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How POPSUGAR went from gossip blog to eCommerce pioneer

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With a rich portfolio of subscription boxes, beauty products, partnerships and more, Damian Radcliffe charts POPSUGAR’s journey from early retail efforts to an interconnected eCommerce giant.

You can explore more of these themes, and POPSUGAR’s work in this space, in our new (and free to download) report, The Publisher’s Guide to eCommerce.

Founded in 2005-6, POPSUGAR initially began life as a side project; a blog focused on celebrity gossip, before expanding over the next decade into “a global lifestyle media brand focused on a curious, insatiable audience who wants to live an inspired, healthy, and full life.”

Founded by the husband and wife team Lisa and Brian Sugar, it reaches 300 million readers every month across various platforms, including 1 in 2 female millennials in the United States, delivering “inspiring, informative, and entertaining multi-platform content across entertainment, fashion, beauty, fitness, food, parenting, news and more.” 

The company was purchased in October 2019, by Group Nine Media, joining a stable of titles which also include NowThis, The Dodo, Thrillist and Seeker.

An early pivot to eCommerce

Prior to a 2013 redesign, the site initially operated as a network of blogs on different topics.  However, even at this point, it already made half its revenue from eCommerce. 

As noted by the New York Times, these revenues included “fees retailers pay when a shopper clicks on an item on PopSugar and a $35 monthly subscription box it sells to 12,000 readers.” 

“It’s a challenge to create a business today solely based on display advertising,” Co-Founder and CEO, Brian Sugar told The Gray Lady, “A person that reads articles is worth less than a person who watches video who is worth less than a person who clicks to a retailer and then actually buys things from us.”

Image via the POPSUGAR Must Have Facebook page.

Current eCommerce ventures include POPSUGAR Must Have, a quarterly subscription box containing fashion, beauty, home products, an apparel line – the POPSUGAR at Kohl’s Collection – and the makeup line Beauty by POPSUGAR.

Subscription boxes

Of these efforts, perhaps POPSUGAR Must Have is the best known. For $75 a quarter, or $270 a year, subscribers are sent a range of items (which POPSUGAR states are worth more than $300) selected by co-founder and POPSUGAR President Lisa Sugar and her team of editors.

How it POPSUGAR Must Have works, via the POPSUGAR Must Have website.

The product has developed over time, moving from a $39.95 monthly box to one at $75 a quarter, and POPSUGAR previously also offered “Limited Edition” boxes at various points of the year. This has now ceased (although both the monthly and Limited Edition products are still referenced on their Facebook page).

Shop by Text

More recently, the company has introduced a weekly SMS product, whereby subscribers are sent deals which they can purchase by text. 

“PopSugar’s move into texts comes after years of attempts to build a committed mobile app audience,” wrote Digiday’s Max Willens back in 2017. “It’s launched over a dozen apps over the past five years, from PopSugar Gift Guide to PopSugar Selfie, but few have taken root.” 

“…Nearly 80 percent of PopSugar’s traffic comes from mobile devices,” Willens added, “so a phone-focused commerce product felt like a ripe opportunity.”

Reflecting on developments in summer 2018, Willens observed that “to control the customer experience, PopSugar handles fulfilment. Unsold inventory goes back to the retailer or brand.” 

He quoted Chris George, POPSUGAR’s EVP, Product Marketing and Sales Strategy, as concluding that Fridays tend to work best for conversions. “I don’t know if it’s payday, or people being in a more jovial mood, but day of the week does play a factor,” he said.

Screengrab via the POPSUGAR website.

Beauty Products

Beauty by POPSUGAR, a more recent innovation from the brand, launched in 2018. Alongside being able to purchase products online, products can also be bought at select ULTA Beauty stores across the United States.

Representing their first foray into licensing, The Cut explained how the products stemmed from insights provided by the POPSUGAR audience.

“We asked them what was missing from their own makeup, what’s important to them, and what products they’d like to see,” Lisa Sugar said. “Their input is truly unique, and to tap into their specifics has enabled us to add new products that we know will be popular.”

