8 Ways to Ensure E-commerce Earns Dollars Without Burning Your Brand
Publishers have been tapping into e-commerce technologies for more than a decade now, embracing them to sell subscriptions, complementary publications and promotional items directly related to the brand. Today, publishers are pursuing more complex e-commerce models that present much higher revenue potential-when done well.
But this isn't a tale of publishers merely appealing to audiences for a bigger percentage of their disposable income. The new e-commerce models benefit the audience, too, by providing readers with an opportunity to dive deeper into the rich brand environment already ingrained in most magazines and extend their relationship in pace with their content consumption.
Mary Berner, president and CEO of The Association of Magazine Media (MPA), offered some perspective on all this recent e-commerce speculation: "If you look at publishers -- Meredith, for example -- they have always leveraged their brands to build huge and robust businesses. The Better Homes and Gardens brand has many tentacles in terms of commerce. What I think is different is the direct tie-in to the actual content. I believe that's the opportunity. It's contextual buying, and I think that's very exciting," says Berner.
Publishing Executive spoke with Berner and a slew of other magazine industry leaders about emerging e-commerce strategies and how to leverage a strong magazine brand. Here's a selection of their sage advice.
1. Diversify The Organization
When Michela O'Connor Abrams joined Dwell Media in 2002-first as a consultant, and then as president and publisher-she and owner Lara Hedberg Deam agreed on one important tenet: Dwell Media was not going to be just a magazine publisher. "We agreed to build a company based on an audience, not only on a magazine platform," says O'Connor Abrams.
What this focus has allowed the company to do is branch off in other directions, diversifying the business -- building a consultancy, for example -- but always relying on the community's needs as its guidepost.
"Even if we'd had [other] ideas, they would have formed themselves as ancillary products, because they would have been hanging off of a magazine. And that is what traditional publishers have done," says O'Connor Abrams. "Our founding mission was always about putting the community in the center. The brands that listen to their community will be the ones that are successful."
2. Use Your Brand
NewBay Media is another publisher that's tight with its community, and leverages its niche brands to better connect with and serve its members.
"The most passionate guitarists read our magazines, and they read them not just for the content that we create but for the ads, too," says Bill Amstutz, vice president and general manager, Music Group, NewBay Media. "There's still a lot of value in the print, but it is a challenged revenue stream, so we're looking for other revenues wherever we can."
Take Guitar World, for example: Its online store launched nearly a half-decade ago. Initially limited, serving as a shopping site for lesson DVDs, it became more popular and grew in scope to include all of the publisher's brands. Today, the e-commerce site not only offers subscriptions and back issues, DVDs and soon digital downloads, but also books, t-shirts and "all kinds of swag," says Amstutz, representing products produced by NewBay, as well as music-themed goods they've sourced from third-party vendors.
Amstutz is relentlessly protective of the NewBay brands, but acknowledges that if sales of products can stave off further fiscal decline, then leveraging the brands in this way is smart. "I believe publishers in five years will look back and more likely think, 'Why didn't we diversify more?' I don't believe that we'll look back at this time and determine that we've diluted our brands."
But e-commerce is a "cut-throat" world, Amstutz cautioned, and pricing has a lot of influence on the web. NewBay published Guitar Aficionado: The Collections-a big, beautiful art book with a small release, and though it had been offered for $50 on the publisher's site, online retailers such as Amazon undercut the price.
"That's how people shop online," says Amstutz. "They see something they want, and they search for the cheapest one. That's a challenge."
3. Stay True To Yourself
There are limitations to e-commerce, of course. Strategies that draw publishers too far away from their core competency could have a negative impact. There are also limitations in the volume of products and services one may sell.
Dwell Media had no desire to be the sole resource for finding modern design, says O'Connor Abrams. "Our goal was to make sure our community thought of us as a place to get ideas and inspiration for modern design, and then perhaps buy some things through our channels, or be directed to all of our wonderful retail partners for those goods. We never wanted to sell tens of thousands of products."
When publishers put the channel in front of the vision or the model, and take the approach that they're going to sell everything under the sun, two things are going to happen," says O'Connor Abrams. "First, they lose the confidence that marketing and advertising partners have in them. But more importantly, their audience looks at them and thinks, 'What are you doing? This is not the Dwell brand.' You have to stay true to the brand's mission, or you will go off the rails."
4. Feed The Machine
The e-commerce flowchart isn't linear. Publications and marketing communications still drive consumers to shopping sites, but the traffic flow should be circular, with print, online, shopping sites, and social media all feeding one another.
The team at Mental Floss and The Week have demonstrated a particular acumen for connecting and relating its publications, social media properties and product lines.
It all began with Mental Floss' online storefront, which came about rather organically. The editors are renowned for clever copy and headlines, and it was one of those headlines that inspired a t-shirt -- which included a graphic of Beethoven (the composer, not the movie dog) and the tag line, "The Original Deaf Jam."
