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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How publishers can unlock the commerce opportunity

November 29, 2023 | By Kevin Boyrivent, Director of Product Strategy, Supply Solutions – Criteo @criteo

Commerce media—advertising that connects shoppers with products and services throughout the buying journey across both physical and digital touchpoints—is on the rise. 

Advertisers are set to spend $125.7 billion with retail media properties and networks in 2023 according to GroupM, growing to represent 15.4% of total ad spend by 2028—even surpassing TV. And that’s just a subset of the larger commerce media opportunity, which McKinsey puts at $1.3 trillion in enterprise value in the US by 2026, which includes $50 billion for publishers.  

While it’s not immediately apparent on the surface, this trend spells big opportunity for non-retailer media owners, too. But what exactly is that commerce opportunity, and how can publishers start to take advantage of this shift in media buying?  

The three strategies below—all being pursued by Commerce Media early adopters in the publisher space—highlight a potential path forward.  

Strategy #1: Adopt a funnel mentality

Commerce media fuses data intelligence with digital advertising to reach consumers across their shopping journeys. As experts in attracting audiences, aggregating their attention, and securing their trust, publishers play a meaningful role in this process. Their properties represent critical stopping points at every stage of a buyer’s path to purchase. To capitalize on this opportunity, publishers need to start applying a funnel mentality to content planning and creation.

At the top of the funnel is product discovery—where consumers first learn about a new product or service offering. “Editor Finds” and “Today’s top picks” work well at driving upper funnel awareness, and because you already have your audience’s trust—they are a natural accelerator for advancing readers to the next funnel stage: consideration.

In the consideration stage, consumers are deciding whether they want to make a purchase, or, if they have already decided, weighing their options about which product to go with. Product reviews, comparisons, and unboxings are all effective at influencing consumers during this stage, providing them with more in-depth information to shape their decision-making and potentially even pushing them further down the funnel, to the purchase stage. 

At this stage, highlighting time-based deals (e.g., “Best Prime Day Deals”) can create urgency for customers, reminding them about products they have had their eye on, but had not yet added to their cart. Similarly, bestowing credible and high-praise designations to products (e.g., “Our favorite Smart TV of 2023”) can give unsure shoppers the confidence they need to advance beyond window gazing to making a purchase.

Making sure you have content for all stages of the funnel is critical to building trust with users and attracting the audiences that advertisers and retailers are looking to engage. Many publishers also use this content (and in some cases build it purposefully) to power affiliate marketing programs, where they receive commissions from retailer partners for the sales generated from the traffic being sent to the retailer’s site.

Strategy #2: Convert commerce content into commerce data

As you build your commerce content library and start to attract more visitors, you will notice you are simultaneously generating a tremendous amount of incredibly rich commerce data. This data is collected based upon important buying signals such as which visitors are reading what content, clicking on which affiliate links, hunting for deals and more.

With the right collection and management tools in place, this data forms the seed of a first-party commerce data strategy. You can then segment this data in all sorts of ways to create value for advertisers. For example, users reading multiple reviews of different smart TVs are highly likely in-market for that product category. Users who consistently read content about Smart TVs, gaming consoles, and green autos are likely “high-tech enthusiasts,” as well as “high price point shoppers.”

Knowing how commerce advertisers want to buy should inform how you shape your data strategy. In addition to wanting granular product category interest and in-market data, they are also always on the lookout for reliable data on life events (e.g., “new homeowners,” “new baby,” “recent retiree); brand preferences (e.g., Nike loyalists); purchase frequency; and shopping habits (e.g., deal-based shopper, frequent online buyer).

Such granular first-party audience signals collected on the publisher side are already considered more accurate and relevant than similar third-party data and will only become more in-demand with the deprecation of third-party cookies. Publishers with direct sales teams should be leveraging this data for deals-based selling as well as offsite reach plays, leveraging audience extension programs and tools.

Strategy #3: Think like a retailer

Once you have started to invest serious energy and resources into leveraging your unique editorial voice and trusted expertise to create high-value commerce content, you will begin to attract more visitors in a purchase mindset. Combine that with a growing and increasingly rich commerce data asset, and, in some cases, it may make sense to start acting like a retailer in your own right.

For some publishers, that mean building editorial-powered storefronts off your main digital properties. There, you can aggregate top editor picks, fan favorites, and best sellers for direct purchase by your site visitors. Others can embed relevant links within their commerce content and leverage their growing commerce data insights to drive in-market audiences to their storefront to create a flywheel effect.

Pushing that concept even further, some publishers might start to embed storefronts at the product level within individual article pages, newsletter communications, or social posts, which brings one-click purchase possibilities to consumers at every touchpoint and stage of the funnel.

Publishers who command serious trust from their readers may decide to parlay their editorial influence into curatorial prowess, in the form of product recommendation and discovery subscription services. Birchbox might have invented this category, but media owners are its rightful heir. They can leverage their trusted editorial perspective to hand-pick and distribute innovative, new, and best-of-breed products to consumers constantly in search of their next obsession. This is as applicable to beauty products as it is to kitchen utensils, books, video games, cooking spices, socks, and fragrances.

Publishers have been merchandisers for a long time, even if they did not know what that function meant in a retail context. Thanks to an acceleration in digital shopping comfort and technology, now they can be both influencer and retailer.

The commerce opportunity

For publishers looking to bridge the gap between media and commerce, building a commerce strategy that spans content creation, data collection and segmentation, product merchandising, retailer engagement, and user experience, will be key.

The relationship between media and commerce has historically lacked a clear strategic connection. Viewing commerce in isolation neglects the huge synergistic potential of content, data, and user experiences. This limitation has traditionally prevented publishers from securing a strong footing in this segment of the digital advertising ecosystem—but things are changing.

The new chapter ahead presents a wealth of opportunities for publishers. By focusing on the convergence of content and experiences through a commerce lens, publishers can forge meaningful and long-lasting relationships with advertisers and retailers alike.

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