Media Briefing: How publishers approached the Amazon sales event amid a breaking news cycle

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This week’s Media Briefing takes a look at how publishers’ commerce content performed during the Amazon Prime Big Deal Days event last week and how, despite a heavy news cycle, affiliate revenue grew year over year.

  • Prime takeaways
  • 3 questions with Adam Roodman
  • News Corp. faces pressure, Scope3 brings in new funds and more

Prime takeaways

It was another successful Amazon Prime shopping event this year for publishers, if the revenue and traffic numbers from their coverage of the Amazon Prime Big Deal Days (PBDD) event held on Oct. 10-11 was any indication.

For the five publishers that shared their PBDD results with Digiday, this year’s October sales event generated even more affiliate revenue than the Prime Early Access Sale at the same time last year. And for one publisher, it even surpassed Amazon Prime Day this July thanks to higher conversion rates and shoppers buying more expensive items during the kick-off to the holiday season.

But audience engagement strategies and the channels used to promote commerce content had to be rethought amid the coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict that dominated the news cycle last week. With less room on news sites’ home pages and other channels to dedicate to coverage of PBDD, some commerce teams leaned more heavily on their newsletters and social platforms to promote their commerce content around the shopping event.

“Prime Day months are the highest earning months for email outside of Black Friday [and] Cyber Monday” for digital wellness site Well + Good, said Dria Barnes, svp of strategy & gm of Good Brands.

A bigger PBDD 

Revenue, sales and traffic to The New York Times’ shopping site Wirecutter was up “significantly” year over year compared to last year’s October shopping event, according to director of commerce partnerships Sarah Wilson. She declined to share figures to support this claim. Though Amazon’s Prime Day event in July remained a “bigger event” and outpaced PBDD in those metrics, Wilson said. 

Mike Bruno, CNN’s vp of commerce for shopping vertical Underscored, echoed this. Revenue and traffic for CNN’s Underscored were “significantly higher” for this year’s Amazon Prime Big Deal Days compared to the same sales event in October 2022, according to Bruno. Total commission revenue from the two-day event was up 60% year over year and traffic to Underscored increased 52% year over year, Bruno said. For comparison, Underscored grew revenue by 98% from July’s Prime Day 2022 to Prime Day 2023, he said, without providing exact figures. 

Meanwhile, Amazon brought in an estimated $144.53 in average spending per customer for PBDD, a 2% increase from last year’s event, according a Bloomberg report.

Buy Side, the Wall Street Journal’s commerce brand, had launched just before Amazon’s October sales event last year, so its year over year comparisons are a bit inflated, but both order numbers and revenue earned from the Oct. 2023 event vs. the Oct. 2022 event increased by 309% and 212%, respectively, said Emily Welsh, gm of Buy Side. Click-through rates also increased by 281% year over year — a figure that also increased by 26% between the July Prime Day event this year and PBDD three months later. 

For Gallery Media, which publishes PureWow and One37pm, year over year affiliate revenue for the October event was up more than 20%, according to chief revenue officer Chris Anthony. The October event even surpassed the July Prime Day event this year with conversions increasing by 17%.

“This [October] Prime Day [was] much more high-end from a price point standpoint, from tech and high-end beauty, whereas in July we saw much more of the household CPG products,” Anthony said, without providing exact figures. 

Given 2022 was a banner year for Gallery’s commerce revenue overall (the company ended the year with the revenue stream up 40% year over year), 2023 by comparison is pacing to be flat versus up once again, Anthony said. And ending flat by and large due to the Amazon sales events outperforming year over year, he added.

Impact of world events on commerce efforts

Due to the breaking news cycle covering the conflict in Israel and Gaza, some of the news publishers said there were fewer opportunities to promote commerce teams’ coverage of Amazon’s shopping event than originally planned.

CNN’s Underscored team “omitted some planned promotions” on its other platforms such as the homepage and social channels to give space to the news teams, Bruno said. He added that this change had “minimal impact” on the Underscored team in terms of traffic and sales.

Wirecutter typically promotes its coverage of large shopping events on The New York Times homepage’s right rail and across the newsroom’s social channels and newsletters. Wirecutter also has a dedicated module on the Times’ homepage. While the team retained promotion across those channels, Wirecutter saw “more success” on newsletters, Wilson said, without elaborating on which metrics were successful.

