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As Lines Between Content and Commerce Blur, Editors Emphasize Transparency

Editors from 'Harper's Bazaar,' 'Glamour,' 'InStyle' and 'Editorialist' weighed in on native content and how magazines are taking a piece of the online retail revenue pie.
A L.A. magazine newsstand. Photo: Anna Bryukhanova/iStock by Getty Images

A L.A. magazine newsstand. Photo: Anna Bryukhanova/iStock by Getty Images

As a fashion magazine, how do you monetize your influence over readers' shopping habits without sacrificing editorial integrity — or getting lost in the crowded e-commerce space? At the Initiatives in Art and Culture's 17th Annual Fashion + Design Conference on Saturday, editors from Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, InStyle and Editorialist discussed how their magazines bridge content and commerce. One thing that popped up repeatedly? The influence of social media. 

When asked why magazines should be concerned with facilitating sales at all, Glamour Digital Director Anne Sachs said, "Our consumer expects it of us, particularly across social platforms. We have a little over 12 million followers across multiple social platforms and so many of the questions that they ask in the comments that they post are, 'Where do I get this thing that you just shared?' And the expectation is there's an immediate response to that question." Readers ask and answers — with affiliate links to earn a percentage on the sales the site drives. 

So too do commenters and followers demand clarity about whether they are seeing content that is editorial or sponsored, argued Ariel Foxman, editorial director of InStyle and People StyleWatch. "Because there's so much more transparency and there's so much more audience engagement with comments and sharing, you have a much more democratic marketplace," he said. "I think puts more pressure on editors and retailers to do the right thing and mark what you're seeing now. It's unlawful to present something that's not editorial as editorial — truly unlawful today — because it's so easy for it be confusing for consumers and consumers have called it out time and time again." 

And if media brands pass native advertising as editorial content, then they run the risk of losing their readers – and therefore their advertisers — as consumers become more wise to these kinds of business practices. But that doesn't mean that advertisers don't get some preferential consideration. "Anyone who is savvy enough to understand a business model around any sort of content knows that there are advertisers," said Foxman. "What [advertisers] have bought, bare minimum, is our interest in your interest in our audience, so we come look at your product and if it makes sense within our mix, it makes sense, but we have to love it editorially. And advertisers know, at the end of the day, that if they don't have a product like InStyle with a trusted relationship with its audience, there really is nothing to advertise in. It would be shell." 

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Caitlin Weiskopf, executive director of Harper's Bazaar's e-commerce arm, ShopBazaar, echoed Foxman's thoughts, using a St. John spread in a recent issue as an example. "St. John, let's be honest, is not going to get a full-page feature in Bazaar without paying," she said. But by entrusting editors to dictate what the editorial will look like and feature, "it becomes a branded content play as opposed to just a campaign." She said Harper's Bazaar doesn't create native content for every brand that approaches the glossy, "only that the brands that we feel will work, that our readers will respond to and that they will see ROI on their investment."

In addition to giving brands the Bazaar editorial treatment, ShopBazaar also works with retailers to sell products to readers — which earns the magazine more revenue than affiliate links.  It partners directly with brands such as Michael Kors and Chloé, but more than 50 percent of ShopBazaar's product is fulfilled by Shoescribe and The Corner — two e-retailers owned by Yoox Net-a-Porter Group (which announced last week it will soon shutter both sites). "We are going to work with them through spring and markdown and see where the road takes us," said Weiskopf. "[Harper's Bazaar Editor-in-Chief] Glenda [Bailey] and [Yoox Net-a-Porter Group CEO] Federico [Marchetti] are close and we're are talking about the future."

Among the publications represented on the panel, only the Editorialist has its own inventory. "That was a very conscious decision for a couple of reasons," said co-founder Kate Davidson Hudson. In addition to wanting to control the quality of the shipment and customer service process, the brand also wanted to take a larger piece of the revenue pie. "Especially with accessories — it's the highest margin in the fashion industry," she said. "We really wanted to move in there and own that space and capitalize on those margins, whereas in an affiliate program you’re getting a small cut, and then what cuts into those margins further are shipping and fulfillment." 

Foxman said InStyle, which is owned by Time Inc., has done a lot of research about holding inventory and decided not to take on the risks of becoming a retailer.  "I think that there's an assumption that magazines should be providing an e-commerce service and I think it's an assumption that needs to be tugged at and questioned," he said, adding that while the publishing house wants to capitalize on their titles' selling power, the reader doesn't always want or need that. "I don't necessarily agree that every reader, user or consumer has the expectation that when you're in a piece of content, the onus is on the content provider to provide an entire shopping experience," he said. "I think yes, in digital, I as the consumer... don't want you to show me something I can't buy, but we know from our audience that that's the expectation. It's not that I want this entire retail experience, I want your trusted opinion, I want your authority, I want your exclusives maybe, but a scaleable retail experience beyond... the basic expectations of using the Internet or using your phone — there isn't this assumption." 

The conversation then turned to Lucky magazine, which tried to make it as an e-commerce site before folding completely earlier this month. When asked why they thought the Condé Nast retail venture failed, an uncomfortable silence prevailed. Only Davidson Hudson volunteered an answer. "There's so much noise in the online space and I think it's really a challenge to carve out your value add and your focus," she said. "I think the scope was a little bit wide on the buy and on the perspective. I think the challenge for all of us... it's about inspiring that conversation and not just being one of the mass —and standing out from all of the noise and gray area online."

Homepage photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images