Selling the Goods, Without Selling Souls

Digital old-timers may recall the three C's of successful online business models circa 2001. Content, Community, and Commerce appeared on just about any business plan that circulated in VC Land at the time. Understanding that the web was at least three channels at once (publishing, merchandising, and person-to-person communication) was considered essential to establishing unique business models. The problem at the time for most media sites was that all three C's were a bit broken. It has taken a decade, but the rise of online search along with Facebook and Twitter have helped content companies attack two of the three C's. And in the last year, we have seen a full program to get the Commerce piece up-to-speed as challenged media models look to ecommerce revenue streams. Skittishness about maintaining separation of editorial and commercial church and state is dissolving about as fast as company margins are.

There are ways for publishers to bring ecommerce closer to content without selling out. One approach is to sell everything regardless of your editorial take on the product. TechMediaNetwork, which owns TopTenREVIEWS and now Laptop magazine, offers tech product reviews and extensive comparison charts. It doesn't play favorites in its reviews, nor in its choice of buy buttons. It doesn't have to. There is an opportunity to click through and make a purchase attached to any good or bad review.

Another approach that is being pursued by a number of health and beauty sites is to sell only goods that pass muster with a site's own experts or editors. Allure magazine recently relaunched its website with a strong ecommerce component. There is a Beauty Product Finder on every page that lets visitors find the hair, skin, or makeup products best suited to them. The products offered for sale, however, have all been evaluated by a team of more than 2 dozen experts to test product claims. Every product that pops up as appropriate for the visitor has a bylined evaluation attached.

Again, rather than segregate sales from editorial, these publishers are learning to legitimize the model by leveraging editorial authority. One of the things that private sales and daily deal providers, such as Gilt Groupe, Inc. and Groupon, Inc., have discovered is that content matters when it comes to sales. Editorial imprimaturs on a product really have an effect on sales, and products that have a rich context of human recommendations do well.

Some venerable content brands are going all in when it comes to ecommerce. Esquire magazine has partnered with J.C. Penney Corp., Inc. to launch a new online brand called CLAD ( that sells men's clothing and accessories; it includes editor's suggestions from Esquire and tie-ins with the monthly magazine.

Content providers may be getting close to selling the goods, in part because some of their early relationships with affiliate programs and e-retailers came up lacking. As much as publishers like to think they are responsible for inspiring people to buy things, the reality is more complex. Most people coming to a lifestyle site are at the top -- not the bottom -- of the purchase funnel. They really aren't in buy mode, which is why so few of those "shopping" tabs worked for content providers.

Also, the products publishers might promote at their sites may not be what the user buys from the recommended vendor, sometimes because the content was so good at pushing users to the merchant that the item sold out quickly. Publishers need to be nuanced in the way they negotiate with ecommerce partners about what the content gets credit for: customer acquisition, sale of a specific item, or perhaps all the items that a referred customer purchases in the end.

And don't overlook your most reliable and direct connection with readers: email, still the most reliable driver of traffic and sales.

Does the new coziness of content and commerce threaten editorial independence? Of course it does. Digital media metrics allow for cold calculations of how much any article renders in product sales. That is dangerous. Publishers need to be transparent about what they are doing and state clearly that they do indeed make revenue from the clickthroughs and purchases inspired by their content environments. They also need to be clear with readers (most of all with themselves) about the disciplines in place that ensure content decisions are being made in the interests of readers, not in the interest of the buy button.