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Why data, not content, is king when it comes to publishers’ eCommerce efforts

“Publishers need to have the first party insights to create commerce environments that are contextually relevant to their users as well as their brand partners,” argues Chris Vollmer, the Managing Director at MediaLink and previously a partner at PwC’s strategy consulting firm Strategy&. As he explained to Digiday:

“That means understanding the preferences, interests and behaviors of their user communities more deeply and more analytically than they have before.”

In the eCommerce space, a number of companies are adopting this approach, harnessing data to support their own creative properties, partnerships and spin-off businesses. 

Here’s how POPSUGAR, Future Publishing, as well as retail giants – and content creators – Amazon and Walmart, are doing it.


As we’ve previously noted, POPSUGAR initially began life as a side project; a blog focused on celebrity gossip, before subsequently expanding into “a global lifestyle media brand focused on a curious, insatiable audience who wants to live an inspired, healthy, and full life.”

It was purchased by Group Nine Media — the publisher of the viral-video site NowThis, the animal site The Dodo, the food-drink-and-lifestyle site Thrillist and other outlets — in late 2019.

Stats via Group Nine Media

POPSUGAR’s assets don’t just include their core website, but also POPSUGAR Insights, “ a research platform focused exclusively on women and designed to help marketers learn more about this dynamic audience by sharing the most relevant and actionable original data about women’s digital media usage and buying behaviors.”

Part of their full-service creative agency, The Bakery, the research platform is focused exclusively on women and designed to help marketers learn more about female audiences. As they explain, this matters, because women “account for over $7 trillion in U.S. consumer and business spending.”  They also “influence 85% of all purchasing decisions and over the next decade will control two-thirds of consumer wealth.”

“Trending On POPSUGAR This Week In Beauty – April 20, 2020”
 Via POPSUGAR Insights

POPSUGAR’s understanding of their millennial-led audience is at the heart of their partnership with Kohls, an American department store chain. Through this, Kohl’s carries an apparel line informed by POPSUGAR’s user data. 

“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,” Michael Gilbert, Kohl’s executive vice president of product development, said in a statement announcing the development in 2018.

According to Greg Revelle, chief marketing officer at Kohl’s, using POPSUGAR’s data means that together “they’re able to spot trends more accurately and sooner.”

Promotional materials for POPSUGAR + Kohls. Via: Pinterest

Alongside this, POPSUGAR also uses data to reinforce development on their own site. 

The value of shoppable content on their website – introduced back in 2017 through a “Shop the Article” feature, is also backed-up by their own research. These posts, which allow readers to toggle between an article and third-party links to purchase the items featured in it, meet a need that audiences told POPSUGAR they wanted to see addressed.   

“We learned that 67 percent of millennial women wish that they could take advantage of the benefits of shoppable content and instantly purchase the products they see in digital content,” they note, reflecting on findings from a 2016 survey.

Marketing Dive, has highlighted how this new approach had an immediate impact.

“After a first week of testing the new format drove 87% more clicks to retailers websites than other commerce-focused articles, and right now the PopSugar Shop articles make up around 5% of the publisher’s daily content. Along with the new articles, 20,000 archived commerce posts were converted to the new format.”

Future Publishing

The U.K. based Future Publishing is a company which strongly emphasises its eCommerce credentials. As their website notes, in the past 12 months they have generated £130 million ($160 million) in revenue for their partners and sold 2 million products through their websites.

In late 2019, Future Publishing had a global eCommerce team of 20, covering a wide range of roles including developers and UX experts, and the company also has both an Editor In Chief of eCommerce, and a board member who is solely responsible for eCommerce. 

Their recent acquisition of TI Media – a UK-based, print-led consumer magazine and digital publisher with 38 brands including: Decanter; Country Life; Homes & Gardens; and Woman & Home – may create further opportunities for eCommerce plays.

Examples of Future Publishing’s titles. Via: Future Publishing Media Pack

Describing themselves in their media pack as “A Global Leading eCommerce Content Publisher” the company recognises that visitors come to their sites to read product reviews, buying guides or deals posts, often with a purchase in mind. 

As a result, it makes sense for Future to build on this with a storefront offering opportunities for audiences to purchase the technology products, gaming hardware, or the software that their audiences have been reading about. 

What arguably makes Future Publishing different is the way they support content with data and affiliate technology, which includes price comparison data delivered by their proprietary eCommerce engine; Hawk. The system compares prices across 250m+ products on a daily basis, and drives 5,000 transactions a day, including geo-territorial solutions.

TechRadar review of the iPhone 11, and price comparisons for the phone for U.S. consumers.  Via: Techradar (April 2020)

Amazon and Walmart’s content play

In a development for publishers to note, companies like Amazon are increasingly moving into the content business, blurring the line between traditional retailer and content provider. 

Amazon, for example, doesn’t just offer original and acquired content through Amazon Prime, it also operates Amazon Live, a QVC-like channel on its website. 

Walmart, which owns the on-demand video service Vudu, began commissioning a dozen shows in 2019, designed to allow viewers to purchase items seen in the shows. 

Both companies enjoy existing relationships with consumers, relationships which in turn yield huge amounts of data about shopping habits and preferences. Being able to parlay this into a content offering – and vice versa – could potentially be a potent mix. 

As a result, given the increasingly close ties – seen at both Amazon and Walmart – between these two parts of their businesses, any publisher interested in eCommerce needs to be monitoring the implications of these developments.

‘Mr. Mom’ which launched last year, was Walmart’s first original show for it’s on-demand TV and Movie service, Vudu

Six Strategic Implications for Publishers

From these examples, there are a number of important, strategic, takeaways for publishers:

  1. Your audience data has value – POPSUGAR has successfully parlayed this into a consultancy and insights services, as well as a branded fast-fashion partnership with a major US retailer. Other publishers may be able to replicate elements of this. 
  1. Understand why people are viewing your content and if they’re doing so with a purchase in mind. Future Publishing’s tech sites demonstrate this principle. Publishers need to avoid providing audiences with the information and insights they need, only for a third party to scoop up the purchase dollars. 
  1. Can you content inspire purchases? If it does, then like POPSUGAR’s “Shop the Story” function, you want to make that transition as frictionless as possible. 
  1. Ensure top-level buy-in – it’s interesting to note that Future Publishing has a board member who is solely responsible for eCommerce. If eCommerce is a key part of your revenue strategy, then this type of investment ensures that this area of the business has a voice at the table. 
  1. Invest in technology – data collection, analysis, automation of pricing information, relationships with affiliates etc. all require management. Much of this can be automated, but you need to pick your products wisely.  
  1. Be aware that this space is becoming more cluttered. Retailers – who already have huge amounts of data about our shopping preferences – are trying to deepen this relationship by also moving into the content business. 

In doing this, they are creating further opportunities, and sources of inspiration, for us to spend money with them. 

As retailers seek to consolidate this purchasing relationship, publishers may find the eCommerce landscape increasingly crowded and competitive. 

In a bid to redress this, publishers must look at their UX, their investment in technology and partnerships, as well as be clear about their value proposition. 

These core components lie at the heart of any successful eCommerce strategy. 

This article has been adapted, updated, and expanded, from our free to download report, The Publisher’s Guide to eCommerce.