The Future of E-commerce for Publishing

Insights from The Publishing Show 2022


Andrea DaviesAuthor: Andrea Davies
Word count: 1,500
Time to read: 8 mins




Andrea Davies, (Chair) B2C Practice Lead, Collingwood Advisory
Chris Dicker, Executive Board Member and Managing Director, Trusted Reviews
Emily Ferguson, eCommerce Director Marie Claire – UK and US, Future PLC
Rachael Prasher, Managing Director, Haymarket Automotive

E-commerce revenues – what are they? 

E-commerce has grown to be a multi-million pound revenue line for a handful of publishers.  Companies who invested pre-pandemic have reaped the rewards of a pandemic-fuelled online shopping boom. But how easy is it for specialist and passion-led media businesses to replicate this success and can the growth be sustained?

E-commerce, in the context of publishing revenues, are most commonly thought of as affiliate marketing commissions which are earned by inserting hyperlinks within articles that take a reader through to an online retailer to purchase. But as we explored in this panel discussion, it is more than affiliate marketing. Publishers are naturally extending their content experience to stimulate demand and generate leads, be it through product sampling, in the case of Marie Claire’s Beauty Drawer, or Haymarket Automotive stimulating new car demand and lead generation.

“With 100,000 subscribers, Marie Claire Beauty Drawer is acquiring (first party) data and building a very involved and engaged audience who are sent product samples.” Emily Ferguson

“The role of Haymarket Automotive is to stimulate new car demand.”  Rachael Prasher

How accessible are e-commerce revenues for publishers?

Future PLC is one of the best known case studies having successfully grown a nine figure revenue line with its approach to e-commerce content.  By incorporating buying guides, gift guides, product reviews, ‘best of’ recommendations and ‘best deals’ into their content strategy, they reportedly grew e-commerce revenues by 36% in 2021, accounting for 35% of total revenues at over £200m.  This was achieved with investment in content, technology and data expertise, combined with a US-first audience focus and newly acquired verticals (TI Media, Cinemablend) to power an e-commerce engine built for scale.  

However, e-commerce revenues are not just available to scale players like Future and Dotdash Meredith.  The perceived barriers to entry, including brand and audience fit,  proprietary technology and expensive specialist skills, can be overcome by smaller, independent publishers.

“When Trusted Reviews was hived off from TI Media, we had limited resource to maintain our own price comparison tech, so we removed it.  We are a well established brand in a startup mentality. We are (now) a small independent publisher and (we all) have to wear multiple hats.  It’s about shared learning. We get resource in and train it up, and grow talent from within. The essential skills (for growing e-commerce revenues) are adaptability – things change very quickly; pro-activity – not waiting for instruction but constantly testing and optimising the conversion funnel; and a love of spreadsheets!”  Chris Dicker

Growing  e-commerce revenues while staying true to your audience needs 

Audience focus is something the panel talked passionately about.  Marie Claire UK  launched the Marie Claire Edit before it was part of the Future stable.  A premium fashion aggregation shopping platform, editorial expertise is at the forefront of its shopping proposition. The genesis for the launch was an opportunistic acquisition of the old affiliate platform, LoveFashion Sales, by Marie Claire UK’s then owner, TI Media.  Emily revolutionised the platform and expanded content beyond the evergreen ‘best of’ lists to rank for 24,000 key fashion and beauty shopping terms, creating multiple touchpoints for the  Marie Claire UK audience to purchase. By incorporating voucher codes, Emily successfully stimulated bottom funnel conversion. 

In 2017, Haymarket consolidated its consumer business to focus on the automotive niche, leading with a significant replatforming of their anchor brand, What Car?  

“The cultural shift and financial commitment was not for the faint hearted, it required everyone to buy-in.” Rachael Prasher

Adding commerce to the content experience was, however, straight forward.  They began by adding deals, a very authentic and natural addition to their car reviews. 

Haymarket subsequently launched ‘Best Deals’ which aggregates the best car deals in the market, providing consumers with a pre-negotiated market price and removing a pain point in their purchase journey.  There is no conflict editorially.  Finishing articles and videos with ‘here is the fair price’ is a natural experience for consumers on a car purchase journey.

