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Why Digital Publishers Are Creating Products (And You Should Too)

Why Digital Publishers Are Creating Products (And You Should Too)

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“A product is something made in a factory; a brand is something that is bought by the customer. A product can be copied by a competitor; a brand is unique. A product can be quickly outdated; a successful brand is timeless.”

Stephen King

Building a product is easy. Map the challenges your industry faces – brainstorm over the solutions – pick one that’d be an easy target- hire a team of qualified engineers – build. But, equally challenging is the concept of building a brand. I’ll tell you why.

On March 21, 1978, when inflation was high, a startup called “NoName” was launched by Loblaw with 16 non-branded items in yellow and black packaging. NoName gained huge popularity in its initial years due to guaranteed savings of 10 to 40 percent over other national brands. However, the startup flopped even though it was yielding great solutions.

According to an article published by The New York Times in 1986, No Frills, No Sale, NoName didn’t survive long. As per analysts, it came to a point of extinction in 1983 due to the degrading faith of people in generic products that lacked a brand name, a buyer could blindly rely upon. NoName’s failed attempts at building a rapport with its customers gave its competitors an upper-edge that constantly were leveraging regular promotions to build a brand for themselves.

As ideas shape the course of history, a new NoName, this time called “Brandless” got launched in July 2017 with a similar motto.

Brandless promised to sell each product, from the list of 115 products it was rolled out with, at a reasonable price tag of $3. The direct-to-consumer brand claimed to eliminate the hidden costs, up to 40 percent, under “brand tax” associated with branding, promotions, distributions, etc of the products.

Though the idea was marvelous, it didn’t take long for Tina Sharkey, co-founder at Brandless, to realize the significance of facing the irony. Brandless joined hands with Red Antler, a branding agency in New York that works with giants like Google and Casper, to place the one piece left to complete the Jigsaw. And, it paid off well – the Brandless brand announced a $240 million funding round last July.

Being a product owner, the best thing in your power is to offer great solutions. Whereas, turning that product into a brand requires way more than that. A brand needs proof. It asks you to earn a customer’s trust. It asks you to regularly engage with that customer. More than anything, it expects that customer to reach your next prospect before your rivals/their customers do. Brand building is a hard win. Retailers would know best, as many in the industry have now started to realize the struggle. The influence that an audience owner, in the same market, exerts over the targeted persona is hard to match for these retailers. And, that is exactly why they need audience owners to back them up.

Wait, but who has this audience?

Commerce publishers today review products and cover their major updates day-in-day-out. It’s a core part of their job to connect dots to anticipate a product’s next big move, perform product breakdowns and create an intriguing case study that either boasts about the product or drills down to its silly mistakes.

Online retailers have started approaching these publishers to shift this content under their hood. Amazon – the biggest online distributor, reached out to small or less established publishers of late and asked them to post their content directly on its website. Where Amazon got to experiment with its conversion via owned content tactic, many entry-level publishers took it as their big break and readily agreed. How perfect can this targeting be?

What’s putting publishers in a critical spot?

On a land, not too far, six fully-fledged bedding stores right now breathe under the umbrella of Parachute. Born online, unlike many brands in this space, this bedding and bathroom linen startup focuses on building a brand identity that doesn’t rely on the walled gardens. Luke Droulez, the chief marketing officer at Parachute, in a podcast stated –  “I don’t want to be known as a Facebook brand or an Instagram brand”. Instead, he’d like Parachute to be known as a lifestyle brand that has people’s best-kept secrets.

To achieve this, brands need to interact with their audience across multiple touchpoints. Dependence on a third party channel for the brand building would become as derailing as banner blindness in advertising.

How does this affect publishers?

An audience with a brand associated with it is a publisher’s most valuable asset. Hence, posting content on a third party channel, like Amazon, becomes too risky to consider.

The big-name publishers will always resist submitting their “carton of long-term benefits” to a retailer after what they’ve earned from the digital walled gardens. But, those struggling for recognition in the industry won’t think twice.

Is there anything that the industry can do to ease the plight? Enter commerce publishers building the solutions (products) that they were directing their audience too.

The success metrics of publishers reside in building a following that trusts their opinions. A fanbase that believes what they foresee within the industry. Actionable suggestions to such a fanbase own high possibility of not just getting followed and adopted but also recommended (not to mention, quality of products must match the set standards). With great reach and power, comes great responsibility. Publishers can’t just afford to flounder the trust that they have built over the years. This influence once earned, which most of the big names in the industry already do, can bring incremental dollars to a publisher that owns the product instead of just being an affiliate.

