Content and Commerce Only Flow One Way

By Erin Griffith , written on September 6, 2012

From The News Desk

If a company is in the business of selling something, you'd probably be suspicious of anything it publishes. After all, you don't skim J. Crew or Victoria Secret catalogs to become part of a better informed citizenry. You view the product descriptions ("stylish, versatile, flattering") and madly photoshopped images of models with impossibly perfect figures and blemish-free skin with skepticism, perhaps even a hint of disdain. Because you don't believe them. It's a game. They sell and you take a chance on buying, but you're not looking to them for, say, news. ("I was reading the J. Crew catalog this morning and could not believe what the op-ed columnist said about nuclear proliferation.") That's because they have a vested interest in promoting whatever they're selling. That's how it works.

Which leads me to a recent meeting I had with Philippe von Borries, co-founder of Refinery29, which has anointed itself "the cornerstone of fashion, beauty, and shopping for a new generation."

"No one gives a shit about content from a commerce company," he told me at his company's jam-packed headquarters in Manhattan's East Village — his brainchild has been growing so fast he's had to locate new office space three times in three years.

What he means is that media companies, which is how he views Refinery29, can one day decide to sell things but commerce companies will struggle to becoming credible publishers. Whatever ink they spill is simply not credible to readers. It's just glorified marketing copy dressed up as editorial, and readers can sense it as easily as they can spot a cheap knockoff Chanel bag. But a publisher doesn't suffer from that inherent conflict.

Of course, Von Borries also has something to sell: the idea of a hybrid content-marketing machine, so that makes his statement a tad self-serving. But that's fine. Fashion-focused Refinery29 is a media organization first and foremost — a very successful one with an audience of 6 million mostly female readers, which makes it more popular than many fashion magazines — and it makes money the same way its traditional media contemporaries do, through advertisements and advertorials.

One key difference, however, is that unlike, say, Glamour, Refinery29 doesn't depend solely on the vicissitudes of advertising. This year it will also generate about $4 million from commerce, about a quarter of the company's revenue.

The idea that content is more difficult to add than commerce might seem counter-intuitive. Editorial labor is cheap, and blogs are simple to set up. Compare that with the complexity of merchandizing, payments systems, sourcing, inventory, and shipping, and tacking on some content seems easy peasy. Which is why plenty of content companies, Refinery29 included, start out with simple drop-shipping, meaning Refinery29 acts as a wholesaler not holding merchandize.

Yesterday on stage at the Curator's Conference in New York, Von Borries reiterated his view that content companies can do commerce but commerce companies can't do content. The theme of content and commerce is resonating with startups everywhere I go. Much of the talk is around who is doing content and commerce, and who is claiming to do it.

The simplest definition — "Do you sell things, and do you create content? Yes and yes? Okay then." — won't wash. To truly do content and commerce, the two silos must be integrated, and benefit from each other. Simply hiring an editor to blog about your products, as, say, Gilt Groupe has done in several of its verticals, does not translate to content and commerce magic. Gilt had hired New York Daily News' gossip columnist columnist Ben Widdicombe to run CityUnlisted, the blog of Gilt's local deals arm Gilt City. It has not been updated since the division underwent a round of layoffs in February.

Good merchandizing on its own can work well, as we've seen with Nasty Gal or, when the products speak for themselves. Their curation of merchandize is what gives the sites their distinct voices. There's no point tacking "editorial" on top, as if it's a fashionable new cape for Fall wear.

So how does media company build a 2010-era version of what Conde Nast would be if it weren't so dysfunctional? Refinery29 makes the items its editors write about available to buy via drop-shipping. Thrillist uses data gleaned from engagement of your loyal readers to determine which types of products your ecommerce arm should sell. The company may eventually design and manufacture its own products.

Thrillist's JackThreads commerce business, acquired for a small amount two years ago, has grown to dwarf the revenues it earns from advertising on its media business. The company now holds inventory and has $8 million in receivables each quarter -- that's why it raised a $13 million round of funding after basically boostrapping for seven years.

Refinery29 was profitable, when it raised a $4.5 million Series A round last summer. A larger round may be in the offing, as it begins to scale its commerce business into a larger percentage of its revenue. The company plans to look for exclusive deals with designers — otherwise there's no real differentiator online, and it's a race to the bottom on price. Like Thrillist, Refinery29 can use the data from its readers to identify shopping trends and do smarter merchandizing. The company is exploring ways to go further up the production cycle, partnering with emerging designers that may lack the resources to do high volume production.

Still, above all else, the focus will never stray from the integrity of the content, Von Borries says. "More than anything, [the content] is our product. That's what's going to drive our commerce business."