Why Digital Publishers Are Creating Products (And You Should Too)

Why Digital Publishers Are Creating Products (And You Should Too)

“A product is something made in a factory; a brand is
something that is bought by the customer. A product can be copied
by a competitor; a brand is unique. A product can be quickly
outdated; a successful brand is timeless.”

Stephen King

Building a product is easy. Map the challenges your industry
faces – brainstorm over the solutions – pick one that’d be an
easy target- hire a team of qualified engineers – build. But,
equally challenging is the concept of building
a brand
. I’ll tell you why.

On March 21, 1978, when inflation was high, a startup called
“NoName” was launched by Loblaw with 16 non-branded items in
yellow and black packaging. NoName gained huge popularity in its
initial years due to guaranteed savings of 10 to 40 percent over
other national brands. However, the startup flopped even though it
was yielding great solutions.

According to an article published by The New York Times in 1986,

No Frills, No Sale
, NoName didn’t survive long. As per
analysts, it came to a point of extinction in 1983 due to the
degrading faith of people in generic products that lacked a brand
name, a buyer could blindly rely upon. NoName’s failed attempts
at building a rapport with its customers gave its competitors an
upper-edge that constantly were leveraging regular promotions to
build a brand for themselves.

As ideas shape the course of history, a new NoName, this time
called “Brandless” got launched in July 2017 with a similar

Brandless promised to sell each product, from the list of 115
products it was rolled out with, at a reasonable price tag of $3.
The direct-to-consumer brand claimed to eliminate the hidden costs,
up to 40 percent, under “brand tax” associated with branding,
promotions, distributions, etc of the products.

Though the idea was marvelous, it didn’t take long for Tina
Sharkey, co-founder at Brandless, to realize the significance of
facing the irony. Brandless joined hands with Red Antler, a branding agency in
New York that works with giants like Google and Casper, to place
the one piece left to complete the Jigsaw. And, it paid off well
– the Brandless brand announced a $240 million funding round last

Being a product owner, the best thing in your power is to offer
great solutions. Whereas, turning that product into a brand
requires way more than that. A brand needs proof. It asks you to
earn a customer’s trust. It asks you to regularly engage with
that customer. More than anything, it expects that customer to
reach your next prospect before your rivals/their customers do.
Brand building is a hard win. Retailers would know best, as many in
the industry have now started to realize the struggle. The
influence that an audience owner, in the same market, exerts over
the targeted persona is hard to match for these retailers. And,
that is exactly why they need audience owners to back them up.

Wait, but who has this audience?

Commerce publishers today review products and cover their major
updates day-in-day-out. It’s a core part of their job to connect
dots to anticipate a product’s next big move, perform product
breakdowns and create an intriguing case study that either boasts
about the product or drills down to its silly mistakes.

Online retailers have started approaching these publishers to
shift this content under their hood. Amazon – the biggest online
distributor, reached out to small or less established publishers of
late and asked them to post their content directly on its website.
Where Amazon got to experiment with its conversion via owned
content tactic, many entry-level publishers took it as their big
break and readily agreed. How perfect can this targeting be?

What’s putting publishers in a critical spot?

On a land, not too far, six fully-fledged bedding stores right
now breathe under the umbrella of Parachute. Born online, unlike
many brands in this space, this bedding and bathroom linen startup
focuses on building a brand identity that doesn’t rely on the
walled gardens. Luke Droulez, the chief marketing officer at
Parachute, in a podcast stated –  “I don’t want to be known
as a Facebook brand or an Instagram brand”. Instead, he’d like
Parachute to be known as a lifestyle brand that has people’s
best-kept secrets.

To achieve this, brands need to interact with their audience
across multiple touchpoints. Dependence on a third party channel
for the brand building would become as derailing as banner
blindness in advertising

How does this affect publishers?

An audience with a brand associated with it is a publisher’s
most valuable asset. Hence, posting content on a third party
channel, like Amazon, becomes too risky to consider.

The big-name publishers will always resist submitting their
“carton of long-term benefits” to a retailer after what
they’ve earned from the digital walled gardens. But, those
struggling for recognition in the industry won’t think twice.

Is there anything that the industry can do to ease the plight?
Enter commerce publishers building the solutions (products) that
they were directing their audience too.

The success metrics of publishers reside in building a following
that trusts their opinions. A fanbase that believes what they
foresee within the industry. Actionable suggestions to such a
fanbase own high possibility of not just getting followed and
adopted but also recommended (not to mention, quality of products
must match the set standards). With great reach and power, comes
great responsibility. Publishers can’t just afford to flounder
the trust that they have built over the years. This influence once
earned, which most of the big names in the industry already do, can
bring incremental dollars to a publisher that owns the product
instead of just being an affiliate.

