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The rise of the commerce editor: Does 'comtent' hold the key to monetisation for publishers?

By Alicia Navarro, CEO

May 17, 2016 | 4 min read

For digital publishers, monetisation tends to fall on either end of the spectrum: On one side is through pure editorial content, written entirely free of commercial considerations, that relies mainly on the display advertising surrounding the content to drive revenue. On the other side is branded content, created either via in-house studios or via the automatic display of pay-per-click related content widgets in the form of Taboola, Outbrain and Zergnet.

However, there is a third option that has only recently begun to gain real traction. One with the benefit of delivering appealing content that can be monetised at scale, without compromising authenticity or editorial integrity. It is based on the creation of a type of content focused on products and brands – or what’s becoming known as ‘comtent’ or commerce content – that is editorially-driven, not advertorially-driven. Think product reviews, ‘Get the Look’ features, product listicle features, shopping trends, deals, offers, etc – something publishers like the Daily Mail, Refinery29, Wirecutter, etc, do exceptionally well. Being editorially-focused, the key differentiator with this type of content is that it is first and foremost written to be engaging and appealing to the publishers’ audiences, rather than in response to any advertiser brief.

Comtent is usually monetised directly through affiliate marketing (often using automated affiliate marketing technologies that aggregate across all affiliate programs), and indirectly via additional insights into the shopping behaviour of a publishers’ audience. Ad sales teams use these insights to prospect and negotiate with display and branded content advertisers more effectively.

To operationalise the creation of comtent, publishers employ dedicated ‘commerce teams’ or ‘digital merchandising teams’. They work as a subset of the editorial team hired purely to create high quality comtent and enrich other editorial pieces of content with appropriate product/shopping links.

The trend, which was initially kicked off by Gawker Media, has only grown. It was picked up by a number of successful publishers and now publisher job pages are being increasingly filled with hires dedicated to ‘Commerce teams’. Vox Media, the Independent, Apartment Therapy and Business Insider, have all advertised for Commerce Editors recently.

When done well, publishers report that commerce editors have the highest average revenue per employee of any member of the advertising team. This is because unlike advertising campaigns, which are one-off ephemeral deals with a high cost of sale, the creation of comtent results in a permanent piece of content. And if these are maintained over time by the commerce editors, they can represent an evergreen source of revenue, while at the same time being a high source of inbound traffic from search engines. Many publishers' highest-earning piece of comtent were initially written several years ago, but with a little maintenance over time (updated product links if anything goes out of stock or is out of fashion, but retaining the same URL) indexes well on search and retains its monthly revenue almost indefinitely. You can’t say the same for even the best produced branded content.

The key to an effective commerce editor team is good written content suitable for the audience. Gizmodo’s commerce team focused on special deals on gadgets and technology, while Buzzfeed’s team focuses on esoteric quirky products; and Apartment Therapy’s commerce team focuses on Get the Look features. The pieces are well-produced, with editorial integrity and audience authenticity as their primary goal. But by including links to where readers can buy the products they are reading about, they also deliver a good user experience while also learning about the kinds of products and brands their users like to buy, which further guides their editorial strategy.

The fact that comtent can be monetized via affiliate marketing is almost incidental, as significant value also comes in the form of a greater understanding of the audience that can be used to power other forms of advertising and a wider content strategy.

Alicia Navarro is CEO and co-founder of Skimlinks

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