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Call it commerce content, shoppable content, or affiliate, the merging of trusted editorial with product recommendations is a formula that works. Especially during the pandemic, digital consumers have been eager for expert help navigating new-normal topics like wiring up a home office or choosing home fitness equipment. They find it online from their favorite publishers like PCMag, Buzzfeed, Wirecutter, and the like. 

Content takes many shapes and has many touchpoints, but the essential elements that make it work (when it’s done right) are universal. It’s important for merchants to understand the ground rules before diving in, and knowing how content works from the publisher side will help you get more from the channel. 

Tips from two top content leaders: Buzzfeed and Ziff Media Group

To provide some insights, we asked two publishing partnership execs for an insider’s look at how they approach content, what makes a good relationship, and what merchants should and shouldn’t expect from the channel.

Meet our “insider” panelists:

  • Jessica Seib, Director of Affiliate at BuzzFeed: (LinkedIn)
  • Jessica Spira, VP of Partner Growth & Management at Ziff Media Group: (LinkedIn)

The inside scoop on content: Six facts every brand should know

1. It’s not about you, it’s about the reader (and that’s a good thing)

“Monetization of service journalism,” is how Spira describes content. That phrasing tells you a lot about the publisher mindset. It’s journalism, not advertising, and it’s there to serve the reader. Editorial is independent of the affiliate side of the business, and that wall is the foundation of the entire operation. 

“We start with the reader — and with a separation of church and state in terms of our editorial organization and business. We make sure that we review products in an unbiased way that serves the reader. I don't know how else to say… Click To Tweet

So, if a potential partner doesn’t cater to you or rubber stamp every idea, it’s because the reader experience and audience trust always come first. That’s what is special about content.

At BuzzFeed, according to Seib, authenticity comes not only from the content, but also from the editorial style. “Our editorial voice speaks to our consumer and our readers in a way that’s familiar. It’s as if you were giving a recommendation to your best friend, your sister, or your mom.”

2. Organic reviews happen, but readers decide when

Both panelists report getting a lot of inquiries about organic content, often from smaller merchants with lean or nonexistent budgets. They concur that while publishers seek out diversity and innovation in their content and the brands they review, decisions are based on what matters to audiences, and that’s changing all the time.

The key for a brand is timing. If your product niche or category is something readers are seeking information on at the moment (remember last year’s run on patio furniture?), then the editorial team may actively seek out merchants like you. That’s when you want to be sure your name is top-of-mind. 

Start by becoming an approved partner with the publisher, then look for timely opportunities to communicate. A scattershot BCC blast to the affiliate teams at multiple publishers will get you nowhere, according to our experts, but strategic persistence just might.

“We capture information in a very regimented way, and it’s almost automatically flipped to the editorial team,” emphasizes Seib. “So just understanding how we work, making sure that you’re on that schedule in that regimen will help at least surface your brand to our writers in an effective way. Hopefully that will result in some organic content.”

Remember, of course, that a review doesn’t guarantee a good review, no matter how big your budget.

3. Audience data drives content

While the affiliate team shouldn’t have influence over the editorial team, reader data most definitely does. With every article posted, the publisher team gathers data on what readers ended up buying and then leans into those trends, according to the panel. “We want to know that they’re going to come back to us and find a recommendation that makes sense for them in the current season, the current month, and with their current buying behaviors,” says Seib. “We try not to push or pull too much in directions that don’t make sense for our audience.” 

4. If you want the clicks, nurture conversions 

Another frequent conversation both our experts reported is with merchants wanting to drive traffic straight to their sites vs. sending the consumer to large retail marketplaces (e.g., Amazon). In these direct partnerships, both companies may provide consumers with a better end-to-end shopping experience — and the merchant will likely have better margins to compensate their partners. So, why not send traffic to the merchant instead of a marketplace?  

Because in a readers-first universe, payouts are only part of the equation, and there is a cost/benefit tradeoff to be considered. 

What happens after a reader clicks on a product link is crucial to conversion rates and to a publisher’s rep. Consumers expect a frictionless experience. They want free shipping and hassle-free returns. They want low-price guarantees and easy-to-navigate landing pages. If you don’t offer a good or at least competitive buying experience, your publisher may be reluctant to link directly to your site.

However, even if you can’t compete with Amazon’s one-click convenience, our panelists say there are things you can do to compete. One is to add value. 

For example, merchants should consider exclusive offers as a way to level the playing field. “No one is going to buy Charmin from Charmin.com, but if you have a unique value proposition, it’s a negotiating point,” says Seib. “If you offer a bundle that’s exclusive to your site or offer something a consumer can’t purchase through a merchant, it’s almost silly for a consumer not to buy from you directly. Merchants can help us get that value message to market and help us surface those opportunities to our readers.”

5. “No” today doesn’t mean “no” tomorrow 

The panelists agree that they essentially wake up every day to a new industry. There are new opportunities, new things to go after, new ways to optimize and grow their programs, and they are always looking for what’s riveting in the world of shopping. So persistence can pay off for merchants. 

“Just because something may not have been a focus six months or a year ago, if consumers are interested now and it fits in with our brand pillars, we’ll cover it. And if we’re successful, we’ll lean into it more heavily,” says Spira.

Seib agrees. “If you reached out in January, things may be different in February. The tides change so quickly, especially coming off of a pandemic year, so don’t be afraid to circle back.” 

6. They’re only human

Both of our experts admit that their teams are small and they have thousands of merchant partners to manage, so giving personal strategic guidance to every company  isn’t always feasible. That said, they do want to work with a variety of partners, and they don’t always have to be big names with big budgets. 

At the end of the day, partnerships consist of people. Be mindful in your communications,  making an effort to understand and respect your partners’ priorities, processes, and resources. With just a little more awareness you will build a positive foundation for partnership success. 

Resources to dig deeper, or get started

You’ll find the full webcast discussion including answers to audience questions here

If you’re an advertiser, here’s a great primer on discovering publisher partners.  

If you’re a publisher who wants to build partnerships with great brands in hot categories, start here.

Impact’s mission is to support the growth of content partnerships — that’s why we recently acquired Trackonomics! Read about our new content partnership automation here

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