The New York Times acquired Wirecutter last year because its Consumer Reports-like product coverage mirrored the Times’ aspirations to expand into service journalism.
“The Wirecutter was doing what the Times would have done if we were to start from scratch,” said David Perpich, Wirecutter’s president and general manager.
Buying Wirecutter helped the Times diversify its revenue, along with the acquisitions of experiential agency Fake Love and social media/influencer agency Hello Society last year. At the time of its $30 million acquisition, Wirecutter reportedly drove $10 million to $20 million in revenue.
Perpich wouldn’t confirm revenue figures, but said Wirecutter’s revenue has grown 50% year over year. Post-acquisition, the team folded The Sweethome, which focused on kitchen and home gadgets, into the Wirecutter brand, which now encompasses products for children, personal finance, pets and outdoors.
AdExchanger talked to Perpich about how Wirecutter fared during Cyber Week, its collaborations with Times editorial projects and what shady mattress blogs mean for the affiliate business.
AdExchanger: The Times is known for ethical journalism, but affiliate marketing isn’t. How are you reconciling the two?
DAVID PERPICH: The Times has a history of ethical journalism. In the end, any business model can be taken advantage of – does advertising corrupt editorial? We will write about what we will write about without fear or favor for advertisers.
We think the best long-term business decision is putting the reader first. We start with what questions readers have, and how we can help them answer those questions when it comes to buying something. And if readers aren’t happy with the pick and return the item, we don’t make money.
Fast Company wrote an exposé about the mattress affiliate business. What’s your take on what it found?
I’m not surprised that there are players out there being put in a position where they are compromising their editorial values to make money. One of the strengths of the Times is that we will leave money on the table happily if we think that’s the right thing for the reader. You don’t have that luxury if you are a single blog on a single topic trying to stay in business.
The Times’ advertising revenue peaks in Q4. Is the same true for affiliates?
There are other peaks in the year, like Amazon Prime Day and other holidays, but Q4 is a big time of year for us. In particular, Cyber Week is insane for us. We have been growing 50% year over year, and Cyber Week grew even more for us.
What was Cyber Week like this year?
We had 60-plus people on hand and on deck to provide coverage for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. A lot of players say, "The more deals we put in front of people, the more money we will get." We went through the work of getting to a smaller, more manageable number, from 78,000 deals to 455 on our deals page.
We curated a list of picks that works well for mobile, and used social and mobile. We showed up on Google, the Times pointed to us and we were active on social.
Amazon is usually one of the two links to buy on Wirecutter. What’s it like working with them?
Amazon is a really important partner to us. A lot of our readers are Prime customers, and from a reader perspective we want to make sure we are reaching them since they look to Amazon to shop. They are a big and important partner but not the only one, and we are doing the same with other merchants.
How does Wirecutter’s model work on mobile?
The Wirecutter had been built for desktop first. We wanted to go cross-platform, and improve click-through rate from what was already a high click-through rate. We structured the page in a more recognizable way, clarifying what we were picking and recommending and moving to a single column. All of that has led to a significant increase in mobile CTR and a strong increase in desktop.
Is affiliate tracking affected by Apple’s changes to Safari? If I read an article on Wirecutter on Safari and buy through my Amazon app, is that tracked?
Yes. There are places where the tracking can fall down, but a lot of the things that are plaguing the display business with ad blocking are not a big thing for us.
How is the Times bringing in Wirecutter content?
There are three things we are doing with the Times.
One, sometimes in our research we uncover things from a news perspective that they would be interested in covering, like with DNA testing [and its limitations]. That led to a big story in the newsroom. Or in testing children’s headphones, a lot of manufacturers weren’t operating in the safety range. That for me is about reader service.
We also do things with Smarter Living, like 5 Cheap(ish) Things That Will Disproportionately Improve Your Life – for the bathroom, etc. We want to create moments of inspiration that drive them to buy things they might not have known about.
Third, we have the holiday gift guide that’s currently up. Our editorial staff and The New York Times newsroom have recommendations on the things that would make good gifts.
What role does the Times play in driving traffic for you?
A lot of [traffic] comes from search naturally: What is the best vacuum cleaner to buy? The best water bowl for pets? The safest car seat? We have a very high intent audience that comes to us.
The Times is driving traffic [to Wirecutter], but it’s more about awareness. We are trying to add value for New York Times readers so when people are in the mode to buy something, they remember the brand. Some of the things we do, like the Gift Guide, are truly meaningful in terms of page views and audience overall, but that’s built for a moment when people are looking to buy.
Many influencers use video to review products. How are you looking at the video affiliate opportunity?
We know we have not figured it out, but we are trying to. Readers want to see the real products in a real environment being used by real people. We do have video on our site where we think video might be helpful, but it’s not across everything we do. Increasingly, we are talking about pointing to video in other places.
This interview has been condensed and edited.