The idea to combine rich content with products for sale is not a new one. After all, Elaine Benes put the "urban sombrero" on the cover of the J. Peterman catalog on the first episode of Seinfeld's eighth season, which aired in September 1996. But the content + commerce trend isn't just a catalog with a storyline with a sombrero on its cover; these days, it's a new marketing strategy being employed by a growing number of digital media sites trying to find a new revenue stream – and a new niche in the shadow of Amazon.
You can never beat Amazon on price, but if you engage customers to want to buy from you because they find value in the content, then maybe you can give them something they can't get from Amazon. Plus, beautiful media experiences can make product discovery more interesting, more social and more fun.
So who are the new players kicking e-commerce in the content pants? Here's a look at seven good ones:
Fab.com, the world's fastest growing e-commerce site, focuses on home design and aspires to be the Ikea of the interwebs. Part of Fab's success isn't just content or product curation but also integration of social and mobile features into the whole experience.
Thirty to 40 percent of Feb's daily visits come from mobile users; it has racked up over 6 million members in less than a year and a half; and it's in the process of creating a marketplace for its partner designers to interact directly with its membership.
High Gear Media
There are different tactics by which to insert content into commerce. For High Gear Media, which claims five million monthly readers, that tactic is algorithm-based, combining available car listings with reviews from its content archive from professional reviewers on its site The Car Connection.
This content+commerce model gives online car buyers the knowledge they need from High Gear Media's pre-existing content, but served up in a buyer-centric fashion - not just by car type but by other factors like the buyer's location, determined by mobile device, which High Gear says is a good source for "transaction related activities."
Condiment is the aptly titled digital magazine that focuses on "life's little extras" - fashion, furniture, accessories and that sort of thing. The concept is a curated set of products that look good together and fit a theme, like "8 cold weather must-haves this season," which showcases Condiment's clean lay-out style.
This first layer of customer interaction also supports a Condiment Shop, where you can buy products featured on the site in a more conventional e-commerce interface.
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The subscription-based urban lifestyle portal Thrillist has been aware of the content + commerce trend for years, as its 2010 purchase of members-only retailer JackThreads seems quite fortuitous in hindsight as the combination of the two online brands gave Thrillist an audience of five million daily subscribers, mostly young urban affluent men.
About 25 percent of Refinery 29's revenue comes not from its advertisers but from commerce on its site, which has an audience of 6 million readers - almost all of them women.
Refinery 29 doesn't lose sight of the fact that it is a content company first that sells products second. Its leadership recognizes that audiences are inherently skeptical of commerce companies creating over-polished content (the urban sombrero model), so Refinery 29 remains focused on curating products and creating great content, imagining itself as Conde Nast without the drama.
This upscale mens portal and spin-off of Net-A-Porter, Mr. Porter combines its shopping options with features of style, manners and mens fashion tips. It's a place where you can buy a $1,000 Charlie Brown sweater, Robert Redford's pea coat or John F. Kennedy's crew neck cashmere sweater.
Even though the site is geared to the ultra-luxe customer, its cash flow depends largely on small sales. According to the WSJ, the site's first sale was a pair of sunglasses; the most popular item in the Spring 2012 collection was an Alexander McQueen moth print t-shirt; and the most popular shoe on the site has been low-top sneakers.
One Kings Lane
The upscale home retailer One Kings Lane launched in 2009; in 2011, it acquired Helicopter, the design firm responsible for Domino magazine. Subsequently, the site has acquired an all-over Domino-type aesthetic with functional content specific to the merchandise, like a video on how to fold fitted sheets to features on specific companies from their products to their corporate histories. Upscale customers want to know how their favorite companies became successful and profitable; such information adds value to the shopping experience.
What's your favorite mix content and commerce?