Five commerce strategies every publisher should consider in 2021


It’s no secret that 2020 was a challenging year for online publishers, but amidst the layoffs and falling ad revenues, affiliate commerce remained a rare bright spot. The factors that drove shoppable commerce content’s success were two-fold: Readers were thirsty for direction in navigating online commerce during a pandemic, and publishers were looking for ways to compensate for revenue lost elsewhere. 

To achieve the former, publishers produced timely content guides with products curated for pandemic-ridden times. At the same time, publishers saw a spike in organic traffic to existing content about products that had become unexpectedly relevant. The Wirecutter’s years’ old roundup of the best bidets, for example, experienced a 5,000 percent year-over-year traffic increase due to the toilet paper shortage in early 2020.

In terms of revenue growth, publishers across the spectrum leaned into commerce to compensate for dips in programmatic and direct-sold advertising. For example, Bustle Digital Group saw an 84 percent year-over-year increase in commerce revenues in the second quarter, leading them to further invest in the approach. 

So what does this all mean for publishers as we enter 2021? Consumer behavior will inevitably change as the pandemic restrictions loosen, but commerce content can and will continue to thrive with the right strategies in hand. Whether publishers are just entering the commerce space or they’re looking to scale in 2021, what follows are five commerce strategies that will set them up for success throughout the pandemic — and beyond.

1. Publishers should diversify their retailer strategies

At first glance, it may seem easier to rely on Amazon as the sole retailer for any new commerce strategy. However, an Amazon-only strategy can leave publishers with little control over their revenue stream. 

For example, last April, Amazon decided to cut their commission rates, with the rates for many popular categories dropping from 8 to 3 percent. For publishers relying on monthly earnings from those articles, their bottom lines may have been drastically impacted. 

Instead of putting all the retailer-strategy eggs in one basket, publishers should work with many retailers, negotiate better rates and diversify their content strategy with SEO buyer’s guides and gift guides, as well as social-first and deal posts. 

2. Getting aggressive with article volume and testing drives impact

Publishers may have to take a lot of swings before they hit a home run with commerce content. For those looking for help on the bench, bringing freelancers or third-party content solutions to double or triple content volume and exploring what works and what doesn’t is a common and proactive step. The more data publishers can gather, the more impactful their content can be down the line. With these additional resources, publishers have been able to test out different content types, including SEO-focused articles and social-first deal posts, better informing their strategies moving forward.

3. Promoting digital products gives publishers a revenue edge

Throughout the past year, digital product sales soared. Consumers were looking for ways to stay entertained and busy while stuck at home. They turned to online courses, software, games and streaming services to fill the time. For publishers, articles covering these products and delivery service apps for groceries and alcohol were among the top performers.

Many of these consumer behaviors are poised to continue, and there is a myriad of reasons why an effective commerce strategy should include digital goods.

  • Digital goods allow readers to avoid the headache of shipping delays and other logistical issues. 
  • Many publishers are not writing about digital products, which opens a new avenue of differentiation.
  • Publishers often benefit from much higher commission rates than with physical products due to the lack of production and shipping costs. 

In fact, one of our publisher partners, Entrepreneur Media Inc., earned a majority of its e-commerce revenue from digital sales in 2020. Digital products may be harder to find on typical affiliate networks, but the payoff is worth the extra effort.

4. Keep distribution opportunities top of mind

It’s easier than most publishers think for posted articles to disappear into the content-verse, generating zero sales quickly. To fight that unwanted outcome, publishers should use all channels at their disposal to get as many eyes on commerce content as possible — including Apple News, Flipboard and paid social media efforts. Adding a commerce post in their newsletters and moving high-performing articles to on-site recirculation modules means more traffic out of the gate — and that will only help boost longtail SEO efforts.

5. Next steps: publishers can develop and grow the commerce brand

Smart publishers are continuing to find ways to act more like retailers, including capitalizing on their brands and owning their customer data. 

An effective way to do this is to open a branded storefront so that readers are purchasing on-site rather than via third-party retailers. This allows the publisher to remarket to readers for repeat purchases and offer branded merchandise to build the commerce brand even further. Given that 40 percent of publisher revenue comes from repeat purchases — as we measure it — there’s certainly untapped potential at their fingertips. 

Advancing the strategy even further, publishers can even choose to develop a strong commerce voice with its own branding and section. CNN’s Underscored and NY Mag’s The Strategist are excellent examples, suggesting authority to readers and developing a loyal customer base.

There’s plenty that publishers can learn from the success of commerce in 2020 despite the highly unusual circumstances. It may take some trial and error, and it may take leaning on partnerships to find success, but it’s clear that commerce has laid its claim as a foundational part of any modern publisher’s revenue toolkit.

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