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The experienced publishers, running their business for years, have well-structured and great working sales funnels. So they diversify content adjusted to defined target groups accordingly to the different purchase stages. As a result, their sale is growing. What if they want to develop their digital publishing company even more? There’s a way; something that goes beyond content sales. After all, no one has said that this is the only product publishers can sell.

Let’s play with the words for a while – a digital publishing business is a company reaching not readers but customers by offering them not content but products. Everything seems to be correct, but there is a subtle difference, isn’t it?

Talking about the publisher as an entrepreneur broadens the perspective and gives more earning possibilities.

For most publishers, the main sources of revenue are advertising and subscribing. Both methods are strictly related to content. What about monetization as an entrepreneur, a business owner? Well, it is more about the sales of goods.

Content is a core publishers’ product but it doesn’t have to be the only one they offer.

As an entrepreneur, you can sell different things, even more so you have a bunch of loyal fans, a ton of data, and business experience. Why can’t you offer backpacks and mugs if you publish a travel magazine?

Maybe it’s time to take a step further in your digital publishing venture and think seriously about eCommerce as a way to diversify income.

Turn to income diversification

The digital publishing business is continuous development and exploration.

Every publisher, at a certain stage of the development, asks himself a similar set of questions.

  • What is my group of readers characteristic by?
  • How to reach them?
  • What kind of content do they want to get?
  • How to distribute it?
  • How to monetize?

Each of the above matters is changing dynamically, while the last one has turned digital publishing upside down in recent years.

Along with the takeover of print to digital, we could observe the boom in advertising, which was the transfer of existing traditional tactics to the online dimension. This method was replaced by a paywall.

Data from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford found that in 2018 publishers were using a number of revenue streams beyond advertising, with subscriptions among the most popular.

subscriptions and advertising in publishing
Publishers were using a number of revenue streams beyond advertising, with subscriptions among the most popular.

Three years later publishers are in a totally different place.

Everything because of a hurricane of a pandemic, COVID’s lockdowns and quarantines which sped up both the transition to digital of many businesses, headed by purchasing and fast consumer adoption of eCommerce.

According to The Publishers’ Guide to eCommerce, the sector of online buying grew by 15% in the United States last year, representing a $517.36 billion market, and with global web sales in 2018 nearing $3 trillion, up 18% year-on-year.

This trend was too significant for the publishing world to ignore, the more so publishers picked up that this space has revenue potential.

At the start of 2021, Nic Newman, a journalist, and digital strategist, in his report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ), predicted that this would “be a year of economic reshaping with publishers leaning into subscription and eCommerce – two future-facing business models that have been supercharged by the pandemic.”

The Lotame survey confirmed these predictions. According to it, publishers expected that eCommerce would become a greater revenue source in 2021. What’s more, 62% of US publishers said they expected eCommerce to rank among their three biggest revenue sources in Q1 2021 while 36% said it would be their main source of revenues.

ecommerce and subscriptions in publishing
Publishers expected that eCommerce becomes a greater revenue source

Regardless of whether eCommerce will become the dominant method of earning or just part of the income diversification strategy, the most important thing in all of this is how the perception of publishing has changed.

Publishing today is not only preparing and distributing newspapers and magazines. These thriving companies don’t have to be limited to content. The technology development helps them start new businesses, expand their activities, and go beyond the standard framework.

On the way to searching viable revenue streams beyond advertising, and subscriptions, eCommerce is the most promising one.

How can digital publishing industry monetize through eCommerce?

eCommerce is a very capacious concept; it’s not just selling products online. It includes efforts from selling archival prints and publications, through digital courses, e-shops, affiliate links, etc.

Let us be clear. eCommerce is dedicated to advanced publishers. So, if you are such a publisher with developed sales funnels, you might consider expanding your business with one of the following methods.

(However, if you are at an earlier stage, please read our article about magazine sales tips. You’ll find there a lot of practical tips related to sales funnel creation.)

