Inside the Wirecutter’s 65-person Thanksgiving war room

The most important shopping time of the year is upon us, and The New York Times’ most important shopping acquisition is ready to go.

Since the Times purchased the Wirecutter for an estimated $30 million in October 2016, the editorial head count at the commerce-focused publisher has nearly doubled to 55, and the ways the Times has integrated Wirecutter content into its core properties have steadily grown, starting with a deals feed visible on select pages last November to a recurring technology column, “Ask The Wirecutter,” to a Times co-branded gift guide that was published on Monday.

Starting on Nov. 23 and rolling into next week, all 55 of those edit staffers, plus ten support staffers, will work in shifts to sift through a fire hose of deal offers coming from the retailers participating in America’s biggest digital shopping weekend, looking for discounts on the hundreds of items its staffers have already reviewed.

“This is a companywide priority,” said Adam Burakowski, Wirecutter’s deals editor. “There’s a lot of growth potential in just improving what we do already.”

Once its staffers find something enticing, either with the help of software or through their own sources at retailers, they’ll put them on a special Wirecutter deals page that is going live on Nov. 22, using a CMS their developers overhauled so editorial staffers can get an offer onto the page in under one minute, according to editors.

Though Wirecutter built its name through exhaustively researched and thorough product reviews, its coverage of e-commerce deals has helped it build a recurring audience. Its deals page regularly ranks among the top five most popular pages on Wirecutter’s site, month in and month out, Burakowski said.

During the holiday shopping season, Wirecutter’s deals team has to change its tactics, not just to keep up with the volume of deals it has to evaluate but to get them in front of its audience more quickly. “In the holiday season, a deal might only last one minute,” Burakowski said. “We have to give our readers at least a chance.”

The biggest problem Wirecutter’s edit staff faces during the holiday is the sheer number of deals it has to look through. Last year, the Wirecutter editorial team, then just 35 people, evaluated more than 23,000 deals on various goods; it published posts about just 66 of them.

While the Wirecutter staffers were able to rely at least partly on a software program called Phoenix to evaluate some of them automatically, Burakowski said most of those offers had to be examined by a human. Existing software doesn’t take Amazon coupons into account, for example, and it doesn’t always detect products offered on Amazon’s platform by third-party sellers.

Having a substantially larger editorial staff this time should allow Wirecutter to share more deals this holiday season, said Burakowski, though he expects the ratio of posts to offers to remain similarly low.

But the bigger staff count didn’t address the site’s speed problem. Until recently, the Wirecutter’s content-management system, which required edit staffers to manually select a product from an existing database, create a separate deal entry associated with that product, write it up and tag it, was seen as too slow; a previous workaround, which involved tweeting all the offers from the Wirecutter’s deals account, then aggregating the tweets on its site using a widget, looked awkward on mobile and sometimes malfunctioned.

To fix it, the site’s development team removed the product selection and deal entry steps. Thanks to the changes, Burakowski said the work of creating a deal post is slightly longer than creating a tweet.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have long been vitally important days to the American retail industry. Consumers spent $3.39 billion on Cyber Monday in 2016, a 10 percent increase year over year, according to Adobe estimates.

But in recent years, publishers have become responsible for an increasingly large share of those transactions. While search traffic and direct visits to retailers’ sites still combine to account for a majority of the purchases — 36 percent and 24 percent, respectively — shopping helper sites accounted for 19 percent of the purchases last year, a share that’s up 15 percent year over year, according to Adobe data.

“Publishers are all trying to figure out how to increase the lifetime value of their customers,” said Sarah Bundy, the founder and CEO of affiliate marketing firm All Inclusive Marketing. “The content and commerce guys have been really powerful for more top- to mid-funnel consumers. But during Black Friday, if [publishers] can deliver a best-of-the-web offer, that’s where a lot of those transactions are going to take place.”

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