Staying alive is an ongoing struggle for media companies.
To stave off revenue decreases, which have averaged a 9% decline every year over the past six years, according to Brian Wieser’s Madison and Wall Substack, publishing has tried assorted tactics. From paywalls to a clumsy scramble toward video, publishing is trying to make its $18 billion business survive and remain relevant.
In recent years, publishers have turned to commerce media, which entails building direct relationships with retailers and brands as they create commerce-related content.
“Our bread and butter is still going to be display. But year over year, the commerce business has been increasing,” said Ryan Chong, senior director of ad operations at Ziff Davis, at a panel at the AdMonsters Ad Ops event last week with Black Enterprise that delved into how publishers are doing their latest pivot to capture more ad revenue.
What’s on offer
Ziff Davis runs properties such as PCMag, Mashable, IGN and Lifehacker, as well as shopping sites Offers.com and BlackFriday.com. Together, its sites pocket $1.4 billion a year in ad revenue, though its Q1 2023 revenue declined 2.5% YOY.
Affiliate links and branded content are Ziff Davis’s main commerce products. But the real opportunity is in branded content that tells a story, said Chong, which they can sell at a premium price.
Mashable has a dedicated team of editors who write articles about the best daily deals. Ziff Davis generally uses deal-specific writers, separate from the regular editorial page. It also disallows advertiser influence, “so there’s still that editorial integrity,” Chong said.
Similarly, Black-owned publisher Black Enterprise includes sponsored articles that sit on a subdomain of the site. A white-label company writes those articles. And the publisher, billed as a Black Forbes or Fortune, also sends out newsletters every Saturday with five commerce-branded content slots, said Justin Barton, the publisher’s SVP of digital strategy and partnerships.
As a review site for consumer electronics, Ziff Davis gathers a lot of data already, Chong said. But commerce content allows the company to retarget readers who are ready for a purchase and track whether they click on purchase links. Branded articles are “more of an awareness play,” he added.
“You’ve got to analyze the data and make sure you’re getting good conversions and providing the right compass,” Chong said. “And if not, optimize, optimize, optimize.”
For Black Enterprise, collecting intent data and other first-party data, such as customer email addresses, isn’t just useful for the content and advertising sides of the business. It also informs what sorts of virtual and in-person events will resonate for future planning.
For instance, after receiving a flood of mortgage-related inquiries, Black Enterprise decided to develop and sell sponsorships for a mortgage wealth and real estate summit.
Commerce content can also bring in new users, which is a mixed bag for Black Enterprise. More conversions and purchases are positives. On the other hand, SEO-focused content might prompt “general market people” to visit the site and consume content, Barton said. These users could dilute its predominantly Black audience.
The importance of preserving its Black consumer focus is also why Black Enterprise is steering clear of using generative AI to write commerce (and other) content. Although AI programs could theoretically produce reams of content more efficiently than human writers and shore up revenue for the publisher, Barton doesn’t see AI as being able to supplant the human element.
“Can it have the voice that we’re looking for that speaks to our ways? A little bit, but not there yet,” Barton said. “It always has to have some human interaction or touch to it, to make it authentic to what we do.”