Influence on the publisher monetization stack

Selling products built by themselves improves a publisher’s
monetization stack which currently is experiencing shrinking ad
revenue and poorly performing gated content monetization modeling.
The model is comparatively simpler to adapt and owns high chances
of scaling given the connection, pre-built with website

Publishers need to look for a sustainable revenue source that
once geared up doesn’t roll back the way ad revenue from the
duopoly (Google and Facebook) did. Selling owned products,
especially for niche publishers that have spent 1000’s of hours
building an expertise in the domain, can become one such reliable
source due to:

  • Expertise in the domain (innovative products providing great
  • Regular site visitors looking for similar solutions (owned
    platform of the user persona)
  • Gained trust of the audience (easier to ask for a demo and

Publishers can also consider developing “easy to build”
tools that are needed on a regular basis in their organization.
These tools reduce business expenditure in the long run and can be
used as a monetization channel provided it resonates with your

What does a publisher need to enter commerce?

An audience!

You need a regularly engaged website audience that trusts your
brand. You need a rapport in place with this audience. As we know,
the best business deals let both parties win. You sell the products
and take your cut. At the same time, the audience doesn’t feel
disappointed with the purchase and never regrets investing faith in
your brand. A reliable audience is all you need.

To build your way to this monetization source, you need to:

  1. Create a map of the industry that your website talks about.
    Break it into components and link what functions next with an
    arrow. Refer to the image below.

Map of Industry for digital publishers

  1. Create a product catalog, under each component, that your
    audience would find useful.
  2. Analyze the user behavior with data from the website on Google
    Analytics and 3rd party providers like Moz, Ahrefs, SemRush,
  3. Pick the potential segments of the audience.
  4. Choose how you’ll enter the battlefield

a. Become an affiliate

Selling products from companies that target your website
audience has become a widespread practice in publishing. Becoming
an affiliate is not very difficult. You need to find the brands
that target your potential segments. This can be achieved by
searching for relevant listicles on Google SERPs. For instance, if
you want a listicle of the brands providing sports apparel, you can
search for “Best x sportswear brands”. Choose from a number of
listicles ranking above. Compare and reach out to become a

If finding brands looking for an affiliate seems backbreaking to
you, becoming a partner at affiliate programs is always an easier
way out. You can choose from various programs including the likes
of the Amazon affiliate program and Shareasale. The revenue per
sale might be lesser here due to the presence of a third party
platform. But, those that are beginning their journey with
affiliate advertising should consider trying their skills on an
established platform first to build an understanding of the
channel. Follow the respective instructions of the program you’ve
selected. Link the product where the chances of selling are high
and promote. Post on social media, newsletters, your homepage,

b. Buy products, you see the potential in or build your own brand

Mid and large enterprise publishers have started to work with
this newbie of late. Selling owned products put a lot at stake but,
it’s a monetization source that once geared up leaves no room for
the product to roll back. Start with mapping challenges the
industry faces. Brainstorm to reach the most efficient solutions.
Find existing solutions and list the favorable ones considering its
market value, buzz amongst the audience, and performance. Conduct
product analysis and take consultations. While playing big, advice
from someone much experienced to assist with the dos and don’ts,
always helps. Build a team to assist with customer queries.

Or become the solution provider that builds to solve the core
challenges of its audience. Give your followers one more reason to
feel proud. Build products that don’t provide a compromised

Start with figuring out the solution, found above, that would
get solved with an easy-to-build product. Analyze the market and
create a product roadmap. Define the value it will add to your
customer’s problem. Define the acquisition cost per customer.
Consult industry leaders with more expertise. Hire a team to build
the product and one later to support with customer queries. Share
your brand story. Products don’t just sell by themselves,
you’ll need to leverage advertising and regular promotions

Learning from the go-getters

Is anyone calling the Police? Because Buzzfeed is on fire!

Spreading viral content since 2006, this American media company
is just not slowing down. It’s always hunting new sources to
stretch its revenue muscles. Wait, not again.

Buzzfeed’s Tasty

Buzzfeed launched Tasty
(to boost revenue from native ads) as an experiment which turned
out to be its easiest entrance into eCommerce. Tasty was found to
have 98 million followers on Facebook in January 2019.