For Trusted Reviews, the brand name has always attracted scrutiny. How trustworthy are their reviews really?  For this reason, “Trusted” is a core company value which is reinforced through regular focus groups to understand how they can enhance audience experience.  Transparency, as well as editorial independence are also key. They use content labels to explain how they make money and track improved conversion as a result. Editorial integrity is supported by an Ethics Committee and an editorial playbook which explains the ‘how and why’ content should be monetised.  

Is technology a barrier to growing e-commerce revenues?

For those not familiar with the Future story, they have invested in their proprietary price comparison technology, Hawk along with well resourced SEO and e-commerce business intelligence teams. However, expensive technology development and bought-in skills do not need to be a barrier for smaller scale businesses.  A mix of bought in technology and home grown talent can get you a long way.

Marie Claire UK launched its shopping platform before it was acquired by Future.  And while Emily describes the Hawk as ‘incredible’ – “utilising great shopping layouts and widgets”, it has required development to meet the nuanced audience needs of a fashion/lifestyle brand. 

At Trusted Reviews, their startup mentality has meant they have outsourced (for now) to a third party affiliate platform and passed on the ongoing maintenance and upgrades required to optimise platform performance in a world of algorithm changes and web vitals.

At Haymarket, their approach to the ‘build versus buy’ dichotomy has been a pragmatic ‘bit of both’ approach.  While they have invested in building their core lead generation technology, it is costly to maintain.  

“The beauty of the nature of acquisitions like TI Media by Future, is that it gives them significant scale (to invest in their proprietary technology)” Rachael Prasher

Haymarket have been clever at plumbing in partner services into their content but recognise they could ‘plumb that in better’ to surface those services and enhance user experience.

Is scarcity of skills and experience a barrier to growing e-commerce revenues?

A significant cultural shift at Haymarket was their single market focus building on their deep automotive skills while needing to grow new disciplines including product management and data and analytics.   They moved to be product-led first through re-skilling and re-deploying home grown talent.  They have bought in business intelligence and data warehousing skills which required salary investment in a competitive market.  An investment which has paid off with their new B2B launch. ‘Indicators’ is a new data product for commercial partners built on the “unbelievable data and insights we now have about car buying journeys”.  Rachael Prasher 

The panel recognised there is a shortage of digital talent in publishing and that salary investment is required for some specific skills. They all agreed that media is still a very exciting and attractive sector with a huge amount of innovation taking place.  

Will e-commerce growth be sustained post-pandemic?

In terms of the future, Marie Claire US has just launched its shopping edit experience, building on the success enjoyed by Marie Claire UK.  For Emily, her focus is ensuring the technology is as good as it can be to deliver the best shopping experience for users, both in the UK and US, and fine-tuning for the audience nuances across both territories.

Haymarket Automotive meanwhile are riding the biggest slump in global new car sales for decades due to the unprecedented shortfall in the supply of semiconductors.  With their purpose and revenue diversification strategy pegged to stimulating new car sales, what does that mean for Haymarket?  They operate in a highly competitive vertical which has attracted PE money and big investment spend.  For Rachael it is about holding their nerve for when the market rebounds and continuing to be on their ‘A’ game, serving their audience and commercial partners (and no doubt going further on addressing legacy cost structures too).  

At Trusted Reviews, their focus is also audience first. With Amazon Prime the norm, Gorilla delivering groceries within 15 minutes, Chris is keeping a watchful eye on how purchasing behaviour continues to evolve at pace post-pandemic, with a keen focus on how much is being spent on TikTok.

Key takeaways from the discussion

  1. E-commerce can be successfully incorporated into the content strategies of specialist and passion-led media businesses which delivers for both audience and commercial needs.  
  2. There is no right or wrong to build versus buy when it comes to skills and technology but a cultural shift to a product-led mindset will help deliver  e-commerce success.  
  3. As publishing undergoes a period of intense transformation and innovation enabled by new publishing technologies and the use of data and analytics, expect more media businesses to focus on diversifying revenues to build a sustainable business, with e-commerce being part of the mix.

Please drop me a line if you’d like to talk about how to diversify and grow your e-commerce revenues.