They created the shirt, offered it up to their readers for comment and purchase, and it was so popular -- even today -- the publisher would have been ill-advised to stop there.
Next, readers began coming up with their own clever ideas, and soon the Mental Floss storefront was thriving with t-shirts, novelty gifts, publications and more, says Sara O'Connor, group director of consumer marketing for The Week and Mental Floss. Yet all of those products have a common theme: funny and smart. "We have staff dedicated to looking at every product that fits that description, and then we discuss those with the publishers and editors. Sometimes, they recommend products to us, which we appreciate because they're the ones that live and breathe the magazine; they know the readers better than anyone."
It also matters how the products are introduced. "We try to tell the story behind it," says O'Connor. "That gets people to talk about the products and recommend them. They're our greatest advocates."
Mental Floss' sister publication, The Week, is now e-commerce-enabled, too. Its site is selling things like books, gifts and novelties, and foodie finds.
5. Be Consistent
The fashion and beauty magazine category has proven particularly astute with e-commerce. Harper's BAZAAR recently redesigned its website, and part of that effort included better e-commerce integration with the companion site, ShopBAZAAR. "We are beyond thrilled with the new BAZAAR.com," says Anne Welch, Harper's BAZAAR associate publisher, Hearst Magazines.
The brand, which Welch describes as "so BAZAAR," is paramount. Now, the BAZAAR community can enjoy the magazine, website, email campaigns and more, and have the look and the feel of a unified ecosystem. "Every story will have its fair share of credits, which will link the customer to ShopBAZAAR, where she can buy what she loves," says Welch.
Essential to this model is collaboration between the editorial and business teams, says Welch. She also noted that publishers' e-commerce expectations should be measured, for they will not meet the same milestones of success that are expected of high-volume e-retailers. "We can't try to be a low-priced, high-volume [retailer]. That is not BAZAAR."
The BAZAAR team has worked hard to market all of their publications, regardless of platform. Their email campaigns have an impressive 20% open rate, says Welch. The print magazine features 50 to 100 products in every issue that include an icon, a visual prompt to alert the reader to its availability on ShopBAZAAR.
6. Be Nimble & Experiment
Fear, uncertainty -- these things are great motivators, and there's no shortage of either among magazine publishers today. It is a new world out there, with a climate better suited to the brave and adventuresome.
"Twenty years ago, when a few publishers started producing custom publishing, that was thought of as revolutionary at the time," says Dwell Media's O'Connor Abrams. "Now, Time Inc. has a whole new business based on this strategy. That was an experiment, and it worked, and we all continued to do it."
"Experiment-call it what you will -- it is simply a discipline by which you manage your business and your brand," says O'Connor Abrams, noting that Dwell Media is "constantly testing" new e-commerce strategies-not all of which have been resounding successes.
"It's about taking risks; you cannot be afraid to fail. The beauty of Dwell, as a company that produces a magazine in the midst of the behemoths like Hearst, Condé and Time Inc., is that we're nimble. It does not take more than a year of navigating corporate structure to do something as simple as try out a new technology or partnership. We can do it at the drop of a hat, and we can tell reasonably quickly if it's worth it, if it works. If it does, we keep going and fine tune; or, we stop. And it's that kind of innovation cycle that allows us to be on 10 platforms right now."
7. Invest In Talent
Great publishing only flows from talented people. And staffing for e-commerce business is no different.
This year, Dwell Media hired a former Yahoo executive, Brandon Huff, to steer its digital and e-commerce operations. "He brought something new to this company that we lacked-digital technology and business development experience -- which you must have," says O'Connor Abrams. "You must have that resident in your company. You cannot farm that out."
Hearst Magazine's Anne Welch agrees that e-commerce requires a particular expertise: "We had e-commerce help. We're not e-commerce people by trade. We listened to them, and were able to make changes -- small changes, like putting a call-to-action in a place where it's best seen. It wasn't about changing our brand, but just putting things in the right place. It's amazing to see how those little tweaks continue to increase open rates."
8. Protect The Brand
In speaking with magazine publishers, one quickly finds consensus, a common theme: Our brands are precious. We must do them no harm.
"I haven't seen any publishers go about this in any way other than 'How can we enhance this experience for our readers?' They're not selling random items. They're tie-ins. So it closes the loop, in that the content inspires the person and then enables them to buy," says MPA's Mary Berner. "Magazine media has always been effective at motivating people to do things. E-commerce essentially closed the loop. It just completes the experience, if it's done well." PE
Gretchen A. Peck is a publishing consultant and freelance journalist. She's covered the international printing, publishing, and advertising industries for the past 25 years, and holds a Master's Degree in writing and rhetoric.
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