Image via ethical elephant

Alongside the ability to purchase products, the standalone Beauty website features “How To” videos, as well as a limited number of “Stories” found via a button at the bottom of the page (and not updated since 2018).

Examples of stories found on the dedicated Beauty website include:  “Beauty Junkies: Kate Lazarus” (a quick profile of their Influencer Marketing & Events Manager), “Twiggy Lashes: One Product, Zillions of Compliments” and “The Five Beauty Products You Should Always Have In Your Bag.” All five items are, naturally, from their range.

Image: Screengrab of Beauty by POPSUGAR website, September 2019

Partnership with Kohls

Another notable move (and certainly not their only one) into the eCommerce space, can be found in POPSUGAR’s partnership with the US retailer Kohls. 

Back in December 2017, the two companies partnered to create a seasonal pop-up event in New York, which included displays of items curated by POPSUGAR editors, and available to purchase from Kohls.  Located in the World Trade Center’s Oculus Building, Kohl’s and POPSUGAR live-streamed the event on Facebook, and also made the curated collection available for purchase online

This was followed by another pop-up store in NYC’s Soho, in September 2018.

Image: Screengrab of Facebook Live video, Kohl’s / POPSUGAR event in NYC.

The companies deepened their partnership in late-2018 through the launch of  POPSUGAR at Kohl’s, an initiative which both parties actively promote. 

Aimed at millennials, a core audience for POPSUGAR, the collection is styled and curated by POPSUGAR using insights gleaned through their consumer data. This includes analysis of what millennials are searching for, and interacting with, on their different properties. The new brand was launched across 500 Kohl’s stores and on

Image: Example of the POPSUGAR range as featured on the Kohl’s website.

“We have partnered with POPSUGAR to create an innovative, data-driven apparel collection leveraging our ‘speed to market’ model,” said Michael Gilbert, Kohl’s executive vice president of product development. 

“As one of the most engaging media outlets in the industry, POPSUGAR will bring key predictive insights to tell us exactly what this customer wants through the content they are searching, browsing and engaging with across channels.”

“One of our biggest opportunities is in the millennial segment,” Ad Age quoted Greg Revelle, chief marketing officer at Kohl’s, as saying. “It’s the fastest growing market in general in retail.” The value, to Kohl’s, of using POPSUGAR’s data is that “they’re able to spot trends more accurately and sooner,” he said.

Image: Feature highlighting new items in the POPSUGAR at Kohl’s collection.

Other revenue efforts

POPSUGAR Inc. operates outside the U.S. in Australia, the Middle East, and the UK, with offices in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and London. 

Alongside its core website, POPSUGAR also has a full-service creative agency, The Bakery, “that lives inside (and thinks outside) the walls of POPSUGAR.” The company also provides data consulting through POPSUGAR Insights, a research platform focused exclusively on women and designed to help marketers learn more about female audiences.

These efforts are complemented by a video production arm, POPSUGAR Studios, which has recently worked with brands like Jeep and H&M – to create everything from branded content, to content in various formats such as display, video, mobile, and offline experiences. This includes a short-run pop-up site (it was only open for four days) the Mermaid Museum in Los Angeles, which was designed to support the premiere of Freeform’s TV series Siren.

Lastly, the company also recently moved into events, with POPSUGAR Play/Ground, a two day festival featuring discussions “with A-list celebrities and pop-culture luminaries, live fitness and wellness activities, art installations, a shopping bazaar, a beauty carnival, and so much more.” The event has its own standalone online shop, featuring apparel and a stationary set produced in collaboration with Cheree Berry Paper.

What these examples demonstrate is the interconnectivity of POPSUGAR’s businesses, and their efforts to intentionally leverage consumer insights derived from their core product, into spin-off activities. 

Whether their new owners will seek to integrate these elements further across their other assets, or deepen this element across POPSUGAR’s assets remains to be seen. But, one things for sure, the company is unlikely to walk away from its eCommerce roots any time soon.

Header image via POPSUGAR Must Have Facebook Page