How publishers are discovering new ecommerce opportunities

A new beginning? 


Publishers were emboldened by ecommerce performance during the pandemic, only to trim their ambitions when that performance fell off. But there are still major opportunities for publishers looking to invest in ecommerce. 

Ecommerce continues to climb publishers’ priority lists. In the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s (RISJ)’s ‘Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends 2024’ report, it ranked fifth in terms of the most important revenue streams for commercial publishers.

Notably, ecommerce activity has climbed 5 percentage points over the previous year. While that speaks in part to the drive for diversified revenue models that smart media companies are pursuing, it is also recognition that ecommerce is in a growth phase. With social commerce and retail media both increasing in prominence and importance, consumers are ever more primed to purchase goods and services online.

Media companies like Future – which has long been heralded as pioneering the model for publisher-based ecommerce through affiliate links – see that as a major opportunity. They reason that they can leverage the pre-existing relationship between a magazine title and its readers to sell products, and take a cut of the sale price as their due. It is not a new technique, and in fact is almost as old as magazine publishing itself, but it is powered by tech that streamlines the process and (in theory) allows the publisher to scale ecommerce activity across its entire portfolio.

However, the same trends that are driving ecommerce growth in the wake of the pandemic (retail media in particular) are also increasing the amount of competition in that space.

As a result publishers are seeking to both improve the customer experience across their existing ecommerce-ready titles – and also to identify which product sectors and verticals are ripe for monetisation through editorial activity.

The usual suspects

Publishers are well-established in a number of ecommerce sectors. Gaming, tech, and automotive are all extremely well catered for, and for good reason: the outlay and expense of creating content is largely the same regardless of what is being sold. However, expensive or “big ticket” items like cars or high-end gaming PCs provide far better returns than smaller-value items, which usually have to be sold at scale to compensate.

That all means that the competition in those spaces is fierce, and there are already incumbent publications fiercely protecting their dominance.

Beauty and fashion are also already well-represented among publications that dabble in ecommerce – think about GQ and Esquire’s recommendations sections – though there is always the opportunity for a little disruption. The US-based conservative publication the Daily Wire receives about 10% of its overall revenue from commerce, after launching a range of razors to spite a previous sponsor that had pulled its marketing activity from the publisher’s site.

Travel has traditionally been a source of affiliate and referral revenues for publishers, with many of the Sunday titles including travel supplements for exactly that reason. However, with an increased number of consumers happily purchasing flights and package holiday deals online, publishers have expanded that activity online.

The Independent in particular has been investing in ecommerce activity around travel and transport. Its chair John Paton said: “Travel is another [area in which The Independent has strong credibility] so we started to focus more heavily on those areas where we have an audience but, more importantly, we have their trust. We invest in things that enhance the brand starting with the journalism and you start investing in the platforms themselves.”

Additionally, financial services have long been an area in which publications enjoy high levels of trust. Time magazine, seeking to take advantage of that, partnered with recommendation engine Taboola early in 2023 to launch a new ecommerce site that focuses upon personal finance – banking, insurance, and mortgages – in addition to the go-to ecommerce categories of homeware, tech and gadgets, fashion, and travel.

New ecommerce activities

However, there are growth categories for ecommerce in which savvy publishers are seeking to establish themselves – and publishers have the advantage of knowing what their audiences are looking for.

For example, recognising that weddings and marriage sales activity is increasingly taking place online: as early as 2021 Swedish media company Aller Media acquired wedding-based provider and platform My Perfect Day.

Notably it based the purchase on a study of its audience’s consumption habits. At the time Fredrik Blomqvist, head of ecommerce at Aller, explained: “They are spending more time on self care and spending more money shopping online. While they are spending time at home they want to be inspired and find joy. They want to try out new recipes, purchase new products.”

TMB (formerly Trusted Media Brands) took a similar approach to launching a range of cooking products. Its president and CEO Bonnie Kintzer said: “We are working on something called ‘Community Cooks’ where we are working to identify cooks all over the country who are doing good things. We’re bringing them in, they’re sharing their recipes with us, and we’re forging a deeper community. This also feeds into our affiliate side because our audience look to us to know what gadgets to buy, what appliances work best, etc – we have a proper test kitchen to assist us with this. It’s an amazing brand.”

BuzzFeed, too, has identified cookware as a growth opportunity for its affiliate activities. Like TMB, it is supporting that growth with a broadened content strategy that highlights underrepresented cuisines and communities through its Tasty sub-brand.

And, while much of the wellness and lifestyle retail activity still takes place in brick-and-mortar stores, publishers in that vertical are also seeing success. Sheel Shah, Hearst Magazine’s SVP of Growth for its wellness portfolio, recently cited titles like Oprah Daily and Men’s Health as having increased readers’ average order value and the frequency of transactions over the course of 2023. Products like dumbbells, which would once have been the preserve of specialist shops in the high street, are now paying their way for Hearst.

What makes these most recent successes notable is that they skew away from the big-ticket items that once made up the majority of publishers’ ecommerce activity. By taking advantage of wider trends in ecommerce around drop shipping and increased propensity to spend on products that were once specific to the high street, publishers are identifying new opportunities to increase their ecommerce revenue.

Chris Sutcliffe

Tech and Media Reporter and Co-Founder of Media Voices 

[email protected]

Martin Tripp Associates is a specialist executive search consultancy. We work globally across the media, information, technology, video games and entertainment sectors, and with some of the world’s biggest brands on communications, digitalmarketing and technology roles. Feel free to contact us to discuss.