Why Content Is the Secret Weapon of Commerce

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Sex. Clothes. Popularity. Is there a problem here? - Alicia Silverstone, Clueless

A commercial brand using content to bolster their bottom line is nothing new; it’s marketing. But as publishers and brands explore new revenue streams and better ways to connect to consumers, merging content and commerce is more attractive than ever, especially if the result is a seamless transaction.

According to a report e-commerce company VigLink published earlier this year, content-driven commerce (e-retail sales linked from forums, blogs and social media) increased 31 percent over the 2012 holiday season compared to 2011. But consumers don’t just make purchase decisions and learn of new products online, they also spend more. Consumers that review products online or in emails spent 23 percent more than the average consumer, according to Forrester Research.

So how can content creators take advantage of consumer enthusiasm without ruining the experience? And how should retail companies create valuable content? When it’s done well, combining content and commerce businesses enhances the effectiveness of both offerings. Here are some rules for making the combination work, and who’s doing it well:

Rule #1: The content has to be great. Period. There’s too much content out there to expect readers to spend time reading anything that’s not entertaining, informative and trustworthy. Brands that navigate the content + e-commerce waters well offer truly great content that isn’t available elsewhere. Consider Betabrand, the clothing company that offers quirky clothes befitting of bike culture of San Francisco. The customer base is as devoted to the company’s signature Cordarounds pants as they are to its droll newsletter, which has a 40 percent open rate and was recently repurposed into a printed “best of” collection that’s shipped with every purchase. “Our newsletter motto is 99 percent fiction/1 percent fashion,” said founder Chris Lindland via email. “Content gives people talking points. Our stated goal is to create fashion forwardable products and stories.” The site also encourages interaction with the brand and generates one-of-a-kind content by getting readers/customers to be the lead model on its sites with its Model Citizen application.

But content from commerce companies isn’t always stellar, or beneficial. The trend of brand-hosted blogs has been growing. J. Crew has a Tumblr, Kate Spade has a blog, as do Brooks Brothers and Forever 21. Nasty Gal and ASOS publish their own magazines. These are great marketing materials. In fact, they are essentially catalogs with a bit more attitude and a few more words. But the agenda is clear—to get the consumer to want more products from the publisher. As the founder of Refinery29, Philippe von Borries, has said, “No one gives a s**t about content from a commerce company.” By which he means that commerce companies are not credible publishers, but publishers don’t have that conflict. Publishers that introduce content must to be willing devote resources to developing an editorial style and depth that go beyond shilling the company’s wares.

Rule #2: The user experience comes first. One of the most established brands that manages to merge commerce and e-commerce is Thrillist. The media group’s strategic advisor, Eric Ashman, says the key is to “own” the consumer. Because the company combines the utility and loyal readership of Thrillist, the editorial talent of Crosby Press and the clothing-maker JackThreads, they're able to offer seamless, transaction-driven content. The site doesn’t rely on affiliate links to generate revenue, and every product is just one click to buy—including JackThreads gear. “Driving commerce is about creating intent, so is advertising. Content is just a better way to do that.” Ashburn says the click-through rate of ads on Thrillist is about 1 percent, while the click-through rate on content is 10 percent to 30 percent.

Other publishers that make the transaction process easy include beauty sites xoVain and Into The Gloss. xoVain, a new site from Jane Pratt of xoJane, delves into beauty with a practical bent. Each post preview and full article has a “shoppable” section, clearly spotlighting every product mentioned in the piece and fast-tracking the purchase process for interested readers. Meanwhile Birchbox, the beauty-sample-by-mail service offers how-to videos and related content on their website to ensure subscribers are informed about the products that arrive via snail mail—and showcasing the consumer option to buy full-price versions on-site.

Rule #3: It's all about trust – use it wisely. Great media companies have an incredibly valuable asset: trust. Readers turn to their RSS and Twitter feeds for reliable opinions. But beyond curating a to-buy or to-covet list of products, smart brands embrace e-commerce with licensed products. Remodelista partnered with Horne to release a special edition of a popular lamp. Both the content and the product serve loyal fans and customers.

Rule #4: Word of mouth (and mobile) close the deal. One in 10 online purchases will be made via smartphone or tablet this year, twice the rate as last year and producing a retail market of $262 billion. And social media tools and tricks make shopping an easier, shared experience. For Fab.com, nearly a third of sales come from mobile. The company was started with a dual purpose, to offer great products, but also offer significant content and perspective with its sharp curation. To grow and scale, the company has expanded its content offerings along its wares. For example, the company’s iPad app now displays a live feed of what others are buying, increasing the socially-driven aspect of shopping. Its customers love social content; according to Founder and CEO Jason Goldberg, Facebook accounts for 95 percent of social traffic to the site.

Lauren Streib is an editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. You can read her feature on the Web's storytellers on Say Quarterly and follow her on Twitter @lostreib.