E-commerce has become an essential part of today’s world, and media publishers who haven’t already gotten on board with it should immediately start finding strategies that could work for them.
“This is too big a market to miss out on,” Damian Radcliffe told INMA members during Wednesday’s members-only Webinar, Why publishers need an e-commerce strategy (and how to implement it). “Whether you feel comfortable with it or not, this is a space that publishers need to crack. Because otherwise, this is a huge amount of consumer and advertising spend that is just going elsewhere. Publishers can’t afford to overlook that market.”
Radcliffe, a digital analyst, journalist, researcher, author, and professor of journalism and practice at the University of Oregon, took a deep dive into the trends, drivers, and value of e-commerce for publishers. He explained that although e-commerce was already thriving pre-pandemic, COVID-19 lockdowns created a massive spike early in 2020 as consumers turned online to find the goods they could no longer buy in person.
“E-commerce saw five years’ worth of growth in a year driven by COVID,” he said. “Now it has changed shopping for good.”
Although growth is slowing, it will continue and by 2024, media investment company Group M projects that one-fourth of all commerce will be done online.
“This is not just unique to developed markets,” Radcliffe noted. “People are shopping online all around the world, and about six in 10 people are buying something online every week.”
The most popular purchases in terms of revenue are:
- Toys, hobby, DIY
- Personal and household care
- Physical media
Radcliffe suggested that knowing the breadth and depth of these markets is useful to publishers, as it can help guide them in making decisions about which areas of e-commerce could be a good fit for them. As advertising revenue declines, he said more publishers “are increasingly embracing e-commerce as part of a suite of different revenue strategies.” It has now become the fourth most important type of revenue for publishers. And as media companies realise they need three or four different revenue streams, it will continue to grow in value and importance.
Examples of e-commerce innovation
Radcliffe shared some of the more high-profile examples of publishers leveraging e-commerce, such as The New York Times creating a standalone subscription for its popular Wirecutter review section. Review Web sites have enjoyed tremendous growth in recent years. The next logical step is to provide links to products for consumers to buy them, he said.
Another new approach sees the content recommendation model used on digital platforms being used to encourage readers to buy products. For example, Taboola, the content discovery platform, recently acquired an e-commerce component that allows publishers to integrate product offers and recommendations into their Web sites, creating a significant revenue stream. And some brands, such as Forbes and GQ, are creating e-commerce shops offering their brand logo on apparel and merchandise.
The combination of growing consumer spend and the appeal of e-commerce as a growing revenue priority for publishers is driving new merger and acquisition strategies, creating new verticals, and encouraging news media companies to look at how to use the combination of content and commerce as part of their revenue mix.
Putting e-commerce into action
“There is a myriad of different ways that e-commerce can be implemented, and it can be found across pretty much any content vertical,” Radcliffe said. He showed examples of how publications are using features that allow consumers to click through and buy goods featured in articles. This can be used in nearly every area, from fashion to food to travel.
Radcliffe returned to the topic of product reviews, noting that most people who are reading reviews are ready to buy.
“Consumers really value reviews. They go to sites where they trust the reviews,” he said, reiterating that the next logical step is to let them click on a link that lets them buy the product. “This is just about making the consumer journey as simple as possible.”
Historically, publishers have provided information on products, then sent them to a third party to make the purchase, he said: “Unless you have an existing affiliate relationship with those third-party platforms, publishers miss out on that spend that they’ve played such an instrumental part in making [the sale] happen.”
Radcliffe presented seven strategies news publishers could use to incorporate e-commerce into their revenue mix:
- Affiliate marketing. This is presently the most commonly used source of e-commerce for publishers, allowing them to earn commissions on conversions or clicks on Web sites, social media, etc. Radcliffe said it can be “a substantial source of income” for publishers, and news brands carry the kind of credibility and cache that brands want to align with. This can be particularly useful for review sections of publications.
- Online stores. Many publications are creating their own stores with branded merchandise.
- Memberships. In the evolving subscription economy — which is expected to hit $1.5 trillion by 2025 — consumers are embracing the membership mindset. Wine clubs, for example, boomed during lockdowns and that same model can be applied to food delivery, beauty products, and more.
- Retail partnerships. Partnering with retailers to provide a click-through purchasing experience can boost revenue. In the case of BuzzFeed’s Tasty, a partnership with Walmart allows consumers to click on a cart at the end of the recipe and find all the ingredients waiting to be ordered.
- Classes and courses. Online courses and one-off classes became essential during lockdowns, and they still provide a way for consumers to learn anything from new languages to DIY home improvements.
- Physical experiences. Tapping into in-person experiences can be profitable, too. This includes things like offering travel booking services alongside articles on destinations.
- Digital experiences. Of course, virtual events remain popular, too. News media companies became adept at converting live events to online experiences during the pandemic and can profit by selling tickets and sponsorships.
No time to waste
Radcliffe emphasised that his examples were not forward-looking; they are all examples of what is being done with e-commerce today. And it’s important for publishers to create and implement a strategy sooner rather than later to remain competitive. He concluded with a summary of the top eight trends that are shaping e-commerce.
- Social commerce. This blend of e-commerce and social media is changing how consumers shop. Currently, it’s a huge source of sales in China, and Radcliffe said to watch that market as an indicator of what is going to happen with it globally.
- Live streaming. Again, this is a significant revenue stream in China that is picking up steam in the United States. It allows customers to purchase products during live streaming videos with a simple click.
- Augmented Reality. AR allows customers to “try on” things like clothing, shoes, and even makeup shades before they buy. Retailers anticipate it will reduce the number of returns while encouraging people to shop online.
- Visual search. This allows users to snap a photo offline, and platforms like Pinterest and eBay can help them find a store to buy it.
- New payment models. The “buy now, pay later” method has gained traction, with companies including Mastercard, PayPal, and Shopify offering the option to make payments in interest-free installments rather than paying the full purchase price up front.
- Shoppable video. Like AR, this is starting to get more attention. It allows users to scan a QR code and be taken directly to the marketer’s site for purchase.
- E-commerce everywhere. As all the trends come together, Radcliffe predicts e-commerce will be pervasive. “It’s going to be everywhere — on our social feed, on Web sites, on television — and it’s going to be easier and easier for [publishers] to do this as well: through QR codes, text messaging … and on screens.”
- Frictionless future. Ultimately, e-commerce experiences will become the purchasing process as seamless as possible.
“These [things] are all taking place now. None of this is fanciful or far-fetched,” Radcliffe said. “I think what’s important for publishers and content creators is to think about how to implement this into their e-commerce work because this is what consumers are already doing and what they’re going to expect.”