Online gift guides are playing a bigger — and more difficult — role for brands

The header image shows a computer with the words "Gift Guide" on the screen.

This story is part of ‘Now What?’ Digiday Media’s 2021 fall preview, a look at how media, marketing and retail have changed over the past 18 months, and what it means for their futures. Check out the rest of the stories here.

Sustainable candle brand Siblings started emailing gifting and product roundup media outlets in mid-July. 

The brand, explained co-founder David Bronkie, is carefully crafting its pitch to try and get that ever-coveted spot on the gift guide for the holiday season. “We make sure to share our [brand] story and provide great detail on how our products can enhance the gifting roundup,” said Bronkie. “People are looking to the gifting roundups to find unique gifts.” 

This year, the stakes are even higher. Gift guides are important this year, especially after a pandemic-influenced boom in holiday e-commerce and online product discovery last year. Visits at product and gift review sites Strategist, Wirecutter, CNET and Consumer Reports, for example, were up an average of 690% in November through December 2020, year-over-year, according data from traffic analytics firm Similarweb. Affiliate-linked clicks from these guides can help brands find new audiences for their products and drive conversions, explained Ceres Cueva, the head of global publisher partnerships at Rakuten Advertising. (Exact conversions or sales from gift guide media couldn’t be calculated.) As Covid cases rise again this year, the online gifting space remains more impactful than in the past. While brands are focusing their holiday budgets online for this reason, they ultimately have less control than on brick-and-mortar store floors.

Siblings sells its products online via its own direct to consumer site as well as in-store at retailer partners including Nordstrom. Last year the brand knew in-store foot traffic would be smaller than usual, but wanted to offer the option for last minute shoppers. This year the strategy will focus on tightly monitoring ever-changing patterns of in-store foot-traffic, and allocating product online and offline accordingly.

New gifting-focused media

Traditionally, brands had the upper hand in the in-store discovery of the past — showcasing the products they wanted consumers to pay attention to in their own storefronts or investing in paid partnerships to secure premium floor space in big box stores. However, many of the top-searched and most-visited gift guide results today are held by third-party media outlets like New York Time’s Wirecutter or New York Magazine’s Strategist that don’t accept paid placements.

In the past, brands could pay to play in holiday product roundups in glossy print magazines. Today’s product roundup landscape is more egalitarian, focused on top reviews from thousands of consumers, elaborate product testing processes or third party perspectives. Moreover, this media shift is occurring alongside a major acceleration in e-commerce over the past year and a half.

At Wirecutter, explained deputy editor Jason Chen, product selection is an elaborate process. While brands can and do pitch products for consideration, the editorial team also scours the internet for every popular iteration of any given product. The team then puts these products into a comparison table of how each meets different, preselected criteria. From there, the editorial team calls in products to be tested by a team of people of different ages, sizes, backgrounds and interests for both short term and long term testing. Write-ups are often thousands of words, and end up closer to a scientific experiment than a brand-led, pr-pitched guide.

“Compared to other gift sites that might just bop around on Amazon and round them up into a guide, that’s not our bag, we don’t operate that way,” said Jason Chen, Wirecutter’s deputy editor.

Gifts guides have a little more leeway than Wirecutter’s regular roundups, sometimes featuring one staff member’s favorite item for example, but often also include the best products from earlier product testing articles. “It’s kind of taking the best of what has risen to the top of the Wirecutter process, and then adding in a couple of things that are delightful and surprising and beautiful,” said Chen.

Chen said that, in the past, consumers may have used the site as a complement to in-store shopping, reading up on a product online before going to a store to experience it in person, but now many are buying directly after reading.

“You’re almost relying completely on the word of a site on the internet, a reputable site on the internet, but we take that responsibility very seriously,” said Chen.

Strategist, like Wirecutter, also doesn’t accept paid placements. “I think the value that we bring to the table in that sense, is, we do have this bird’s eye view,” said editor Maxine Builder. 

However, other media outlets do offer paid spots. As print dollars dry up, fashion and beauty publications like Elle, Vogue, and Glamour have increasingly embraced explicitly branded content online where fashion and beauty brands can pay to play. Brands can invest in these paid placements or in their own product-focused editorial content on brand sites. However the scale of these efforts under-pace third-party sites like Strategist and Wirecutter in site visits.

The Strategist has 10.7 million monthly views. Goop, one of the few brands or retailers to even build out a full editorial site beyond a branded blog, for example, still only has 2.6 million monthly views, according to Similarweb.

Brands invest holiday dollars elsewhere

Thus, while interest in online gift guides may be skyrocketing, brands’ ability to control the space is diminishing just as quickly. While startups like Siblings are trying to double down on strong PR narratives to speak to this independent media, others are focused on traditional paid advertising rather than gift guides. 

Two year old CBD skincare brand No, Thank You, for example, investment is instead centered on direct advertising and only “supplemented” by third-party paid gift guide placements and organic PR pitches. Holiday advertising, while easier to control through spend than gift guides, still has its challenges however.

“We support our gifting initiatives with online ads,” said No, Thank You co-founder Graham Smith. “That can be tricky in our business… [as] all our products contain full-spectrum CBD… [and] the holidays result in competitive ad bidding so there’s a huge focus on making sure we only run ads that perform well.”

When all else fails, however, brands are betting that 2021 may have more of an in-store focus. Smith said his brand plans to distribute offline for the first time later this year. Siblings is continuing to invest in retailer partnerships with companies like Nordstrom.

“We still believe in the in-store discovery, as it’s hard to replicate that feeling of finding something unique and fun while shopping in-person over the holiday season,” said Bronkie. “Everyone has preferences, and as a brand, we try to be where the customer is and provide the best experience for them.”

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