Thrillist delivers on the promise of fully integrated "content + commerce" with new native check-out

By Erin Griffith , written on November 11, 2013

From The News Desk

It's hard not to agree with Thrillist CEO Ben Lerer when he's pacing a conference room wielding a wooden ax. It was a gift, apparently, though I'm not sure why he brought it to our meeting. Weirder things have happened at Thrillist's offices.

Ax or no, Lerer is excited about content and commerce. Really excited. That might be because his 260-person company Thrillist Media Group, which is on track to do $75 million to $100 million in revenue this year, is the first company to introduce what he's calling "native commerce."

He may not have known what shape the whole content and commerce trend would take when he was starting Thrillist as a dude's answer to Daily Candy in 2005, but he does now. This morning Thrillist launched "Shops," a native commerce feature which allows the company's handful of websites to fully integrate its content and commerce offerings. In his typical vigorous enthusiasm, Lerer declares the product "so fucking cool."

"We're jamming on the gas with this," he says.

Put another way, the 8 million monthly readers of Thrillist, and its newly launched sister sites Supercompressor and The Crosby Press, can now buy the items they read about directly from the sites. Lerer is calling it native commerce, and he'll take credit for the term, thankyouverymuch.

Still, there's a growing concern that the once-hot trend of content plus commerce has hit its peak. Judging by the big, splashy fundraises of pure-play content companies like Refinery29, Vox Media, Vice Media and Complex Media, media is actually attractive again. At the same time, media companies are finding that commerce, with its shipping, inventory, logistics, fulfillment, and customer support, is too complicated to execute well. Refinery29 even walked away from its commerce strategy, arguing that its advertising business was simply more attractive.

Lerer argues that content and commerce as a business model is only beginning to take shape. He raises a good point: Most of the companies that attached themselves to the trend do not actually make money from both content and commerce. Ecommerce stores don't typically sell ads, even if they produce content. And media companies don't typically sell actual stuff. If they do make money on selling stuff, it's typically through affiliate fees -- they don't manufacture products, hold inventory, or do shipping and fulfillment.

Thrillist has done just that since it acquired JackThreads, a small apparel brand in Ohio, in 2010. Lerer is determined to prove that this integrated business model is better than either one -- content or commerce -- alone.

In fact, Thrillist's native commerce functionality is an ad product, too: Its launch is sponsored by Microsoft This means his readers are more valuable because he isn't messing around with remnant ads, which content sites will sell to ad networks for peanuts when they aren't able to find a premium advertiser. Instead of running low-quality remnant ads (think belly fat pills), Thrillist can run house ads for its own JackThreads products and content. Still, the company makes the majority of its revenue on commerce.

Lerer discussed the way JackThreads and Thrillist will become increasingly integrated at a PandoMonthly event in New York last year.

Thrillist's native commerce solution is an important step for anyone in the "content and commerce" game, because the logistics of merging a blog with a shopping site are really tricky. I've written about this before -- CMS's don't mix with shopping carts. Non-technical editors can't just throw a functional buy button into one of their blog posts. And online stores can't just add new kinds of content to their product pages. Anyone who has tried to do this before has had to build a solution from scratch, which is what Thrillist did with its native commerce solution.

Now, Thrillist editors writing about, say, the best carry-on bags, can see which kinds of carry-on bags Thrillist already sells through its JackThreads line. If any of them fit the story, the editor can add a "buy" button below the feature. A shopper can read and shop across all of Thrillist Media Group's sites, rather than being sent out to a separate site for shopping.

This keeps incentives aligned between the content and commerce sides of Thrillist. Normally, a media site wants readers to stick around longer to be more engaged with the content, because that's what advertisers like. But a commerce site wants to push users through to check-out as efficiently as possible.

With everything done in one place, on one site, Lerer believes content and commerce can live in symbiotic (and profitable) harmony.


Thrillist is backed by Oak Investment Partners, Pilot Group and Lerer Ventures (where Ben Lerer is a partner), the latter of which is an investor in PandoDaily.