Influence on the publisher monetization stack

Selling products built by themselves improves a publisher’s monetization stack which currently is experiencing shrinking ad revenue and poorly performing gated content monetization modeling. The model is comparatively simpler to adapt and owns high chances of scaling given the connection, pre-built with website audience.

Publishers need to look for a sustainable revenue source that once geared up doesn’t roll back the way ad revenue from the duopoly (Google and Facebook) did. Selling owned products, especially for niche publishers that have spent 1000’s of hours building an expertise in the domain, can become one such reliable source due to:

  • Expertise in the domain (innovative products providing great solutions)
  • Regular site visitors looking for similar solutions (owned platform of the user persona)
  • Gained trust of the audience (easier to ask for a demo and convert)

Publishers can also consider developing “easy to build” tools that are needed on a regular basis in their organization. These tools reduce business expenditure in the long run and can be used as a monetization channel provided it resonates with your industry.

What does a publisher need to enter commerce?

An audience!

You need a regularly engaged website audience that trusts your brand. You need a rapport in place with this audience. As we know, the best business deals let both parties win. You sell the products and take your cut. At the same time, the audience doesn’t feel disappointed with the purchase and never regrets investing faith in your brand. A reliable audience is all you need.

To build your way to this monetization source, you need to:

  1. Create a map of the industry that your website talks about. Break it into components and link what functions next with an arrow. Refer to the image below.

Map of Industry for digital publishers

  1. Create a product catalog, under each component, that your audience would find useful.
  2. Analyze the user behavior with data from the website on Google Analytics and 3rd party providers like Moz, Ahrefs, SemRush, etc.
  3. Pick the potential segments of the audience.
  4. Choose how you’ll enter the battlefield

a. Become an affiliate

Selling products from companies that target your website audience has become a widespread practice in publishing. Becoming an affiliate is not very difficult. You need to find the brands that target your potential segments. This can be achieved by searching for relevant listicles on Google SERPs. For instance, if you want a listicle of the brands providing sports apparel, you can search for “Best x sportswear brands”. Choose from a number of listicles ranking above. Compare and reach out to become a partner.

If finding brands looking for an affiliate seems backbreaking to you, becoming a partner at affiliate programs is always an easier way out. You can choose from various programs including the likes of the Amazon affiliate program and Shareasale. The revenue per sale might be lesser here due to the presence of a third party platform. But, those that are beginning their journey with affiliate advertising should consider trying their skills on an established platform first to build an understanding of the channel. Follow the respective instructions of the program you’ve selected. Link the product where the chances of selling are high and promote. Post on social media, newsletters, your homepage, etc.

b. Buy products, you see the potential in or build your own brand label

Mid and large enterprise publishers have started to work with this newbie of late. Selling owned products put a lot at stake but, it’s a monetization source that once geared up leaves no room for the product to roll back. Start with mapping challenges the industry faces. Brainstorm to reach the most efficient solutions. Find existing solutions and list the favorable ones considering its market value, buzz amongst the audience, and performance. Conduct product analysis and take consultations. While playing big, advice from someone much experienced to assist with the dos and don’ts, always helps. Build a team to assist with customer queries.

Or become the solution provider that builds to solve the core challenges of its audience. Give your followers one more reason to feel proud. Build products that don’t provide a compromised solution.

Start with figuring out the solution, found above, that would get solved with an easy-to-build product. Analyze the market and create a product roadmap. Define the value it will add to your customer’s problem. Define the acquisition cost per customer. Consult industry leaders with more expertise. Hire a team to build the product and one later to support with customer queries. Share your brand story. Products don’t just sell by themselves, you’ll need to leverage advertising and regular promotions

Learning from the go-getters

Is anyone calling the Police? Because Buzzfeed is on fire!

Spreading viral content since 2006, this American media company is just not slowing down. It’s always hunting new sources to stretch its revenue muscles. Wait, not again.

Buzzfeed’s Tasty

Buzzfeed launched Tasty (to boost revenue from native ads) as an experiment which turned out to be its easiest entrance into eCommerce. Tasty was found to have 98 million followers on Facebook in January 2019.

