cyber Monday growth was up 33% year-over-year, Epstein said. And total order value across Hunker and Well+Good (Leaf Group’s editorial brands that drive the company’s affiliate commerce business) increased by 20 to 25% in November year-over-year, she added, declining to share specific numbers.

“Black Friday is no longer something that happens on Friday. Cyber Monday isn’t something that just happens on Monday. They shop when the sales are happening,” she said. 

For Apartment Therapy Media, however, average order value for transactions made between Black Friday and Cyber Monday increased by 101% year-over-year, according to Syrop, who declined to share a hard dollar amount for average order value. She did add, however, that 80% of the sales made so far this quarter began last Tuesday, corresponding with the start of many retailers’ Black Friday sales. 

“People were actively looking very early in the season, but I think they were waiting for the best deal in order to transact,” Syrop said. 

During the week of Black Friday, Foundry’s U.S.-based brands — PCWorld, MacWorld, TechHive and Tech Advisor — saw a 57% increase year-over-year in the total dollar amount of all the product purchases referred to retailers from its sites. Meanwhile, the amount of money earned through affiliate commissions to Foundry increased by 110% year-on-year in the U.S., according to Jon Phillips, editor-in-chief of PCWorld and TechHive, who declined to share hard revenue figures.

Future’s content drove over 130,000 e-commerce transactions on Black Friday alone, according to Simon Rawle, e-commerce director, retail at Future, who declined to share hard revenue figures as they had not yet been processed by the time of publication. How this will stack up compared to 2021 is still to be determined. Last year, the period spanning Nov. 18 to Dec. 1, which included Black Friday and Cyber Monday,  drove more than 1.6 million e-commerce transactions, equaling $137 million — an increase of 19% from the same period in 2020.

Changing tactics

With the uncertainty of consumers’ shopping habits in mind, things were done a little differently this year. Some publishers moved up the timelines for rolling out gift guides, while others took a different approach to content itself and where it was distributed. 

Hearst, for example, added context around whether a retailer’s Black Friday sale was the lowest price ever, in an effort to contextualize how much of a money-saving opportunity this discount was for shoppers, according to Silverman.

Apartment Therapy revised its gift guide strategy to allow users to filter products by the recipient’s relationship to the shopper or favorite hobby — for example, recommending a Himalayan salt board for shoppers’ friends who grill. 

“By enabling people to sift through to the type of gift that they’re looking for, we’re seeing these extraordinary click-through rates of like 17 to 20%,” said Syrop.

Syrop added that her team also started using banner ads in the Apple News app to promote commerce content, rather than trying to sell those spaces to advertisers. As a result, her team has been able to drive a few hundred thousand people to the company’s owned-and-operated platforms since they started experimenting in August, with click-through rates around .25%.

Future’s technology brands, including Tom’s Guide and TechRadar, started their Live Deals blogs earlier than years past, launching them on Oct. 31, said Rawle. This ended up being a “stand-out traffic driver” he added, proving the theory that “shoppers were keen to get more from their money this year” due to inflation.

What we’ve heard

“[2022 has] definitely not been my favorite year, if I’m being honest. It has been a slog. Advertising was very difficult. A lot of our normal, big partners pulled back in the back half. So we did fine this year, but I feel much more optimistic about what’s to come [in 2023] than what we’re coming out of.”

Riva Syrop, president of Apartment Therapy Media in the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast.

The crypto bomb is coming for publishers

A year ago, covering cryptocurrencies and investing in Web3 projects seemed like a good way for publishers to diversify their revenue. But since the spring, a steady series of bankruptcies, scams and other financial meltdowns have put the future of decentralized finance on thin ice, putting media companies’ blockchain ambitions in a fragile state as well.

Politico announced last week in an email to its readers that its inaugural crypto summit would be postponed from Dec. 1 to an undetermined date in 2023. The event was meant to be sponsored by Binance.US, a crypto exchange platform that, like many other crypto-endemic companies, has been navigating the recent economic challenges it is up against.

A Politico spokesperson declined to comment on whether the decision to postpone was due to its presenting sponsor backing out, but said that the decision to postpone any event is “a fairly routine occurrence.” 