The Wall Street Journal retained its original plan to tease Buy Side’s Prime event coverage with three module placements on the homepage. And those placements even served as the best traffic drivers to commerce content this year, Welsh said, without providing exact figures.

Investing in newsletters

CNN Underscored debuted a new newsletter focused on deals on the second day of the Amazon Prime Big Deal Days event, which will continue to publish twice a week.

Its deals newsletter was promoted in CNN Underscored’s flagship newsletter to encourage subscribers to sign up to the new product. Bruno declined to share the newsletter’s number of subscribers.

The deals newsletter drove “10 times” more revenue from affiliate sales compared to Underscored’s flagship newsletter sent on the second day of the Prime Early Access Sale last year, Bruno said. He declined to share the conversion rate of the new newsletter but noted Underscored’s newsletters are “seven times” above the media industry average of 4.62% in click rate and “four-times” the industry average of 22.15% in open rate, based on MailChimp’s average email marketing campaign stats.

Wirecutter has a daily flagship newsletter and a “Clean Everything” weekly newsletter. Both of those newsletters had “record engagement” in both click-through rate, open rates and subscriber growth during the two-day event, compared to last year’s second Amazon sales event, Wilson said. She declined to provide specific figures. Wirecutter did not increase its cadence of publishing daily during the two-day event. “We’re not trying to spam our readers,” Wilson said.

“We used the newsletters [for July’s] Prime Day as well and saw really strong, record growth, which is why it was a channel we continued to lean in for PBDD,” Wilson said. Wirecutter does not include paid ad placements in its newsletters and monetizes the newsletters from affiliate links, she added.

Gallery Media decided to send its newsletters out a little earlier in the morning, which Anthony said helped to increase conversion rates from that channel, though he declined to share exactly how much compared to July and last year’s events.

Instagram driving sales

Instagram was the top social media platform driving sales and engagement for Well + Good and CNN Underscored. 

Barnes’ team created a social-only landing page that was updated throughout the sale with editors’ top picks. Underscored used Amazon storefronts, Linktree landing pages and links out of stories to drive sales, Bruno said. His team responded to 150 requests from Instagram users through Instagram Stories to give custom product recommendations. 

From last year’s Prime Early Access Sale to this year’s Prime Big Deal Days, CNN Underscored grew affiliate orders by 70% on social media. Revenue grew by 17% and earnings and commissions increased by 23% in that time, Bruno said. Reach on Instagram grew 47% and organic link clicks increased by 16% in that period.

Not all publishers expect conversions to come from social platforms, however. Anthony said that his team at Gallery Media views social more as a marketing tool for upcoming deals and building awareness of the sales event in the first place, considering the conversion rates from TikTok and Instagram are comparatively low compared to on-site and newsletter audiences.

What we’ve heard

“There are centuries of systemic racism, exclusion [and] prejudice that is built into every system that we live and operate in in this country. Part of the problem is that we’re focused on trying to solve for everything.” 

– Channing Martin, IPG’s global chief diversity and social impact officer, discussing stalled DE&I efforts and why conversations must continue on the latest Digiday Podcast episode.  

3 questions with Yahoo’s Adam Roodman

On Sept. 1, Yahoo launched its new direct-to-publisher offering called Yahoo Backstage, following the decision to fully dissolve its SSP earlier this year. 

The original plan was to launch Backstage this summer, but with the dust-up around made-for-advertising sites entering the zeitgeist around the same time, Yahoo’s svp of product strategy and management Adam Roodman said it made sense to go back to the drawing board and figure out what role MFAs had in this new curated programmatic marketplace. 

As it turns out, MFAs have no role at all, Roodman told Digiday during a sit down at Advertising Week New York on Tuesday. — Kayleigh Barber

Below are highlights of the conversation, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

How did you determine which publishers would be included in Backstage? 

If you look at where we came out on the other side [of shuttering our SSP], it’s a pool of supply that at one point when it was on our SSP was about 2,000 global pubs. As of launch, we were at 140 [total publishers]. And we just looked at where the most performance was, where the most interest was from our advertisers, who did they want to work closer with and that’s how we came up with the criteria. 

You’re probably not going to see any growth out of that publisher footprint. It’s about 100 display [publishers] and 40 CTV [apps]. That is something that we’re actually looking to make even smaller, just because this isn’t something that we wanted to build scale. We didn’t want to replicate an SSP. We want to make sure whatever is there is just the highest quality and still have the ability for advertisers to find incremental reach and delivery on third-party SSPs as well.