Well, who wouldn’t have a yen for their delicacies like keto-free lasagna? The platform is filled with recipes that would either take you to a cookbook page or would require you to buy an instant pot from Tasty’s cookware line. To the surprise of those struggling with shrinking ad revenue, the brand is working wonders with no dirty tricks associated. The product line of the #1 content publisher on Facebook sold around 1.5million products last year. And no, the above-mentioned tricks weren’t dirty but a commendable approach towards generating more and better opportunities.

BuzzFeed has time and again proved that they know exactly what the world needs next. Tasty, in 2017, rolled out a $149 Bluetooth enabled hot plate which BuzzFeed referred to as a “precision smart cooktop”. With an included thermometer, detecting the internal temperature of the food and a One Top App notifying when to flip or when to add the next ingredient, this invention, according to BuzzFeed, functions as a culinary Swiss Army knife.

Tasty has also started a joint venture with Walmart. Yes, the biggest global retailer will now be providing a dedicated shelf to the Tasty-branded kitchen products in their 4000 stores. These products would include spatulas, cooking steels, mixing bowls, etc with a price ranging from $4.4 to $99. Buzzfeed has entered the easy streets in a world dreaded by the duopoly.

More than just Tasty

Now, keep the jaw dropped as I move forward. Tasty is just one of their six verticals that have stunned the industry with its cutting-edge innovations. BuzzFeed’s other vertical – Goodful recently collaborated with the Macy to launch a houseware-product-line with 100 products ranging from $15 to $230. Buzzfeed Reviews, founded last year exclusively for affiliate businesses, is a product recommendation site that takes a cut from every product they help getting sold. Buzzfeed News, with a membership plan of $5/month, brings the latest lumps of viral global news in its emailer. In August 2018, Buzzfeed started asking its readers to donate between $5 to $100 to support the organization and, what might surprise you, the average donation made was of $20.

Being an affiliate is clearly good. Why build products?

Because the audience consuming your content is really smart. And, for a smart audience, identifying products that you own and the ones you’re just getting a commission out of, isn’t tough. Don’t believe me? Go ahead and post 10 legitimate reasons for using product x of a particular material. Mention an affiliate product next to that and watch readers scrolling past it thinking it’s a regular sales pitch. Like they always do.

Or build one yourself and pitch that as a solution. Let the audience know how followers contacted you with a bag full of problems and prompted you to come up with a solution like that. Tell them what makes the product different from those that are failing to meet expectations. Share the story your product has. Promote it on newsletters, social channels, your homepage and watch readers checking out the product. Like they rarely do.

It won’t be a product suggestion to them anymore but an innovative approach pulled off by the most faithful industry leader.

Downsides of being an affiliate

To put this straight, being an affiliate comes with a lot of responsibilities and hard work. Being a performance-based marketing channel, affiliate marketing requires you to do regular promotions and stuff links wherever you can. It needs a huge chunk of traffic AND subscribers to bite the initial buying phase of a product. Let’s leave the unsubscriptions that follow for the next time.

Basically, as an affiliate, you break your neck to sell something that many like you already are. That too for the same price, at the same time, probably using the same sales pitch. Tell me something – does a slivered commission justify the efforts you put in for someone else’s product? Yes, slivered! Only 5% of affiliates make more than $100 a month. We all know how big of a race you would have to win to enter that top 5%. Building your own product helps to get out of the rest of 95% striving for more revenue.

How can a revenue generation approach be so flawless?

Well, it’s not. The biggest flaw in building products for eCommerce revenue is dealing with ongoing issues. Being a publisher, you hold the expertise in the domain. You’ve been burning the midnight oil to figure out where the industry proceeds next. What you, however, don’t possess are the technical skills. It isn’t feasible for a publisher to rectify and correct the technical malfunctions every now and then. Publishers would need someone to turn to at such point in time. Of course, there are solutions (with, ahem! investments).

Look, engineers are expensive to keep. We all know that. But, we’re progressing beyond ads and affiliates here. And, beyond ads and affiliates, you’ll experience several pitfalls along with boosted revenue, which is absolutely fair. You’d need to hire a fully-fledged customer support team for such circumstances.

Too late to start?

Absolutely not. Commerce publishers have been hanging around, exercising their affiliate monetization strategies, for a while now. Whereas, selling owned products is still a budding monetization strategy. But, those that were tired of working with Google and Facebook, and making far too little for the value they were delivering, tried this. Those that were backed by a good volume of audience, built their products and made it big. You should be next.

Guest author: Neha Tanwer is a Product Marketer at iZooto where she helps publishers monetize their digital content.

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