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A new commercial strategy for online publishers

12 Sep 2016  |  Alicia Navarro 
A new commercial strategy for online publishers

Alicia Navarro explains why a growing trend in the online publishing world could completely revitalise revenues

There is a trend that is sweeping the publisher community that no one talks about. There is an abundance of talk about editorial content and how to curate excellent journalism; and there are debates over the value of sponsored content and the brandshare studios developed by publishers to cater to this revenue source.

But where is the discussion about the fact that more and more publishers are embracing the role of commerce within their content, and are staffing up appropriately to support this?

It is still a burgeoning space, and many publishers are still feeling their way around how best to create and derive meaningful revenues from commerce content, but plenty have nailed it, and their learnings can strengthen the publishing industry as a whole.

Firstly, it's worth covering what the benefits of commerce content, or 'comtent' are. Beyond the immediate returns from affiliate commissions that can be earned from consumers buying the products mentioned in publications, publishers can gain insights and data that power other parts of their business.

The insights come in the form of an understanding of the buying behaviours and preferences of their readers: what retailers do they like to buy from, what products do they like to buy, what content inspires them.

This kind of insight can arm a publisher to create new types of content, or focus on new areas they may not have otherwise thought their readers were passionate about.

Knowing what kind of content makes your readers literally "put their money where their mouth is" is incredibly powerful knowledge, and should form part of the basic metrics any editorial team measures when they assess content engagement.

Staffing up editors with responsibility over commerce is a crucial initial step in a publisher's journey to really succeeding with comtent.

The responsibilities of a commerce editor vary depending on the publisher, but in essence their primary goals are: to infuse content written by traditional editors with relevant and helpful shopping links; to create dedicated comtent in the publisher's style and voice; and to continually refresh evergreen pieces of comtent with up-to-date links and persistent URLs.

For many publishing houses, commerce editors are also involved in responding to sponsored content briefs, often working alongside a dedicated team ensuring the tone of voice for the content is in keeping with the overall publisher's style. And another common trend is for commerce editors to be trained in SEO techniques.

This is to ensure their pieces of evergreen content - shopping guides, product guides, style guides, etc. - are easily searchable over time in search engines, and are fresh and relevant whenever they are so discovered.

In all the publishers that have employed commerce editors - BuzzFeed, Hearst, and many more - the rewards are exceptional. Commerce editors are often the highest revenue earners per employee in the company, and the revenue they can generate per intentional post outweighs by far what can be earned via incidental affiliatisation of regular editorial content.

Look at the success of publishers like The Wirecutter, Refinery29 and Gizmodo"

However, the beauty of commerce editors is they are not creating functional pieces of content that will have a short life span or limited exposure: comtent is ultimately great content.

Look at the success of publishers like The Wirecutter, Refinery29 and Gizmodo. These are all sites which are near entirely comtent-based, yet are no less popular, engaging and trusted as a result. They prove that good quality comtent is a great content strategy, and has enormous revenue and insight benefits that ensue as a result.

The biggest objection we hear when we suggest creating a commerce team is, "but what will we write about?". For some publishers, there may not be an obvious route to authentically weaving commerce into their content.

But in almost all cases, a publisher is able to come upon a comtent strategy that is natural and additive to their brand.

Gizmodo launched Dealzmodo and Kinja Deals to successfully weave deals into their device/tech news. BuzzFeed very naturally includes esoteric product lists into their listicle-based content. Hearst admirably launched alongside their respected journalism brands. The Independent newspaper has long been respected for its clever and helpful IndyBest product guides.

All these forays into comtent are headed by commerce teams that care first and foremost about creating excellent content, that incidentally monetises, but never sacrifices quality and user trust. And their readerships and revenues have responded positively as a result.

To any publisher considering branching into comtent, here is a simple guide.

Start first by measuring and monitoring what is already happening organically by your editors. You'll start to get a feel for what your users respond to naturally.

Then brainstorm with your editors: what kind of commerce-related content do they think their users would value and respect, what would feel natural and right for your brand.

Then hire a dedicated commerce editor who really gets your audience, and can talk about products and shopping experiences in a way that feels true to your voice and readers.

Measure what works, and iterate continually, and scale once you get a good sense for what enhances your brand and readership.

Don't be afraid to experiment, gems lie in unusual places: BuzzFeed is doing exciting things with video and commerce; Gizmodo has done innovative things with community and commerce.

And then...not only watch the incremental revenues flow in, but see how your readership expands, and how your understanding of who your readers are gets richer and more valuable.

Alicia Navarro is CEO and co-founder of Skimlinks

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