Content and commerce combine in growing retail format



There's a lot out there on the internet, and maintaining user loyalty for a business platform isn't easy. Whether you specialize in content or commerce, the goal remains the same: Keep them coming back.

Surprisingly, one of the better ways to do just that is to combine content and commerce into a singular, seamless driver of loyalty and fulfillment—for users, marketers and affiliates alike. And that is easier said than done.

Content-commerce models started to garner more attention in 2011, when high-profile launches such as Net-A-Porter's Mr. Porter brand signified a renaissance in retail e-commerce strategies. Now, companies such as Thrillist, Birch Box and Warby have built an audience of advocates and loyal customers through their own unique content-commerce strategies.

But Purch CEO Greg Mason says his company has been in the content-commerce game for a lot longer, dating back to its original TopTenReviews platform that laid the groundwork for Purch in 2003.

"[Purch] has always had content and commerce," Mason said. "The business, going back to the foundation of TopTenReviews, was very much oriented around decision enablement. You produce quality review formats and consider purchase-product categories. That attracts an in-market in tech-based consumers, and once they've made that brand selection decision, the next stop is obviously commerce."

The key phrasing there is "decision enablement." The big hook behind content-commerce isn't necessarily baiting a product conversion and sealing the deal as quickly as possible. Rather, the real profit comes from giving consumers the confidence to make strong purchasing decisions, thus keeping them coming back for more, building an incubated customer demographic, and ultimately giving marketers and affiliates a reason to partner—meaning diversified revenue.

Roughly 81 percent of consumers research online before making major purchases, according to the Second Annual Major Purchase Shopper Study conducted by GE Capital Retail Bank. And half of all retail sales will be influenced by the Web by 2017, according to Forrester's U.S. Cross-Channel Retail Forecast for the 2012-2017 period.

Numbers aren't necessary to spell out the obvious: The lion's share of consumers go online to search, shop and buy, and they'll give their business to whoever can streamline the process most effectively, guiding them through it along the way.

But that might raise a few concerns for business owners looking to adopt said strategy. After all, doesn't that business model sound suspiciously like the format Amazon has used to cast a long shadow over quick-and-easy e-commerce?

In fact, it is. But where Amazon has focused on its reach, savvy content-commerce businesses should instead focus on niche audiences looking for a specific experience, as well as the curated editorial content that makes that experience so unique.

Companies such as Purch, which is rooted in content-commerce with 78 million monthly visitors and more than $1 billion in commerce transactions driven annually across multiple websites, have fine-tuned this burgeoning strategy into calculated artistry.

In early September Purch announced the launch of new digital storefronts to accompany its Live Science and titles, two major components of the company's rapidly expanding business.

Purch has further strengthened its content-commerce focus by offering the review formats, editorial content and, now, direct access to related products that complete the three-part equation of a seamless content-commerce conversion.

"We're under no illusion that we can out-Amazon Amazon, by any stretch of the imagination," Mason said. "We believe that in the age of an Amazon-like world where Amazon sells everything under the sun, there's still a lot of interest on the part of consumers in more of a specialized, customized kind of experience, and that's the opportunity we see."

Even though content-commerce provides a potentially profitable business model that undercuts the revenue shortages of traditional content sites and yields the consumer loyalty sometimes absent in typical e-commerce hubs, it's not necessarily an easy journey.

Philip Brown, startup consultant and junior VP of website developing company Yellow Flag, said the road to content-commerce success should be tread cautiously.

"As competition for online sales continues to become more intense, I think the content-commerce model will become increasingly important," Brown said. "Differentiation on the Internet is incredibly difficult. When your competitors are only a click away, you need to increase your game far beyond what has been typically accepted."

To overcome the initial hurdles of getting a content-commerce business up and running, Brown prescribes making early investments without expectation of immediate return, assembling a talented team that can bring the focus to the site's content, and finding a niche audience with a lot of potential for turnover.

But despite preliminary difficulties, companies such as Purch are already demonstrating the promise of a successfully orchestrated content-commerce business model. "We're pacing toward the nine-figure level in terms of company size, and that's almost triple the size of what it was just two years ago," Mason said.

And that shouldn't be surprising. With 12 brands, more than 1,000 product categories, more than 100,000 original articles to date, 7,000 customers, 9 million registered community members, and 5 million social media fans and followers, Purch's example represents the endgame for many content-commerce companies just getting started.

In 2003 what is now Purch was simply comprised of TopTenReviews, which is just one of the company's 12 signature titles. And with more titles, companies will have more access to more niche audiences. With more niche audiences will come more advertising partners and affiliates. And with more advertising partners and affiliates will come an exceptionally diversified revenue portfolio.

Mason puts it simply: "When we think about our mission of making complex purchase decisions easier, we don't think one size fits all."

See FierceRetail's full interview with Purch CEO Greg Mason here. 

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