She who controls supply and demand will rule the internet. Publishers are recognizing that they must become whole ecosystems to thrive and commerce is a key component (again).
The ‘content and commerce’ movement was supposedly dead when Ben Lerer (Thrillist) and Jason Ross (JackThreads) chose to part ways. With this failure (hint: it really wasn’t a failure), it emboldened many in publishing to proclaim that commerce didn’t work.
Across newsrooms, from coast to coast, many publishing executives ignored investing in eCommerce between 2014-2017. Affiliate marketing teams were prioritized over ad sales teams and as a result, well-written articles went from literary showcases to collages of products to purchase. As ad sales continue to dwindle and affiliate sales remain on shaky ground, many of the healthiest digital publishers had a paradigm shift of sorts:
- How do we gain independence from platforms like Facebook?
- How do we hedge against falling ad sales and a weakening affiliate market?
- How do we foster community within our readership?
For many non-subscription and subscription digitals alike, merchandising has been used to address each of these questions. By building community, publications become a destination. Digiday covered this phenomenon, “The story behind that New Yorker tote bag.”
The must-have signifier of urbane sophistication in 2017 wasn’t Yeezys or torn jeans. It was a tote bag that The New Yorker gives to new subscribers.
The bag itself isn’t new — it’s been a gift the glossy has given out since 2014 — but thanks to Donald Trump and an iconic design, the bag became a hit. The magazine’s marketing department has distributed over 500,000 of them to new subscribers and existing ones, who soon started asking for bags of their own.
So below, we have super powers of ten publishers that are ahead of the curve:
GOOP (venture-backed digital publisher):
Gwyneth Paltrow’s venture is unabashed about commerce promotion and her journalists are on board. Though Goop has journalism careerist in Elise Loehnen on staff as the Head of Content, eCommerce takes the top billing, above the fold. Though their digital platform is clearly eCommerce-first, the first two issues of the new print publication is as journalism-first as it gets. It’s a well-done magazine.
Crooked Media (podcast network):
Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett are running the most powerful podcast network in America. They aren’t just building a new-aged content business, their super power is simple: Crooked is the tip of the resistance spear. In 2017, they launched eCommerce with Cotton Bureau and moved 40,000+ units that have ended up on community members on TedX stages and NBA post-game press conferences. With the advent of a new Crooked.com, they’ve taken control of their audio / journalism / and merchandising plays and it seems to be working.
BuzzFeed (venture-backed digital publisher):
When Ben Kaufmann took over at BuzzFeed, I knew that greatness was in store. And he hasn’t disappointed. His leadership has seen an increase in commerce activity and it’s clear that BuzzFeed’s commerce super power is agility. Here is a shortlist of their active stores and direct to consumer plays: buzzfeed.com/shopping tastyshop.com homesick.com shop.nifty.co shop.buzzfeed.com wordywine.com duplobricknames.com muralkit.com glamspin.com socialsabotage.com
Barstool Sports (venture-backed digital publisher):
You can disagree with Dave Portnoy’s antics and still recognize that Barstool has something special. This New York office’s super power is that male adolescence sells. Just ask Rob Gronkowski’s marketing agent. And for now, at least, college-aged men are still attracted to this rambunctious lifestyle.
Criminal (top podcast):
Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer led the charge and developed a true-crime podcast that would influence dozens of others. They have had great success in commerce, eventually shutting down their own store for Cotton Bureau’s new store offering. Their super power is focus. Because they’ve outsourced all eCommerce operations to Pittsburgh’s Cotton Bureau, it’s allowed them to stay ahead of the curve in a tightening podcast industry.
Gear Patrol (independent digital publisher):
Eric Yang and Ben Bowers cofounded this company in 2007 and I am proud to have worked with them. This publisher’s super power is diversity in the senior ranks of the company and the autonomy to move on hunches. One bi-product of that diversity was a refocused effort between the ad sales and commerce teams. The Westerlind x Gear Patrol digital / bricks partnership emphasize an effort to lead in outdoorsman-focused lifestyle and merchandising.
New York Times (publicly-traded digital publisher):
I was standing with NYT’s Talis Lin when he foretold the Times’ revamped efforts with Shopify Plus and these new efforts haven’t disappointed. Like Crooked Media and the New Yorker, the Times’ executive team has recognized that a readership is a community and they’ve built a selection of products that foster this community. One of the most trafficked pages in the store? Merchandise for The Daily is moving like hot cakes. The New York Times’ super power is thinking like a young, independent publisher.
The West Wing Weekly (top podcast):
Joshua Molina and Hrishikesh Hirway launched TWWW as an homage to one of the most beloved shows on television and it happens to be one of the most well-merchandised podcasts in the industry. They just get it. Community is about highlighting hidden jokes and themes that only the biggest fans will recognize. Merchandising is more than logos, it’s a badge of honor for community members.
Here is a one-off exchange from Season four of The West Wing, it inspired one of their most popular products:
JOSH: Who’s at the event?
DONNA: Aimee Mann, the Barenaked Ladies, Chrissie Hynde, Sixpence None The Richer, Aaron Neville, Diamondback Whale, Daisy Chain, Next Big Thing, The Cruel Shoes, and Single-Cell Paramecium.
JOSH: You’ve just been practicing for when I asked the question, right?
JOSH: And you made up Cruel Shoes?
DONNA: No, Single-Cell Paramecium.
Uncrate (independent digital publisher):
This Columbus, Ohio buying guide has featured some of the coolest things on the internet. Years of those features will lead to some strong relationships. In 2017, Uncrate launched Supply and sourced a succession of product collaborations that were well-designed. Product sourcing is this independent publisher’s super power.
Showtime (publicly-traded subscription service):
Axe Capital is one of the most intriguing fictional companies on television. It should be no surprise that I’ve stumbled upon a handful of sophisticated finance-types wearing these branded hedge fund vests on a spring day in Manhattan. They are in on the joke.
But more than just intellectual property hawking, Showtime is innovating here. Their store software is capable of overlaying store content on screen during broadcasts.
Connekt’s patent for T-Commerce enables seamless and secure viewer engagement and checkout by combining consumer profiles with pre-existing registration services.
Showtime is preparing for an Apple TV-driven entertainment world where purchasing products is as simple as authorizing your iTunes account to spend $44.95 for the XL vest that Bobby Axlerod was wearing. Hey, he’s the rare villain that you root for.
As media and brand converge, controlling the ecosystem is key for many players. Success in merchandising is a foremost indicator that a publisher’s existing community can grow by word of mouth and without the pull of fickle social networks or a decreasing advertising business.