How did you factor in the concerns around made-for-advertising sites, if at all, with the publisher selection process? Had MFAs been in the original SSP list? 

We had [the list] we thought we would launch with going into the summer and then we had some conversations with some customers [who] were previewing it and we kept getting questions about what’s the POV for Backstage on MFA? They kept asking us, and we’re like, we hadn’t thought of it. Frankly, we were really occupied with the delicate process of sunsetting 1,900 pubs, doing it very pragmatically and cautiously. 

We consulted with some third parties and we looked at our inventory pool of what we projected to have and we saw that there was going to be some MFA left in there because as everyone has kind of learned, MFA does attract quite a bit of bidding activity, [including] high [click-through rates], so after some serious review of the inventory, we thought, this seems like a good place for us as a platform to say no MFAs. 

That’s not a decision we made for all of our inventory just because we wanted to make sure there was choice. And also, frankly, because MFA has a gray area and if we were to make a decision like that for an entire platform, we would deliberate over that for a long time. But if it’s just Backstage, it was like, let’s not have it.

So is this being marketed as your MFA-free option? Is that how you’re pitching the platform? 

I’d say the most common requests we get [are] around getting the most direct path [to inventory]. The new one, but is still prominent, is around MFA quality and I think honestly, it’s so new that I think there’ll be more trends coming out of the direct. [MFA-free] is one option for Backstage, but they need more than that.

Numbers to know

19: The number of journalists who have tragically lost their lives while covering the Israel-Gaza conflict. 

$24 million: The initial acquisition price in cash for Betches Media by LBG Media, publisher of LADbible. LBG may also pay an additional $30 million based on Betches hitting certain revenue and profitability targets by 2026.

500,000: The number of newsletter subscriptions Semafor has acquired in its first year. 

What we’ve covered

Some Black-owned publications push back on MFA reform amid declining traffic:

  • Some Black-owned publishers feel the crackdown on made-for-advertising sites (MFAs) unfairly puts them at a disadvantage — particularly while grappling with declining referral traffic from social platforms.
  • Traffic buying (or ad arbitrage) can put publishers at risk of being labeled an MFA.

Read more about the gray area of MFAs here

Digiday+ Research: Publishers’ use of X falls off:

  • Digiday+ Research surveyed about 200 publisher professionals in 2021, 2022 and 2023 about their use of X, and found a big drop-off among publishers this year.
  • The percentage of publishers who post on X every day has been trending downward since 2021, while those who post at least once a week has been trending up.

Learn more about how publishers are using the platform formerly known as Twitter here.

How publishers are trying to cover their assets when using AI tools in sales:

  • Publishers like BDG, BuzzFeed and Trusted Media Brands are starting to use generative AI technology in their sales operations to reduce the amount of time it takes to pitch a new client, respond to a request for proposal (RFP) or ultimately close a deal.
  • But what happens when confidential information in advertiser RFPs gets uploaded by salespeople who are just trying to do their jobs a little quicker?

See how publishers are considering client confidentiality when it comes to AI tools here

Confessions of a Black-owned publisher who is concerned about being labeled an MFA over traffic goals: 

  • In the crackdown on made-for-advertising sites (MFAs), smaller, independently-owned publishers, including Black-owned media companies, are feeling the effects.
  • In this edition of our Confessions series, a Black-owned publisher’s head of digital explained the conundrum of benefitting from agencies’ budgets going to companies like theirs while needing to find ways to fulfill those deals without being labeled an MFA, at a time when referral traffic is on the decline.

Hear more from the publisher here.

What we’re reading

The pressure is on News Corp. to separate its digital real estate group: 

Starboard Value has taken an increased stake in News Corp. in an effort to demand that the media conglomerate remove the digital real estate group from its publishing assets, according to Axios.

Community fact-checkers on X must link to sources: 

X is adding some basic requirements for fact-checking on the platform, according to an Engadget report. Community fact checkers have to include links to their sources now, in an attempt to stop the amount of misinformation on the platform, which has been exacerbated by the Israel-Hamas war.

Carbon emissions measurement firm Scope3 raises $20 million: 

Scope3 has raised $20 million in its latest round of funding, The Wall Street Journal reported. The company, which has pioneered the conversation around the role that the digital advertising ecosystem plays in a company’s carbon footprint, has also been building tools used to measure these carbon emissions more effectively.

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