How publishers will wring more money out of their gift guides

The holiday shopping season officially kicks off on Friday, and with ad revenue harder to come by, publishers are trying to get readers to spend more money with them this year.

For some, that means not just creating gift guides, but working with advertisers on placing product inside gift guides, distributing their gift guides on directly monetizable platforms Instagram and Pinterest, and even launching flash deal sites and storefronts that will last throughout the holidays, like InStyle’s 30 Days of Deals site, which launched Tuesday.

“We are creating the best possible environments for product across many of our sites,” said Will Lee, the digital director of Time Inc.’s entertainment, sports and style brands.

It’s not hard to figure out why this is happening. Mobile shopping and e-commerce in general are expected to jump 25 percent during the 2016 holidays, according to PwC. And Black Friday, while mostly known as a holiday for retailers, has become a big day for publishers, too. A publisher that sells product, whether it’s via affiliate links, native ads, or a branded store, can triple their average day’s sales on Black Friday, according to StackCommerce, a company that helps publishers including AOL, Gawker Media and Bonnier with their commerce operations.

This is also the first holiday season when so many publishers are expanding their effort to cash in during the holidays. Instead of running one experiment with affiliate links, more and more of them are partnering with multiple third parties to get more heavily involved in commerce; according to StackCommerce’s CEO, Josh Payne, more than half of the publishers his company works with use multiple third-party commerce partners.

Here are some of the things will make this publishers’ most technologically advanced Christmas yet:

A screenshot of InStyle's 30 Days of Deals site.
A screenshot of InStyle’s 30 Days of Deals site.

Native-ity scene
The divide between church and state has effectively disappeared from digital publishing. While all the publishers contacted for this piece stressed that editors still choose the contents of their official gift guides, several are now having conversations with advertisers about opportunities for product placement and sponsored content around gift guides and recommendations.

“We’ll work with our partners where we feel it’s appropriate,” Time Inc.’s Lee said. “And where it meets our editorial guidelines and standards.”

Other publishers, including BuzzFeed, have turned gift guides into a native ad opportunity, creating customized gift guides for advertisers.

In the old days, publishers would simply cover the hysteria surrounding must-haves this year. Today, they can try to sell it themselves, either via affiliate links or through their very own stores.

For example, the Business Insider Picks team, which is twice the size it was this time last year, uses data about trending topics to figure out what to offer readers; that same team will then try to find the specific products, which they then test before recommending them. “We use it to be strategic about which categories we’re focusing on,” said Breton Fischetti, Business Insider’s senior director of commerce.

(Monetizable) distribution
At this time last year, no one was talking about Instagram or Pinterest as serious commerce drivers. Today, there are publishers that have turned Instagram into a top sales channel, and others are plowing resources back into Pinterest now that it’s introduced affiliate links. That’s why several publishers, including Popsugar, will experiment with dropping shoppable links to gift guide items into Instagram Stories and publishing their gift guides directly to Pinterest.

A still from Karlie Kloss's segment on Popsugar's live gift giving show, which will run live on a number of platforms, including Facebook Live, on December 6.
A still from Karlie Kloss’s segment on Popsugar’s live gift giving show, which will run live on a number of platforms, including Facebook Live, on December 6.

Then there’s the chance to move something that’s working to a new platform. Popsugar, which has hosted live gift guide shows on platforms like YouTube for the past five years, is moving the new format over to Facebook Live too, where it’s hoping the draw of celebrity talent like Karlie Kloss and Ayesha Curry will prompt users to tune in across several different channels. “It’s a big tentpole for us,” said David Grant, the president of Popsugar Studios.

Doubling down
There’s nothing wrong with pouring more resources into something that works. Sometimes that just means increasing staffing — BuzzFeed’s commerce team is more than three times larger than it was in January — and sometimes it means investing more substantially in a holiday idea. Refinery29, for example, which has published over a dozen gift guides for this holiday season already, significantly expanded the gift guide curator it built last year. This year, users tell the site what kind of person they’re shopping for, ask them to identify some personality traits, then Refinery29 will produce a small list of suggestions, drawn from over 100 its editors have vetted.

Photo credit: Refinery29

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