Content Marketing

Will All Content Soon Be Shoppable?

If Elaine Benes were on the job market today, she just might find herself in high demand.

The Seinfeld character’s experience working for (and getting fired from) both Pendant Publishing and the J. Peterman catalog might make her a perfect fit for a content director; after all, content and commerce are quickly becoming deeply intertwined.

From Net-a-Porter to Refinery29, the worlds of publishing and commerce have been copying off each other’s homework for a couple of years now. But with Mulu pushing shoppable content to new heights, The Washington Post moving toward a downright Amazonian distribution model, and dozens of other experiments in the works, the commercification of content is quickly accelerating.

Retail gets their publishing on

Take the digital version of Net-a-Porter’s new magazine, Porter, which iOS users can pay for and download from Newsstand, just like TIME or Vanity Fair. The content looks identical to any fashion magazine, but with one exception: You can buy stuff directly from the app’s stories.

Net-a-Porter may be among those leading the charge, but there are plenty of retailers joining the content-as-commerce stampede. Norwegian outdoor clothier Norrøna takes readers on a vibrant photographic and narrative journey through Patagonia before offering the adventurer’s favorite climbing apparel for sale. At StyleCaster, visitors go from browsing content to retailers’ sites in one click.

To Mulu CEO Amaryllis Fox, retailers’ embrace of shoppable content just makes sense.

“Making people leave that content page to buy featured products is like your local boutique showing you a display lamp to whet your appetite, then sending you out the door to find one you can buy somewhere else on your own,” Fox wrote in USA Today.

Commercifying content

Just as retailers are acting more like publishers, so too are publishers acting more like retailers. Last year, Gawker Media announced its intention to earn 10 percent of its revenue from “commerce content,” like a Gizmodo post announcing the Moto X phone “is $100 cheaper on Amazon right now.” According to AdAge, Gawker calls this “a new type of service journalism.”

That might be enough to make Walter Cronkite bolt straight up in his grave, but as TechCrunch noted, the hallowed church and state separation between editorial and business has always been a tad flexible. Those resisting commerce-laced content will likely pay a similar same price as those who dismissed the digital revolution as a fad.

And those who abuse it will pay a price as well.

“Depressed revenues, layoffs and shrinking bully pulpits are the results of an industry that doesn’t quite know how to monetize content beyond selling advertising space,” wrote Mike Jones, CEO of Science, Inc. for TechCruch. “Today’s successful digital companies know to blend content and commerce so that the content is compelling and, frankly, still sells stuff.”

Mulu may prove to be the harbinger of commerce content’s future. The Latest app is their newest product, but the company has been long been laying the foundation for shoppability across the web. Mulu allows publishers to embed a widget into their sites that pulls retail items related to the content on the page, allowing visitors to shop as they read. Reading a book review? That reviewed book and related books could appear for sale. In an article about a new workout, running shoes and sports bras could be offered up. Virtually any site on the web could become shoppable, giving publishers get a cut of the sales their content drives—and a much-needed new revenue stream.

The Latest takes this concept mobile. Called “BuzzFeed for shopping,” the app includes follow-able lists connecting users to a stream of shoppable content in their favorite category.

As Jeff Bezos is hoping to prove with The Washington Post, e-commerce isn’t the only way publishers could share in online retail’s success. After demonstrating scalability was the key to Amazon’s domination, Bezos is making The Washington Post‘s online content available to subscribers of select metro newspapers for free. Because more readers is better, just like more Amazon Prime members was good for sales.

“By offering its content for free, The Washington Post will help its partners offer a major value-add to their own customers,” wrote Ricardo Bilton on Digiday. [Washington Post president Steve] Hills said that he expects this will add more than a billion dollars to the newspaper industry over the next few years.”

That’s not to say tossing any blend of content and commerce together is a panacea for all that ails the internet. According to PandoDaily, Refinery29 has pulled back on their original concept of embedding shoppability into their fashion content last year. After anticipating a quarter of its revenue from sales in 2012, commerce came in at just 5 percent. While shopping is still available on the site, the native checkout function is gone, Refinery29 instead directing shoppers to outside sites.

Getting that Mulu

The Latest app is exciting enough, but we may not be too far from the day when Mulu is a presence on nearly all editorial content. Haven’t seen it yet? Forbes said Mulu developed a WordPress plug-in and is working with Hearst publications such as Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Seventeen, as well as Condé Nast, Martha Stewart, The Huffington Post, XOGroup and Bertelsmann, so stay tuned.

The potential for abuse

The biggest risk behind the commercification of content, clearly, is that publishers will start tainting their editorial to drive affiliate sales. While that approach may be tempting for those with short-term tunnel vision, there’s also a powerful deterrent. Simply put, any publisher that skews their editorial to drive commerce would likely lose the respect and trust of their readers—not to mention their writers.

It’s the same lesson that’s been learned by content marketers. When you openly shill your products, readers are turned off. It’s far better to earn readers trust and play the long game.

If you work in publishing, just ask: What would Elaine do? And then do the opposite. Because you know she would abuse this trend and get herself fired.

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