The Media & eCommerce Overlap: When Publishers Adopt Product

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As 2014’s Inbox Awesome was coming to a close, we had the opportunity to hear from Nora Abousteit from Kollabora and Amanda Hesser of Food52 fame. The expectation – given the conference name – was that we’d mostly be hearing how these fast growing communities are leveraging email to build, but the focus quickly shifted and the conversation centered on the media and eCommerce overlap.

We’re seeing it every day; content providers expanding their offering and their revenue streams by integrating product into the mix. While leading eCommerce companies are also becoming publishers, making the switch from objective community to product pushing is like walking a tightrope – lose the right balance and you’re bound to lose eyeballs and in the worst case, fall from grace.

Here’s a snapshot of what we heard from Hesser and Abousteit on how to best approach combining content and product:

1)   Content and community providers should be thinking about commerce from the get go.

Before you go out and launch with a scaled mix of content and product, build out the community and work to understand their wants before launching eCommerce in full. If you understand where and how they are frustrated with other players in your space, you’ll oftentimes find ways to relieve those pain points and gain loyal brand advocates.

2)   Fully integrate your content and product.

If you’re serving up related content, you should be serving up related product right alongside it… and vice versa. Keep your integrity by offering a truly related and relevant content and product mix so that your users can derive value from the offerings. You don’t want them to feel like you’re all about the sell. Here’s a good example from Food52’s strategy. If a Food52 user is reading an editorial on strawberry season, they will recommend product and content that will predictably be useful to that user: a strawberry shortcake recipe, and a cake plate. This content and product mix, Hesser says, makes sense to go together and, “That does convert!”

3)   Running an ad-supported business is incredibly complicated; so is running a product sales-based business.

Don’t expect that it’ll be easy. If you choose to go this route, you need to always be curating both sides of the business rather than just offering any product that you think might sell. This is about adding value (refer to #2), which takes a sound roadmap and the resources to manage its deployment. Start small and test performance wherever you can (i.e. content:product ratios in email, promotion, etc.) in the beginning, so that scaling will be more manageable and effective.

4)   “Separation of Church and State” is a sound approach.

You need to go in realizing that some of your users will be wholly content, some will be wholly commerce and others will fall in between. While, of course, want to serve integrated marketing to them both, segment your users based on how they’ve identified themselves and behaved with your brand and communicate with them appropriately. Then, add subtle cues to product for the content list only when and where it makes sense – testing the product cadence on small slices of this list is a good place to start so you don’t jeopardize alienating the entire content audience.

5)   Successfully transitioning from content to commerce is about trust and authenticity.

This has been key for both Food52’s and Kollabara’s success. With both founders writing and building their brand from scratch, their voice and ethos are tightly woven into the fabric of their business. Since that is a huge reason why people get interested in being a part of communities in the first place, it’s table stakes – especially in evolving the business model – to preserve the authenticity of your brand. In turn, that consistency further solidifies the trust of your users and should make them feel that your content business just got even better.

Jason Grunberg is the Senior Content Marketing Manager at Sailthru, and a veteran in marketing, advertising, and content for more than 12 years.