Well, who wouldn’t have a yen for their delicacies like
keto-free lasagna? The platform is filled with recipes that would
either take you to a cookbook page or would require you to buy an
instant pot from Tasty’s cookware line. To the surprise of those
struggling with shrinking ad revenue, the brand is working wonders
with no dirty tricks associated. The product line of the #1 content
publisher on Facebook sold around 1.5million products last year.
And no, the above-mentioned tricks weren’t dirty but a
commendable approach towards generating more and better

BuzzFeed has time and again proved that they know exactly what
the world needs next. Tasty, in 2017, rolled out a $149 Bluetooth
enabled hot plate which BuzzFeed referred to as a “precision smart cooktop”.
With an included thermometer, detecting the internal temperature of
the food and a One Top App notifying when to flip or when to add
the next ingredient, this invention, according to BuzzFeed,
functions as a culinary Swiss Army knife.

Tasty has also started a joint venture with Walmart. Yes, the
biggest global retailer will now be providing a dedicated shelf to
the Tasty-branded kitchen products in their 4000 stores. These
products would include spatulas, cooking steels, mixing bowls, etc
with a price ranging from $4.4 to $99. Buzzfeed has entered the
easy streets in a world dreaded by the duopoly.

More than just Tasty

Now, keep the jaw dropped as I move forward. Tasty is just one
of their six verticals that have stunned the industry with its
cutting-edge innovations. BuzzFeed’s other vertical –
recently collaborated with the Macy to launch a
houseware-product-line with 100 products ranging from $15 to $230.
Buzzfeed Reviews, founded last year exclusively for affiliate
businesses, is a product recommendation site that takes a cut from
every product they help getting sold. Buzzfeed News, with a
of $5/month, brings the latest lumps of viral global
news in its emailer. In August 2018, Buzzfeed started asking its
readers to donate between $5 to $100 to support the organization
and, what might surprise you, the average donation made was of

Being an affiliate is clearly good. Why build products?

Because the audience consuming your content is really smart.
And, for a smart audience, identifying products that you own and
the ones you’re just getting a commission out of, isn’t tough.
Don’t believe me? Go ahead and post 10 legitimate reasons for
using product x of a particular material. Mention an affiliate
product next to that and watch readers scrolling past it thinking
it’s a regular sales pitch. Like they always do.

Or build one yourself and pitch that as a solution. Let the
audience know how followers contacted you with a bag full of
problems and prompted you to come up with a solution like that.
Tell them what makes the product different from those that are
failing to meet expectations. Share the story your product has.
Promote it on newsletters, social channels, your homepage and watch
readers checking out the product. Like they rarely do.

It won’t be a product suggestion to them anymore but an
innovative approach pulled off by the most faithful industry

Downsides of being an affiliate

To put this straight, being an affiliate comes with a lot of
responsibilities and hard work. Being a performance-based marketing
channel, affiliate
requires you to do regular promotions and stuff links
wherever you can. It needs a huge chunk of traffic AND subscribers
to bite the initial buying phase of a product. Let’s leave the
unsubscriptions that follow for the next time.

Basically, as an affiliate, you break your neck to sell
something that many like you already are. That too for the same
price, at the same time, probably using the same sales pitch. Tell
me something – does a slivered commission justify the efforts you
put in for someone else’s product? Yes, slivered! Only 5% of
affiliates make more than $100 a month. We all know how big of a
race you would have to win to enter that top 5%. Building your own
product helps to get out of the rest of 95% striving for more

How can a revenue generation approach be so flawless?

Well, it’s not. The biggest flaw in building products for
eCommerce revenue is dealing with ongoing issues. Being a
publisher, you hold the expertise in the domain. You’ve been
burning the midnight oil to figure out where the industry proceeds
next. What you, however, don’t possess are the technical skills.
It isn’t feasible for a publisher to rectify and correct the
technical malfunctions every now and then. Publishers would need
someone to turn to at such point in time. Of course, there are
solutions (with, ahem! investments).

Look, engineers are expensive to keep. We all know that. But,
we’re progressing beyond ads and affiliates here. And, beyond ads
and affiliates, you’ll experience several pitfalls along with
boosted revenue, which is absolutely fair. You’d need to hire a
fully-fledged customer support team for such circumstances.

Too late to start?

Absolutely not. Commerce publishers have been hanging around,
exercising their affiliate monetization strategies, for a while
now. Whereas, selling owned products is still a budding
monetization strategy. But, those that were tired of working with
Google and Facebook, and making far too little for the value they
were delivering, tried this. Those that were backed by a good
volume of audience, built their products and made it big. You
should be next.

Guest author: Neha Tanwer is a Product
Marketer at iZooto where she
helps publishers monetize their digital content.

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Digital Publishers Are Creating Products (And You Should Too)

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Why Digital Publishers Are Creating Products (And You Should Too)