Three ways publishers are bringing sophistication to e-commerce

On Monday, The New York Times announced it had purchased The Wirecutter and its sister site, The Sweethome, for just over $30 million. The deal gives the Gray Lady a new source of income and its first taste of affiliate marketing, a revenue stream publishers have been exploring to supplement display ad revenue.

The Times is hardly the first publisher to go there. Publishers have for years been trying to get credit for the purchases they inspire on their pages and websites. Some experiments are now scuttled, like New York magazine’s Shop-A-Matic and, but new ones are popping up all the time: In the past two months, relaunched as a commerce hub, and New York unveiled The Strategist, a web page offering product recommendations.

But these days, publishers aren’t trying e-commerce out as an experiment. Several publishers’ operations have gotten more sophisticated. Here are three ways publishers are making e-commerce into a real business.

Rewarding loyalty
Two years ago, Purch, a publisher of B2B and B2C brands that earns more than half of its revenue from e-commerce and lead generation, decided that it was overly reliant on search traffic, and that it needed to find a way to get more people to come back to its owned and operated sites.

Purch launched Perks, a loyalty site similar to another site it acquired, Active Junkie. Perks customizes its look and feel based on the site its visitors arrive from and has a loyalty program that offers cash to shoppers as a reward for buying there.

While Perks has only been live for a month, it’s already attracting the same number of daily users that Active Junkie did. “I’d much rather make $3 off you three times than $5 off you once,” said Phil Barrett, Purch’s senior vp and gm of shopper services. “Give away and build trust, and you will be rewarded.”

Building relationships
For the most part, publishers looking to make money from e-commerce rely on affiliate marketing.

An exception today is Food52, which earns two-thirds of its revenue actually selling things, everything from kitchen gadgets to tickets to its events. And a key way Food52 drives those sales is by fostering community, according to COO Bridget Williams. That means lot of the content is either reader recipes or responds to reader needs, like a hotline where readers ask product and recipe questions. That same strategy applies to products. A third of the products it sells are exclusives, and it has allowed readers to vote on what color items should be before they go on sale at the site. “If you try to weld on a commerce appendage with no POV, community or credibility, you will fail,” Williams said.

Recycling evergreen content
With every new monetization strategy comes new hacks. Alicia Navarro, the co-founder of Skimlinks, an affiliate marketing partner used by many publishers, including Refinery29 and Time Inc., sees larger publisher clients returning to what works, again and again. If a publisher finds success with a gift-guide post filled with affiliate links, for example, it can earn more revenue on the same post by swapping in new products and recirculating it to its readers. 

“The lifetime value of a piece of content can be really, really high,” Navarro said.

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