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Trailblazing publishers say successful content commerce initiatives require thinking beyond traditional affiliate tactics

Over the past several years, publishers and their advertisers have begun taking advantage of the opportunities that lie at the intersection of content and commerce.
Faced with declining revenues and market challenges, publishers have, over the past several years, looked for creative ways to improve their bottom lines. For many, the solution has come in the form of content commerce, a sales channel that uses content itself as a marketing tool, thus providing revenue that goes beyond site traffic or paid acquisition. including those that limited their ability to charge higher CPMs,

These trailblazing publishers say successful content commerce initiatives have required thinking beyond traditional affiliate marketing tactics while finding ways to grow effective partnerships with advertisers. That often triggers a cultural shift, as both sides must think about building a brand narrative to connect with customers. This can be particularly challenging for publishers reluctant to have editorial and marketing teams work in tandem.

Advertisers, too, must adopt a different perspective and strategy in allowing the publisher to own the checkout experience.

Often, the first step into content commerce is recognizing its potential, said Jessica Spira, the Vice President of Partner Growth and Management for Ziff Media Group. The commerce group at Ziff began in 2011, when it was entirely supported by display revenue. But the need to diversify revenue streams while continuing to serve readers pushed Ziff’s teams into monetizing content in new ways. In 2013, Spira was the only person on the client-facing side, focused mainly on creating content distribution deals. When Ziff started evaluating the data, which the opportunity became clear and content commerce has since become “integral” to what Ziff produces, Spira said.

For Ziff and other publishers, including NBCUniversal Media, the growth of these initiatives has hinged on partnerships built from teamwork, shared goals and a commitment to maintaining the trust of readers.

Hallie Gellman is responsible for Commerce Partnerships at NBCUniversal Media for the TODAY Show and NBC News digital. Rather than letting a third-party aggregator manage the affiliate relationship, she’s pushed to transition NBCU’s key partnerships into direct ones using affiliate platforms like CJ, Impact, AWIN and Rakuten.

“The added benefit is more collaboration with our direct partnerships, unlocking the opportunity to innovate and test,” she said.

As the partnership scales up, it’s critical that both the publisher and the brand working on content commerce consider and prioritize the “entire customer journey,” said Jaime Singson, the Senior Director of Product and Content Marketing at Impact. Impact helps both publishers and brands go through the “partnership life cycle” of finding and recruiting each other, as well as developing contracts, determining payout strategies and creating mechanisms to track success.

“It’s about going beyond being an affiliate manager and becoming a partnership manager,” Singson said. “As a partnership manager, you then think about how the customer got to that last click.”

For publishers, that means developing content that meets their audience’s wants and needs. That requires teamwork and communication between the analytics, commerce and editorial departments. For example, the analytics team alerts others to what content is grabbing attention, the editorial team writes about brands and products they like and would recommend to their readers, while the commerce team goes out to forge relationships with those brands."

“That’s the ideal collaborative model,” Singson said.

For many publishers with strict lines between their editorial and business departments, the first step of content commerce may just be affiliate links.

Spira said it’s important for all the teams to understand the risks of losing reader trust if editorial lines become too blurry.

“Senior leadership needs to set ground rules and the teams need to work together and trust each other,” she said. At PCMag, for example, she can request that an editor look at a product but it’s ultimately up to the editor to decide if and how they review it. The editorial staff knows that, as do the members of her team.

“As a result, we can work toward a common goal,” she said.

For Gellman, much of her day-to-day work is interacting with the sales team to educate them about the benefit and potential of commerce, which was launched at NBC News just a few years ago. The content produced for the NBC News properties is primarily editorial, where the majority of commerce content across the NBCU portfolio is branded content.

Advertisers also need to be nimble and flexible in what they can offer in order to drive the best value to the publisher on the other side of the partnership, Gellman said. Publishers know their audience best and a strong partnership puts both quality content and appropriate brands in front of the target demographic.

Gellman recommends testing out various types of content and product mixes to see what converts. Surveying audiences can also offer perspective about what kinds of brands and content they want to see more of. For example, surveys showed that 90% of the TODAY audience wants or intends to purchase something they saw on the show or the site.

TODAY's growing franchise, Steals & Deals, has been airing on TODAY for 10 years and provides a minimum of five exclusive and premium offers on items for TODAY viewers.

“Doing check-ins with your audience is essential to either content strategy or find new ways to advance your business,” Gellman said, adding that meeting audiences where they are at is also key. “If your audience is primarily on social platforms, distribute more content on social and optimize that content with commerce.”

The ideal model of collaboration that Singson envisions requires a strong sense of teamwork and a growth in perspective for both publishers and advertisers.

“It again comes down to that collaboration and those conversations,” Singson said.

Spira and Gellman will be joined by Tom Rathbone, the Vice President of strategic initiatives at PartnerCentric, for a webinar focused on the intersection of content and commerce. The webinar, sponsored by Impact, will be held on Jan. 27 at 4 p.m. EST.