Most notably in this category is the Thrillist Media Group, which acquired men’s fashion flash sale site JackThreads in 2010 and broke apart into separate companies in October after five years together, a move that most industry pundits saw as the swan song of the content-commerce hybrid.
But Eric Ashman, president of media at Thrillist, is convinced that the company’s original thesis – capitalizing on a common audience – still holds promise, claiming that the Thrillist and JackThreads separation was more of a function of fundraising than anything else.
Ecommerce is a low-margin business, and online commerce companies often have lower valuations than ad-supported media players, such as Maker Studios, Vox and BuzzFeed.
As part of the split, Thrillist raised $54 million from Axel Springer, while JackThreads fetched a new round itself – amount undisclosed – from Oak Investment Partners, formerly SoftBank Capital.
“All those stories comparing us to others made for good headlines, but do I think that Refinery29 took a real run at commerce or did Nasty Gal really make an effort on the content side? No,” Ashman said.
Thrillist did, to its credit, embrace commerce wholeheartedly. When JackThreads was under its umbrella, the pair operated a fulfillment warehouse in Brooklyn and managed a team of around 40 customer service reps in Ohio.
But a content-commerce strategy isn’t just about logistics, said Mark Curtis, founder and chief client officer of Fjord, Accenture Interactive’s design and innovation unit.
“Content is a long-term business,” Curtis said. “It’s extremely difficult to build a media brand, and generally shoe manufacturers can’t do it.”
And slapping a buy button on a page or affiliate linking does not a commerce strategy make, Ashman said.
Whether readers actually want to buy, however, is another question.
“I don’t think it’s clear yet if they do, [but that] doesn’t mean they don’t,” said Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Spanfeller Media Group and former CEO of Forbes.com. “One thing is for certain, though – readers want to know why and when their trusted content site is hawking something, and they want that to be super-transparent.”
Seamless might make sense for food delivery, but not for native, said Fjord’s Curtis.
“People talk a lot about seamlessness, but in my experience, customers want to know where the seams are; seams give something shape and definition,” Curtis said. “The old unwritten contract between media and its audience that advertising would be clearly signaled had come under deep threat.”
Shopping In The Stream
That said, there are some cases in which the context makes the selling not only transparent, but convenient and desirable, such as the case of the Team Stream app from sports site Bleacher Report.
Team Stream aggregates sports team-specific news and scores from across the web, including videos, pictures, stories and images. In September, Bleacher Report entered into a partnership with last-minute ticketing app Gametime to let users buy game tickets directly from the Team Stream app. The ads are presented natively and users with Gametime installed are deep-linked directly to the buy page.
It’s a transparent model, Spanfeller said. Same goes for selling plane tickets on a travel site or concert tickets in a music streaming app, as in the case of Pandora and Ticketfly.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to a matter of trust,” he said.
It’s also relevant. While it’s logical to assume that sports superfans want good deals on tickets to see their favorite team – the average Team Stream user accesses the app between 20 and 30 times a month, or nearly every day – reading an article about what blazer to wear to a restaurant is a far cry from being in-market for a blazer.
“An ecommerce opportunity really needs to feel like a value-added service to the user,” said Alex Vargas, VP of business operations at the Bleacher Report. “We’re fortunate to have enough scale as a publisher to be able to consider this type of integration and drive value for our partners, but the real reason this works is because the partnership makes sense for the consumer.”
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” is a pretty good rule of thumb in this space, said Colin Evans, CRO at Gametime and a co-founder of StubHub.
“Can you take a video, make it shoppable and tell everyone where they can buy what the people in the video are wearing and driving? You can – but sometimes people are just watching a video because they want to watch a video or hear a song, and they’re not looking to buy a new product,” Evans said. “Commerce happens when there’s a desire to purchase, not necessarily when the publisher wants there to be commerce.”
That said, the lines between how media and commerce build audiences and monetize will continue to blur, Ashman said.
“We’re all seeing the ongoing collapse of what was once a gulf between content and commerce,” he said, “And all the evidence I see says that will only continue."