How commerce publishers cozy up to direct-to-consumer brands

raining money

As direct-to-consumer brands from Brooklinen to Curology try to wean themselves off of Facebook ads, commerce-focused publishers are trying to help fill the marketing gap.

This spring, the science publisher Inverse began pitching DTC brands sponsored posts about their products. The posts, marked as advertisements, would run on Inverse’s site and in its newsletter, and link to the brands’ sites. When the posts drove sales for products, Inverse has forged deals to get a cut of the sales.

Branded content is often thought of as too expensive for most DTC brands, which remain small relative to major retailers or legacy brands. Inverse founder Dave Nemetz said the publisher’s average branded content deal costs over $100,000. But its DTC packages start in the five-figure range to let these performance-obsessed marketers see if they’re a good fit before ramping up spending.

Using this approach, Inverse said it is negotiating “six-figure” investments that involve more content and more distribution with DTC brands that initially signed on for the five-figure trial.

“We’re trying to put ourselves in the shoes of the marketers,” Nemetz said. “I think a lot of them felt that as Facebook’s targeting capabilities have narrowed and they’ve kind of mined out the audiences they can reach there, they’ve looked for other places.”

E-commerce has grown as a percentage of overall sales, leading publishers to get more involved in it and spawning new brands that appeal directly to shoppers through digital and physical channels.

Those brands, in turn, have grown more interested in using publishers to get exposure. Five commerce-focused publishers contacted for this story say they have noticed a big uptick in inbound interest from DTC brands in the past year.

In the past, that endorsement was often packaged into Facebook ads. More recently, though, DTC brands have been more interested in forging affiliate commerce deals with publishers because ads on publishers’ sites can lead to more sales than Facebook ads.

“We’ve seen a real maturing of the publisher affiliate ecosystem,” said Ariel Kaye, the CEO and founder of Parachute, a DTC linens company. “That has become very fruitful for a ton of e-commerce companies, and it’s very mutually beneficial. Getting a publisher endorsement works really well.”

Working with DTC brands has its wrinkles for publishers. Historically, DTC brands have focused on performance advertising over the brand-building advertising that’s common among their legacy counterparts. Publishers will have to train them to do more branded content, which is expensive and hard to tie to performance.

As competition among DTC brands in Facebook’s news feed grew more heated, they also faced more competition for publisher approval. Publishers say the pitches they get from DTC brands, particularly those in competitive categories like mattresses, don’t just emphasize the virtues of their products, but the high commission rates they pay publishers.

In some cases, those pitches even come with bribes, which are non-starters for publishers that care about their editorial integrity.

Camilla Cho, gm of e-commerce at New York Media, said she’s heard of DTC brands, which she wouldn’t name, offering to pay to be included in posts. “It’s getting ridiculous,” Cho said. “But I guess if the ROI is there for them, it’s maybe not all that ridiculous.”

Jessica Probus, the director of BuzzFeed Market, said the publisher has done posts with DTC brands that helped drive sales for the brands, leading them to do more advertising with BuzzFeed. But it’s tricky for publishers to monetize interest from a DTC brand that they’ve never or rarely written about, she said.

“There are certain brands or types of products that are tough to write about editorially,” Probus said.

More in Media

YouTube is under fire again, this time over child protection

Adalytics Research asks, ‘Are YouTube advertisers inadvertently harvesting data from millions of children?’

Illustration of a puzzle that spells out the word 'media.'

Media Briefing: Publishers pump up per-subscriber revenue amid ad revenue declines

Publishers’ Q2 earnings reveal digital advertising is still in a tight spot, but digital subscriptions are picking up steam.

Lessons for AI from the ad-tech era: ‘We’re living in a memory-less world’

Experts reflect how the failures of social media and online advertising can help the industry improve the next era of innovation.