→ eCommerce affiliate marketing

While an affiliate marketer refers to the promotion of other people’s products, “eCommerce” simply adds to this the online element. The general rule is simple – when a digital publisher promotes another company’s products, services, or website on their website or magazine, they earn a commission.

In newspapers and magazine publishing it usually takes the form of written reviews of products, recommendations, or mentions that can be monetized thanks to affiliate links.

affiliate marketing for digital publishers
eCommerce affiliate marketing

Some time ago affiliations were considered the simplest and least demanding way to earn money. Now the approach to it has changed.

According to Forbes, affiliate marketing is now responsible for more than 15% of eCommerce sales, putting it on par with email marketing and ahead of both social commerce and display advertising.

In September, Digiday asked 82 publisher professionals how their affiliate commerce revenues would change in the next year. Around 60% of them said those revenues would go up, both on the direct partnership side and on the network side, with larger percentages expecting a significant boost in 2022.

“In today’s world, a lot of advertising dollars are shifting towards affiliate. It’s no longer seen as passive acquisition but an active one that requires a strategy.” – says Digital Trends‘ VP of commerce, Lynda Mann.

Well-thought-out affiliations (along with drawing conclusions and analysis) offer up new opportunities for publishers to build relationships with advertisers who are less about impressions and more about conversions.

The most important rule publishers should follow choosing an affiliate partner is to maintain the trust of their readers.

That’s why they should:

  • cooperate only with brands they trust, and whose products they can truly recommend;
  • find products that are supportive of the entire line of content;
  • assure readers that clicking on the link is safe.

How do publishers use affiliation?

One of the publishers who earn money thanks to eCommerce affiliate marketing is Marie Claire UK. Jez Walters from What’s New in Publishing claims that this method helped them not only to survive but to thrive.

digital store
Marie Claire Edit

In 2019, Marie Claire UK print sales and ad revenues started to decline at precipitous rates. It caused the production of the print title to end and move to digital alternatives. Along with this came investing in eCommerce. So it was made Marie Claire Edit, a unique, online fashion aggregator platform on which you can find clothing, shoes, accessories, beauty, and much more.

“Twelve months later and the data is impressive – Marie Claire eCommerce revenues account for 40% of all digital revenues representing 675% annual growth, partly off the back of creating touchpoints to purchase from the top to the bottom of the eCommerce funnel” – we read in the article published on What’s New in Publishing.

→ Print on demand

Print on demand (POD), also referred to as “on-demand printing” is one of the eCommerce models that allows the sale of different products that are prepared and printed after an order and payment have been done.

The base rule of print on demand is easy – sale firstly, then printing.  

Nothing is prepared in advance. That’s why the seller doesn’t have to deal with inventory management. The whole process of printing and fulfillment is handled by a third party. The store (the publisher) sells the product (magazine issue, book, etc.) on the website and passes on the sales order to a third-party supplier, who then ships the order to the customer.

print on demand
Print on demand process

It allows publishers to retain capital that would otherwise be frozen in unsold assets and solves the serious issue of wasted paper and the costs associated with unsold publications.

Creating a distinctive publication used to mean preparing and printing thousands of copies. It took weeks. Since POD appeared, publishers who want to create high-quality magazines and brochures aren’t limited by order requirements, long lead times, and upfront costs. On-demand publishing platforms enable the production of high-quality, customized products, in low production runs with short lead times.

Is POD great for every publisher?

This method is most often used by self-publishers, who often have problems with estimating how many print copies they really need. Thanks to print on demand, they don’t have to order three thousand copies from the printing house and pay for all of them.

The online magazine sector can also benefit from this.

This is a great option for a publisher who has basically switched to digital but has a certain audience who still wants to receive print issues. Many publications continue to offer special subscriptions, including combined packages of print and digital. When the number of such orders is not large, POD can pay off more.