Meanwhile, Time is losing its primary Web3 advocate and leader, Keith Grossman, at the end of the year. Grossman, who has served as the president of Time for the past three-and-a-half years, is joining Web3 infrastructure company MoonPay in January. Time’s owner Marc Benioff, was an early investor into MoonPay and the companies will continue to work together for payment solutions on Time’s future NFT projects, according to an internal staff memo from Ian Orefice, president and COO of Time and Time Studios, that was shared with Digiday.

Time’s Web3 division, TIME3, and the company’s NFT community, TIMEPieces, will move under the oversight of Maya Draisin, chief brand officer of Time, who has been involved with the company’s Web3 initiatives since their inception at the beginning of 2021. 

Despite losing their front man and the other troubles facing crypto at the moment, the new regime of TIME3 seems optimistic about the company’s ongoing involvement in this space — which makes some sense after it made over $10 million from NFT sales in the first year. 

“We have seen the power of its community and the opportunity it presents to further integrate web3 solutions into the way we approach our customers and our business. We have also made significant investments and building upon these will continue to be a priority for us,” wrote Orefice.

Numbers to know

$1 billion: The amount of revenue Future Publishing generated in 2022, a 36% increase year-over-year.

61%: The percentage of 136 senior media industry leaders who said their organization has largely implemented hybrid and flexible working options for staff, according to a survey by Reuters Institute.

$10 million: The amount of cost cutting NPR will need to make during its 2023 fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. The nonprofit media organization is starting with a near-total hiring freeze in order to avoid layoffs. 

What we’ve covered

CNBC to test increases on its subscription prices next year:

  • After seeing continued growth in the number of paying members to its two subscription products, CNBC will begin testing a price increase for at least one of those subscriptions next year.
  • It’s the first time CNBC would raise the price on a CNBC Pro membership.

Read more about CNBC’s subscription tests here

How Apartment Therapy’s Riva Syrop is pivoting its events business around the economic climate: 

  • For Apartment Therapy, it just makes sense to bridge its events business with commerce. 
  • Not because the expectation is to make $10 million from affiliate commissions, according to the company’s president Riva Syrop, but because it’s only fair to give attendees every opportunity to make a purchase as possible – the struggle she often faced when attending industry trade shows. 

Listen to Syrop’s strategy here

The Washington Post invests in climate coverage as its team expands to over 30 journalists: 

  • The Washington Post has grown its climate and environment team from six in 2018 to now more than 30 people. 
  • The investment signifies the importance of the coverage area for the publisher as it chases young readers who, it says, are drawn to this topic area.

Read more about the Post’s expanded climate coverage here

‘Halloween is when Christmas ends’: A look at publishers’ pre-Black Friday commerce content playbooks: 

  • No doubt a stressful time, this year only seems to have been exacerbated by the uncertainties of the economy and what this will do to consumers’ budgets, which has the potential to upset the amount of revenue media companies can earn off of affiliate commerce.
  • Here’s a look at how publishers have optimized their pre-Black Friday commerce playbooks.

Read more about how publishers approached their commerce content ahead of Black Friday here

What we’re reading

Women of color are effectively locked out of the U.K. news industry:

A new report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and produced by audience strategy consultancy AKAS found that women of color are underrepresented within both news coverage and newsrooms themselves, according to the Press Gazette.

CoinDesk attracts possible buyers amid crypto crash: 

There’s no formal sales process underway for crypto news publisher CoinDesk just yet, but the company has attracted interest from a range of potential buyers, including private equity firms and rival publications, reported Semafor. Until recently, the publisher was bringing in $50 million per year, but the proposed purchase price of $300 million seemed too low, per the report.

CNN faces more layoffs as Warner Bros. Discovery brings sets its cost-cutting plan in motion: 

CNN contributors and full-time staffers are being informed this week whether they have a job with the company, according to an internal memo shared by The Hollywood Reporter.

Fort Worth, Texas journalists are striking against McClatchy:

The Star-Telegram union claims that McClatchy’s management has refused to bargain with them in good faith and as a result, they have launched an open-ended strike against the newspaper conglomerate, reported Poynter.

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