Beyond advertising: How publishers take the fight to the duopoly and win

The online advertising duopolies –  Facebook and Google – command 85% of ad spend. That leaves 15% for the whole publishing and adtech industry to fight over. Rather than continue to squabble over scraps, savvy publishers are diversifying their revenue streams so they are less dependent on display advertising and less at the mercy of ad blockers.

One lucrative stream that is already proving its value in some publishers’ arsenals is commerce-related content, or ‘comtent’ as its increasingly dubbed. Monetized by affiliate marketing and approved of by the ad blockers, comtent adopts the publishers’ editorial tone and brand to inform and assist readers’ purchase journeys, a form of service journalism. Comtent is easily monetized via affiliate marketing, earning publishers commissions on sales driven to retailers, and it also drives valuable insights about the shopping preferences and behaviours of their audience, which can boost revenues through other means across the business.

And it can drive serious revenues too: Gizmodo drives a third of its revenue from commerce. And publishers as diverse as Mail Online, Buzzfeed and Business Insider have all turned a deliberate hand to it, with increasingly lucrative results.

With over 80% of people researching products online before making a purchase, it’s a great way for publishers to add more value to their readers’ lives. Described as ‘content as a utility’, comtent is distinct from sponsored content in that it is editorially-driven rather than advertiser-driven, and its aim is to engage and inform, with monetization as a secondary consequence. Readers engage with comtent because they trust in the editorial brand, and only publishers that take that trust seriously and optimize towards quality and objectivity rather than making a quick buck are consequently the ones that drive serious revenues.

It also offers publishers more independence. Currently dependence on display advertising means dependence on the duopoly: publishers need Facebook and Google to drive eyeballs to their adverts and are so dependent on revenue from display that they’re largely obliged to sign up to the duopoly’s agenda. Through earning from comtent, publishers can tap into an audience hungry for product-based content, and drive organic traffic to their site when their readers search for product recommendations. The more monetization options they have, and the more they can attract organic traffic via unique and value-adding content on their sites, the less dependent they will be on the duopoly.

Take Instant Articles and Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). While it’s presented as a move to improve the reading experience for readers, for publishers it means cutting traffic to homepages and reduced monetization opportunities. While there are publishers backing out of the project, they would be even more empowered to do so with a revenue source that didn’t depend on the good grace of Google and Facebook.

The other benefit of comtent is that publishers, while in the short-term earning revenue for sales driven, in the long term can look to monetize the data this generates too. Creating content that drives sales gives publishers a wealth of purchase intent data, which can be sold on as segments, opening another revenue stream for publishers. The insights also serve to help publishers achieve a virtuous cycle, where they can predict what comtent will appeal to people, drive sales and constantly refine their approach to earn more.

In isolation, comtent won’t solve the problems publishers face with platforms. But as part of a wider diversification strategy, it can be an excellent weapon in the arsenal, creating revenue that’s distinct from display, enabling greater independence in decisions on how they’re distributing content, and in the long term, offering an opportunity to monetize data insights. With publishers besieged on all sides, comtent could be the start of a solution.

Alicia Navarro CEO and Co-Founder of Skimlinks