It is also an option for all digital publishers who carry out special one-time actions, as part of which they decide to issue a special edition of a print on the occasion of an anniversary or create unique collector’s catalogs. Some publishers may use POD in special circumstances, such as reprinting older, archive issues, out-of-print titles, or just for test marketing.

However, print on demand is not only about content.

Publishers can sell also other products. More and more new items are being made available for print on demand – from bags and towels to coffee mugs and even flip-flops. Recently, face masks have been a popular trend, guess why.

Who uses print on demand?

Print Shift is a magazine that explores the fast-changing world of 3D printing and analyses the way it is changing the worlds of architecture and design. You can buy it only in print-on-demand version – enter the website, add to cart, pay, and wait for your package. Easy for both sides: publisher and reader. The magazine is printed only when a customer buys a copy.

digital publishing
Print Shift – the example of a magazine printed on demand

Preparing this article I read an interesting thing.

We probably all know the iconic IKEA product catalogs, full of inspiration. The sign of the times and the quintessence of changes in publishing is that the company gave up printing this publication in favor of digital publication and podcast forms.

However, according to print expert Gary Peeling “IKEA should have adopted print on demand technology, which meant that customers could still get a catalog, but a version tailored to their specific interests.”

Who knows what will happen.

→ Online store

Having an own online store gives many monetization possibilities without sharing revenue with external companies. These shops can be used not only for selling content such as magazine archive issues or copies of the book but also to offer almost every item in some way related to the brand.

Online stores with products other than content are for magazine publishers a revenue diversification, a nod to fans, and a desire to prove themselves in a slightly different sector.

It is also a chance to go through the sales funnel from product discovery to transactions.

Publishers are coming into this field with a competitive advantage above other entrepreneurs – they enter the business with huge facilities: website, internet presence, readers, promotion channels, data, newsletters, e-mail addresses, business-run knowledge. These major advantages right out of the starting gates All of this makes they can start eCommerce with a relatively small cost.

That’s why selling products directly to the readers has become the main way publishing organizations make money.

What can they sell?

There is no one clear answer to this question. It all depends on the current profile of the content. Some magazines like The Denver Post have an online store that sells photos of Colorado taken by photojournalists. The Seattle Times sells wall paintings, memorial pages (reprints for their archives), photos and prints, and… coffee books.

online store
The Seattle Times Online Store

If you want to sell products online, you need to find something that connects your brand and the reader, something that represents you, what is related to your business, and your customers will identify with that as well; something that will maintain trust.

Raju Narisetti, a professor of professional practice at Columbia Journalism School and the former CEO of Gizmodo Media Group, argues:

“Putting in ‘buy’ buttons just because you have a big audience is a failed idea (…) If you think about it as commerce becoming a byproduct of your reader trust — and trust being the main product — then I think you have the ability to succeed.” 

Which publisher sells products online?

The list of publishers who does it is long and includes small and large publishers. Saying about eCommerce in digital publishing it is impossible not to mention the newspaper giant like The Economist selling items such T-shirts, mugs, and bags, or book publisher Penguin UK selling tote bags, homewares, and tickets to its exclusive online events, or writing workshops taught by award-winning authors.

digital store
The New York Times online store

One of the examples is The New York Times. On its online store, the company sells branded goods, archival photography, books, and personalized front page reprints. The store is present on social media such as Instagram and Facebook.

As they say:

“Our online marketplace, NYT Store, offers Times-branded and inspired merchandise, books, photographs and other items that symbolize the power of The Times brand and its commitment to original, independent journalism.”

Three components to succeed in digital publishing

Digital magazines became a way to succeed in eCommerce as well as e-shops became a chance to diversify revenue for publishers.

Both areas overlap and can bring mutual benefits. They complement each other, become more and more accessible to each other thanks to the development of technology.

It makes the line between traditional retailers and content providers is blurring. Digital publishing businesses are multicompanies which successes are driven by three components: content, community, eCommerce.

This combination effectively fuels the financial results of many publishers who know that income diversification is a way to generate revenue and… a fundament to survive no matter what the future may bring.