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    How the Wall Street Journal and others are merging content with commerce

    The business title’s new shopping site, along with the New York Times’ Wirecutter and New York Magazine’s The Strategist, signals new possibilities for publishers and advertisers.

    In June, the Wall Street Journal launched Buy Side, an independent commerce site designed to help consumers make better financial decisions – its content runs the gamut from tips on managing personal finance to in-depth product reviews and recommendations. 

    Buy Side joins a growing roster of affiliate marketing-based commerce services spun out of major media and news organizations, including the New York Times-owned Wirecutter and New York Magazine’s The Strategist. These ventures evidence a larger trend: not only are content publishers investing in new commerce formats and revenue streams, but on a broader scale the world is witnessing a growing convergence of commerce and original content. 

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    Ed Kim, executive vice-president and general manager of global commerce at IPG-owned MRM, puts it this way: “There’s recognition now that any experience can be a purchase experience.” This new norm didn’t materialize out of thin air, though; it’s the result of an ongoing evolution in how publishers and brands work together to sell products and services. 

    In recent years, Kim has saw this evolution parsed into three key phases. The first entailed enabling commerce at the bottom of the purchase funnel – when consumers are ready to buy. “If we look back about five years ago, people could really only make digital purchases on a shopping website, such as macys.com or ralphlauren.com. It was – and still is – very complicated and expensive to support e-commerce at this scale.”

    Then, in the last two years or so, social media platforms began to blaze a new trail – one that added momentum earlier in the funnel, at the ‘awareness’ stage. Instagram, Facebook and TikTok now not only help users discover new products, but to also shop directly from their platforms without ever leaving the app.

    Now, says Kim, we’re entering a new phase. We’re witnessing a middle-of-the-funnel inflection point. “The ‘consideration’ step has become a space to [meet] consumers and not pass them along to a purchase site. Just like the social platforms have done, publishers are now adding these commerce capabilities to their platforms.”

    Delivering new value for consumers

    For organizations such as the Wall Street Journal, the opportunity makes sense. By developing a more diverse range of commerce offerings, it is able to provide a natural extension of value-adding content – especially to dedicated users. 

    “This is something that has been discussed at Dow Jones for a number of years,” explains Josh Stinchcomb, chief revenue officer at Buy Side. “We see the mission of all of our brands – the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, MarketWatch – as helping people make good decisions in their business, personal and financial lives. So in many ways, a site like this is sort of right on the money in terms of what our mission is.” 

    And in its first three months of business, Buy Side has seen promising results. Key metrics such as site traffic, click-through and conversion rates are “trending up in all cases,” says Stinchcomb. 

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    Overall, “some of these [media and news organizations] are in a unique place in the market because [they may be] a site that these people have turned to for years for their news, for information for weather,” says Kelly Merkel, senior vice-president of publisher development at Publicis Groupe-owned affiliate ad firm CJ Affiliate. “They already have that long-term trust built in. So now they’re able to say, ‘OK, what are other services we can be offering our shoppers?’ And that’s why they’re looking at these commerce-related extensions of their brand … they can add that extra value, get more eyeballs.”

    Aside from expanding on the value offered to consumers, the kind of commerce-integrated editorial content produced by Buy Side, Wirecutter and other similar sites represents a new foray for commerce. “A lot of publishers, prior to the last three or four years, had been interested in the possibility of introducing more e-commerce components into their businesses, but tried to do it on top of the kind of core content production they were already doing,“ says Stinchcomb. “And there weren’t a tremendous number of success stories.” 

    Now, with new and more sophisticated integrations that allow for a frictionless user experience, results are stronger. But reaching this point has not proved an especially simple process. Consumers have come to expect fast, efficient, seamless shopping experiences – which pure e-commerce sites are built to deliver. Creating a similar shopping experience within an online publication is something different entirely; it requires careful considerations about context and content and comes with technical requirements like integrating third-party payment software.

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    Beyond the technical demands, Stinchcomb says a broader change in mindset must serve as the driving force. “Underlying [this shift is] a recognition that you need a very specific kind of content creation – you need a very specific approach to how you think about that content, how it evolves over time and how it gets updated,” he explains. 

    Mapping the next frontier

    Today, many content publishers have mastered affiliate marketing. Now, the biggest challenges and opportunities lie in the growing coalescence of different commerce channels and formats. “Editorial product review content in print, blogs or video blogs has appeal to consumers and has [long] been monetized by subscriptions, advertising and affiliate commissions. Done well, these channels are effective,” says Frank Kochenash, chief executive officer of e-commerce at Omnicom. What’s new, he says, is “how this editorial content is structured and presented to consumers”. Increasingly, affiliate marketing, live commerce and influencer marketing are coming together. At the same time, the roles of the people behind product reviews – journalists, product testers, bloggers, social media influencers and live shopping hosts – are also converging.   

    And then, of course, there’s the Pandora’s box of decentralization and the emergent promise of web3. “You can’t go a day in watching or reading about the news and not see ‘metaverse’ and web3 being discussed,” says MRM’s Kim. He acknowledges, of course, that these are more concept than reality at this point, so it’s still unclear how shopping for physical goods will look in new digital spaces. But he’s confident it will happen: “Likely in the next six to 12 months we’ll see entities such as Decentraland, Roblox and Meta figure out commercial mechanisms.” 

    As far as new technologies, integrations and formats are concerned, Buy Side isn’t getting ahead of itself. But it is scoping out the possibilities. For one, Stinchcomb notes the increasing popularity of video across the digital ecosystem. “Video consumption of all kinds – news, sports, commerce, whatever it is – is on the rise. It’s just a matter of time until you see more multi-format [content], and video in particular, in the mix here. [There are so many video-based] product reviews and commerce [integrations] that you’re just beginning to see some companies experiment with.” While the scope of Buy Side’s investments in video is unclear, the team confirms it’s exploring live shopping activations on social media. 

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    For now, Buy Side is confident that it has developed a formula to set itself apart from the competition. “We’re bringing together money content, personal finance, advice and opportunities and also consumer goods … we’re telling you things to buy, telling you how to save and how to manage money. And I think this is a great message for consumers,” says the publication’s editor and head of content Leslie Yazel. She argues that Buy Side is also differentiating itself by “doing the math for people”. For example, she says: “You can read a lot about ‘buy now, pay later’ apps – [which is] a hot movement in retail right now – but with Buy Side, we will tell you how it compares with paying with a secured credit card. We take you through the math and just kind of make it easier for people. It’s just part of building trust with readers … we sort of go that extra mile.”

    And as far as brands are concerned, the future looks bright, according to Kim. ”As technology advances and e-commerce infrastructures become more accessible, being able to sell wherever the consumers are today and tomorrow opens up a lot of possibilities.”

    For more on the Evolution of E-commerce, check out The Drum’s latest Deep Dive.

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