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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Audience trust drives Wirecutter’s affiliate strategy

June 30, 2022 | By Carol Brzozowski – Independent Journalist @brzozowski
Leilani Han
Executive Director of Commerce, Wirecutter

Affiliate marketing is a dynamic endeavor, with myriad factors driving strategic decisions on how to sustain a healthy revenue stream while maintaining consumer trust.

In this Q & A, Leilani Han, Wirecutter’s executive director of commerce, shares her insights on strategies driving Wirecutter’s success.

DCN: There appears to be a renewed or intensified interest in affiliate marketing as a revenue diversification strategy. How do you see it?

Han: There’s always been a keen interest in affiliate marketing, but the space has certainly evolved with who was investing in the channel over the last 10 years. In our space, we’ve seen many media companies realize this was a smart strategy for engaging with your audience more deeply while providing a service to them that could evolve into a revenue stream.

This coincided with an evolution in the consumers’ relationship with their shopping journey. Affiliate has the unique capabilities of encompassing all channels so that it fits in perfectly with social media, the internet, and being able to provide greater value to people’s lives.

Wirecutter has been at the forefront of this trend, as we helped to prove to others this model could scale successfully. Today, millions of readers turn to Wirecutter’s advice for inspiration and making smarter shopping decisions.

DCN: What is your company’s approach to affiliate marketing, content/commerce mix, video, social?

Han: Our recommendations – and affiliate marketing – have always been at the core of our business since its 2011 launch. While we’re technically classified as commerce content, we don’t separate our work into content or commerce. We are simply focused on providing the best service journalism to our readers.

Compared to competitors, we are not in the business of worshiping products. We are in the business of helping users find out what is worth paying for and what is the best product for the price. We employ a journalistic, methodical process to uncover the right information.

We make a recommendation – not just a review. We communicate in a way that is relatable and direct – not academic. Wirecutter cuts the time and stress of shopping by providing direct and actionable buying advice.

We knew if we took care of the reader experience and prioritized their trust in us above all else, the monetization follows. That’s an indication we’re hitting the mark on being helpful to them. That’s a balance we have to strike to serve our readers and our ability to monetize. Our team does a great job of finding that balance.

As digital innovation has evolved over the years, so have the channels through which we can reach our audiences. We view video and social media as another way to introduce new readers to our advice while reaching them in the moment in the spaces where they’re organically spending their time.

DCN: What are the driving factors underscoring where to put the efforts?

Han: Our core mission is to serve our readers with helpful advice and earn their trust. Our recommendations are at the center of our efforts. We try to be thoughtful about how we engage with our audiences and whether we’re successful in meeting their needs.

We aim to be as impartial as possible from any business interests. Our approach is being transparent through every point of the user experience. 

The affiliate model aligns well with our reader service mission because we do not earn commissions if we are not successful in earning trust and making the right recommendations. A successful affiliate business is a clear indicator we are doing right by the reader. The data helps inform us whether we’re meeting the mark on what readers need advice on and what to buy.

DCN: How do you mitigate the inherent challenges?

Han: One of the biggest challenges at the beginning is figuring out what resonates with your readers, how you can gain traction with them to return and click through to purchase, and then scaling that in a way that honors your service for your readers. While affiliate marketing can be a very meaningful revenue stream, it is not as turnkey as some other channels. It requires time, effort, and a lot of testing to eventually find the sweet spot of your editorial voice and how to monetize effectively.

Another challenge is in how to strike the right balance between sources that are key drivers of your business and ensuring you’re diversified enough to withstand changes that are outside of your control.

One example of this for Wirecutter is organic search and the ever-changing algorithms that can impact how much traffic is coming to your site.

Last fall, we launched a subscription product because we know that our journalism is worth paying for and we are focused on deepening our relationship with our readers. This allows us to reach these readers directly and lessen our reliance on other traffic sources to bring readers back to Wirecutter. So far, we are seeing positive results that confirm our belief that Wirecutter’s service journalism is a meaningful resource in people’s lives.

Despite our priority to grow our subscriber base, we are continuing to focus on our affiliate business as well. Our affiliate business model remains unchanged. If you click a link on our site and buy something we recommend, we may receive a commission.

As always, our writers and editors are never made aware of any business relationships we have with retailers. We’ll continue to make picks independent of all business and financial interests. Those things will never change: helping readers make the right buying decisions will always come first.

The change happening with browser updates and privacy regulations is also top of mind for many publishers and what the deprecation of cookies means for the industry. Many of the major affiliate networks have been addressing this by updating their tracking technology to help mitigate any losses from these changes, while Wirecutter has proprietary technology that has also helped us to mitigate any loss.

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