The newest rainmaker at publishers: E-commerce editors

With online advertising under pressure from all sides, publishers are increasingly looking to commerce to bolster revenue. That’s given rise to a new class of employee: The e-commerce editor.

Publishers from Business Insider and Gawker to Hearst and BuzzFeed have not only added “commerce” to the revenue mix — it’s often little more than affiliate links — but they’ve hired out editorial staff that specializes in creating commerce-minded content. These new comm-tent creators need to be one part editor, one part salesperson.

Business Insider got into e-commerce in late 2014 and now has four people writing seven posts a day, with plans to hire at least two more; one recent best-seller they wrote about was an MBA condensed into an online course. Breton Fischetti, BI’s head of commerce, wouldn’t quantify the business, but said commerce revenue was up 400 percent in the first quarter of 2016 versus the year-ago quarter. A good post can generate “hundreds or thousands of orders,” Fischetti said.

Gawker Media has similarly built up its e-commerce business, trading on readers’ trust in its verticals, especially Lifehacker and Gizmodo, to sell them everything from steam mops to mattresses. The company said commerce-driven sales, together with native advertising, drive one-third of its revenue.

“We have a lot to say on products, whether they’re on sale or not,” said Shane Roberts, director of commerce at Gawker who shares the writing duties with Shep McAllister.

Elsewhere, Hearst has 15 people working on a site it launched last fall, BuzzFeed has been experimenting with product posts. Vox Media is advertising for a commerce editor, reporting to editorial, to help readers across its eight verticals “discover great products for purchase.”

The e-commerce editor looks like a journalist in a lot of ways. They often have some editorial background. They scour the web for story ideas and have pitch meetings.

BestProducts’ nine writers and editors turn out 10 to 20 posts a day, for which they look up product information, talk to the manufacturers and increasingly, test the products themselves, said Patrick Varone, the site’s executive director. “It’s not like the past when publishers hired freelancers who could slap this stuff together,” he said.

Gawker started out just doing “daily deals” roundups of the best prices on products around the web and now produces up to 20 posts a day across multiple content types, including its best-selling items and reader-voted products. As with BI, there’s a disclaiming saying the publisher may get a cut of the sale.

But the ultimate mission of these commerce teams is not scoops and clicks but driving people to click to buy the products they recommend, knowing their company will get a cut from each sale. As Fischetti said: “If someone returns a product, we don’t get any money.”

Publishers’ e-commerce teams typically sit under business development. But as media outlets try to compete more aggressively in this space, publishers are putting more attention on high-quality e-commerce posts with readers in mind, said Alicia Navarro, CEO and founder of Skimlinks, which facilitates e-commerce for many leading publishers such as Hearst and Gawker.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are still a lot of deals sites out there, and e-commerce teams need to find a point of difference if they’re going to cut through the noise. People are doing more of their reading on mobile phones, which aren’t always the easiest to shop from. And not only do publishers not profit if the product gets returned, they don’t get credit for the sale if the shopper doesn’t make a purchase directly from their site.

The notion of e-commerce editors has its skeptics, like Brian Lam, founder of The Wirecutter, a tech buying guide. The Wirecutter also makes money from driving sales of products it recommends, driving $150 million in commerce sales in 2015. But it does so by focusing on publishing 20 to 30 articles a month that can take 30 to 200 hours to research and produce, and Lam said he doesn’t believe in having people just push product. “I believe in talented editors on a beat who help people find related gear, not someone specifically meant to find things to push to readers.”

Fischetti admits “it’s challenging to find people who are passionate about products and able to communicate that to readers. They have to understand our style and the people we’re writing for. It can be hard to make a strong recommendation in a plain-speaking voice without doing that in minute details.”

To stand out, BI makes sure its posts match the breezy tone that’s made its editorial content popular. focuses on what products are trending online and finding the best prices possible. “They’re researching the hell out of it,” said Varone.

And with e-commerce, it’s easy to see if they’re succeeding or not.

“When people vote with their wallets, we can see their purchases,” Fischetti said.

Image courtesy of Hearst.

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