How publishers are using e-commerce to build their brand and generate revenue post COVID-19

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After digital channels achieved a decade’s worth of retail sales in eight weeks in the US earlier this year, publishers are now placing more emphasis than ever on diversifying their e-commerce streams.

The takeaways:
  • Online shopping surged during the pandemic, and in July, e-commerce rose by 54% and 47% YoY in the UK and the US, respectively.
  • E-commerce integrations on various apps and platforms are becoming more popular and driving more sales, with publishers having seen a noticeably more positive response from users.
  • Publishers jumped at the opportunity to help their readers find the products they needed, and as just one example, Hearst’s e-commerce revenue grew by 322% in Q2 of this year.

There was plenty of innovation amongst publishers during the pandemic. The New York magazine shopping subsidiary, The Strategist, launched their own version of Prime Day in late July. This initiative achieved 50% increase in both click-through rate, earnings per click, and an 85% increase in year-on-year revenue in Q2.

Is this a good thing for publishers?: On one hand, yes: the shift to deliver a more thoughtful, editorially-led approach, rather than bombarding users with cookie-driven ads or branded content, could restore some level of trust between reader and publisher.

The thorny side: Alternatively, there’s a danger that if publishers place too much importance on e-commerce as a stream of revenue, readers may become disillusioned.

The investment: Many publishers have already committed resource and financial investment to their e-commerce streams, establishing long-term plans to grow this area of the business, with the recent influx of online shopping providing opportunities to test out strategies and observing user behavior.

  • British tabloid The Sun employs a team of up to 25 to work exclusively on its e-commerce feature, Sun Selects, which uses search trends tools to curate its product selections and sources discounts directly from brands.
  • Magazine publisher Hearst also has a team dedicated to accelerating growth in commerce across all of their publications, and off the back of their huge success in this area, will be launching a campaign later this year that will use augmented reality to demo beauty products to readers.
  • Buzzfeed’s commercial success over the last year mirrors its counterparts; having generated over $300M in product sales in 2019, the publisher hopes to build a stronger relationship with shoppers going forward, and is planning to launch its own e-commerce platform to capitalize on this.

Social e-commerce: Tiktok is just one of several social media platforms taking a step forward in the e-commerce journey, but their user-centered approach will differ.

  • Instagram launched its in-app checkout feature to selected brands in March 2019, and the platform have recently opened it up to all eligible brands across the U.S.
  • Last month, Facebook added the e-commerce feature to its main app, following on from their launch of the cross-platform Shops integration in May.
  • Tiktok’s new partnership with Teespring, an external commerce platform, will allow the bigger creators to create, design, and sell merchandise to their audience, without handling any of the inventory or production of the products.

The roll-up: We can expect to see more of a focus on unique and engaging e-commerce strategies from publishers over the next few years, particularly if shopping at bricks-and-mortar stores becomes less practical, post-pandemic.


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