How Publishers Can Build a Holistic Commerce Strategy

Learn how publishers can better integrate commerce into their strategy to improve overall business outcomes.

An abstract illustration of a computer cursor included among snaking lines that resemble two-dimensional pipes.

Today’s digital media publishing industry is an evolution of yesterday’s print media industry. And, while it’s much harder to spot a magazine stand these days, much of the publishing business model has remained largely unchanged during that transition.

As in the past, publishers today produce content that appeals to a niche audience — such as fashion, automotive, sports, and more — and earn revenue through selling the content to readers or (and) by selling advertising placements to brands.

For shrewd publishers, the shift to the digital format supercharged that model. Accurate analytics and cookie-backed programmatic advertising made the content and ads more targeted and effective than ever before.

Arguably the single biggest change to this tried-and-true publishing business model has been the introduction of affiliate marketing and commerce-backed content. In this article, we’ll examine the role of affiliate content and how publishers can better integrate commerce into their strategy to improve overall business outcomes.

Commerce content today

Affiliate-enhanced commerce content is viewed by many publishers as an independent revenue source, separate from advertising revenue, sponsored content, and subscriptions (or one-off purchases).

Editorial teams that create the ‘affiliate content’ are often a separate team to the non-affiliate content teams that produce the bulk of articles that are published each week. Where this is untrue, such as in the case of affiliate-centric sites like Wirecutter, the distinction between editorial and affiliate content is even more pronounced with an entirely separate masthead.

As a result of this separation, the commerce teams that manage affiliate content are often measured against commerce-specific metrics like total affiliate revenue, click-to-purchase conversion rate, and affiliate revenue per article.

This strategy can certainly be lucrative when executed well. However, the detachment of affiliate-backed commerce content from the larger-share-of-revenue initiatives like ad sales, sponsored content, and subscriptions mean that even the most successful commerce content is often at odds with the key performance metrics of those other teams.

Commerce, but make it holistic

The premise of a holistic commerce strategy is relatively simple:

Affiliate-enhanced content should be used to improve the effectiveness of a publisher’s highest-performing revenue sources.

When considered more deeply, this plain-sounding statement has wide-ranging implications for the role of commerce content for publishers. The table below summarizes some of those impacts.

Holistic commerce strategy Standalone commerce strategy
Affiliate revenue A welcomed by-product of commerce content. The main purpose of commerce content.
Visitor lifetime value Lifetime value is created with a longer-term view of known visitors. Lifetime value of anonymous visitors is difficult to understand. Visitor lifecycles are extremely short.
Sending readers off-site with affiliate links Advertising, sponsored content, and subscription revenues are fuelled by keeping visitors engaged on-site. Linking out to third-parties is discouraged. The main measure of content effectiveness. Content is optimized for this action.
First-party data collection (eg. visitor email addresses) First-party data is used to identify and re-target visitors, and to build visitor lifetime value through subscriptions or other channels. Affiliate links don’t provide first-party visitor data.
Shopping insights Rich shopping insights are used to create more effective — and even personalized — commerce content, and provide more accurate visitor demographic data to other teams. Limited shopping behavioral insights means it is difficult to create data-driven commerce content.
Commerce team KPIs Commerce KPIs are derived from leading metrics of the largest share-of-revenue teams, such as pages per session and session duration. Measured independently of editorial, ads, and brand partnership teams with commerce-specific metrics such as total affiliate revenue / month.

At the center of the holistic commerce strategy concept is the generation and collection of first-party data. This data — including visitor email addresses, demographic data, and ecommerce behavioral data — provides the foundation for publishers to build a view of their readership outside of the cookie-powered ecosystems of ad networks.

Not only is this information more accurate than the generalized audiences provided by Meta and Google, but the inclusion of email addresses makes it much more actionable, too. Publishers benefit with cookie-independent retargeting, advanced matching for existing tools, newsletter audience building, and more ways to reach your audience even after the death of the cookie.

Build visitor lifetime value

Data, first-party or not, provides no value by itself. What’s most important is how that data can be used to improve your product (which includes advertising placements), and build longer-term, more valuable relationships with your audience.

This shift in perspective from one-time to longer-term visitor lifecycles is not new to publishers. The digital subscription model, for example, has seen widespread adoption throughout the industry as publishers work to escape the visitor acquisition carousel and earn more revenue from the users they’ve already acquired.

Moving forward, the most successful publishers will be those that effectively leverage their anonymous visitors into known, revenue-generating customers.

In a holistic commerce strategy, publishers use information gleaned from their commerce initiatives to assist in identifying visitors and nurturing them through their lifecycle. This moves commerce from a purely short-term, shot-in-the-arm revenue source to a valid reason for visitors to share their first-party data.

Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) play a central role in turning that raw data into actions, and their greatest value is unlocked with the addition of contact details such as email addresses. Anonymous visitor profiles with detailed behavioral data collected over months or years are transformed the moment they can be associated with an email address, enabling revenue and retention teams to engage those visitors more directly with relevant, personalized messaging.

For ad-supported content, this broader view of visitor lifecycles and their lifetime value includes the incremental revenue generated from returning visitors and deeper sessions. Attracting visitors to your content and keeping them there is how success should be measured, and at odds with the current state of affiliate-enhanced content.

Sell on-site without the hassle

Traditionally, publishers looking to build a richer commerce experience with on-site checkout faced limited options:

  • become a merchant themselves including holding inventory, or,
  • use a drop-shipping model with select brand partners

While each of these can be used to build a highly effective, holistic commerce strategy, they also bring numerous operational and even financial challenges that make them unsuitable for many publishers.

With Carted, publishers can use their existing affiliate relationships to embed on-site checkout within their content.

Rather than send visitors away to brand websites with standard affiliate links, Carted’s embedded product cards enable purchasing those products directly from the same page. You’ll still earn your affiliate commission for the sale, but you’ll also keep the visitor on-site and gain valuable first-party data.

This evolution of the standard affiliate-enhanced content model brings together the ease of creating commerce content that producers are accustomed to with the ability for revenue and retention teams to take advantage of commerce content like never before.

Schedule a demo

If building a holistic commerce strategy with on-site checkout sounds right for your business, our team is ready to chat.

Express your interest today and we’ll be in touch to provide your team with a demo.