INTERVIEW 

Point of Purchase

Magazines have long influenced fashion sales through inspiring articles and glossy ads. In the digital world, with publishers being able to link direct to purchase pages on client sites, the influence is more direct, and for that, they take a cut. Meg Carter talks to Justine Southall about Marie Claire’s growing e-commerce business.

By Meg Carter

Point of Purchase
Justine Southall: “It is a truly cross-brand approach.”

Affiliate revenue is becoming big business at TI Media, whose online shopping platform Marie Claire Edit began turning a profit just a couple of months after its launch last November. By early spring, work was underway developing new categories to expand the platform’s initial fashion offering from this summer. Now, expectations are high that it won’t be long before the platform will be the brand’s largest digital revenue generator, according to Marie Claire UK managing director Justine Southall.

With editions in 36 countries, Marie Claire’s UK edition was launched in 1988. Today, it reportedly reaches 5.6 million women every month across ten different platforms including print, online, social and events. And over a number of years, it has built a strong digital reach in fashion – which delivers strong SEO by targeting all long-tail keyword shopping terms.

The affiliate is a growing revenue stream for us and will become a main digital revenue driver.

Affiliate model

Marie Claire Edit leverages this, providing fashion brands with a new point of purchase – enabling users to shop and browse products directly from the Marie Claire website – and new native and social advertising formats.

Under the strapline ‘Shop the brands you love. Fashion Editor approved’, Marie Claire’s editorial team aggregate the latest trends for readers to purchase – creating content to inspire. As well as generating revenue from native content, Marie Claire also gets a cut of the purchases via affiliate links.

Designed and built in-house within TI Media, the Marie Claire Edit platform is linked to the CMS of each partner brand’s own online site – though the design ensures that for the user, this link is seamless. As of April, an estimated 250,000 products from 30 retail brands including Farfetch, Selfridges, ASOS, Topshop, Matchesfashion.com and NET-A-PORTER were ‘live’ at any one time.

“Marie Claire Edit marries our editorial expertise into a shopping platform,” says Southall, a passionate believer in the potential for powerful media brands to scale and evolve into other categories to secure their future success.

“As we all know, classic print revenue streams are in decline across the market – that’s a given. On the digital revenue side of things, we’ve seen lots of growth but it is now quite volatile. At the moment, however, affiliate is a growing revenue stream for us and, I believe, it will become a main digital revenue driver.”

Hence the decision now to expand the Marie Claire Edit platform beyond fashion – into areas such as travel, leisure and health which the magazine regularly covers, and also other categories – technology, for example – which it does not.

In the digital environment it is far easier to evaluate how content influences certain behaviour, which is where the opportunity lies.

Retail business

Marie Claire Edit is not Marie Claire UK’s first ecommerce initiative.

In 2016, Fabled by Marie Claire – comprising premium online beauty shop fabled.com and a store in London’s Tottenham Court Road selling an extensive range of premium and niche brands, such as Estée Lauder, Bobbi Brown and Urban Decay – was developed in partnership with online retail specialist Ocado.

The two are very different models, however.

While Edit is a wholly-owned, aggregator and affiliate platform, Fabled is a joint venture with an established third-party ecommerce business.

Editorial is central to both and integrated throughout each site, however – and, in the case of Fabled, beyond. Its editorial team is also now creating exclusive and bespoke content for Next.co.uk following an exclusive collaboration to launch a range of 100+ beauty brands curated by Fabled by Marie Claire on the high street retailer’s own ecommerce site, in a deal struck last year.

Furthermore, the positioning of each of Marie Claire UK’s ecommerce ventures is as an authority on – rather than simply a retail extension of the magazine into – the respective product categories they serve.

“As a magazine, we create content and recommend brands,” explains Southall, who has worked at Marie Claire since 2011 – initially joining as publishing director – following stints at Hearst Magazines, BBC Worldwide and IPC (prior to its acquisition by Time Warner in 2001).

She oversaw the launch of Fabled by Marie Claire and became managing director fashion and beauty at Time Inc UK in 2016, then managing director of Marie Claire UK in 2018.

“Marie Claire Edit is a natural extension of that. It showcases our fashion editorial team. It’s driven through the Marie Claire brand itself, which makes it distinctive. It is a product aggregator and affiliate platform,” she adds.

“Fabled is a standalone retail business. Both bring new customers to the Marie Claire brand and expand Marie Claire UK’s reach.”

One obvious opportunity this provides is selling advertising across Edit, Fabled and Marieclaire.co.uk. But scale in itself is less important than what she calls “the increased activity” that can now be generated around fashion and beauty.

With Marie Claire Edit, however, further opportunity is based around affiliates.

“It’s about people paying to be integrated into our content, marketing and sponsorship, and (our) percentage of (their) sales. We also sell native articles and native advertising and this all sits together. It is a truly cross-brand approach,” Southall says.

“Affiliate partners, affiliate marketing and native campaigns running around a particular product or range being pushed at a particular time is a powerful mix. And we now have proof of how this can work to drive sales from a growing number of positive case studies from the brands we have been working with.”

For example, a recent partnership with US luxury fashion design house Kate Spade – a Marie Claire UK affiliate partner – which involved a native campaign on Marieclarie.co.uk, on social and on Marie Claire Edit, exceeded both partners’ expectations, Southall says.

“(Marie Claire Edit is) well ahead of the (revenue) targets we set across every revenue stream,” she continues.

“In Google ratings, we are now in the Top 4 for fashion search terms and also beauty search terms – both are core categories for the magazine and the website and now a central part of other parts of our business.

“This is all about how we are working to serve both the digital needs of the brands we work with and also the digital wants and needs of our readers as shoppers increasingly opt for ecommerce.”

There is much that can be automated. But human accuracy at different points along the journey is key.

Success factors

Look across the publishing sector today and you will see many grappling with the challenge of how best to leverage what they have always traditionally done – namely, create recommendations and sell ideas via content.

“Magazine brands traditionally create desire, but you can’t measure the impact of that in traditional media. But in the digital environment it is far easier to evaluate how content influences certain behaviour, which is where the opportunity lies,” Southall observes.

But there is no single proven recipe for successfully exploiting that opportunity – for now, at least.

Style.com – Condé Nast’s short-lived luxury ecommerce experiment, in which it invested a reported $100m before it was shut down in 2017 after just nine months – was a massive investment but, ultimately, didn’t work.

“Many (publishers) bolt on third party platforms to something that already exists, but you need to do it properly,” she adds.

“At present, there are no particular obvious trends in ecommerce apart from the fact many people are trying to capture it. All have aggregator affiliate links on their content to some extent, but how well they do it is another matter.”

A lot of success in the digital space is driven by the nature of a publisher’s platform development and the strength of their teams, Southall believes.

“There is much that can be automated. But human accuracy at different points along the journey is key,” she points out. “Affiliate links are only good if they send people to the right place, so it is key to update these regularly. It’s not sexy, but it is good practice and very, very important.”

As is engaging the creative teams on which you depend to create your content.

“For Marie Claire Edit, our fashion team have needed to extend their skills into a different space – not just creating content for the main site, but native content, too,” says Southall.

“To be a proper part of it and to get the best out them, it has been important for them to understand how important this is for fashion and the brands we partner, and for our own business and the Marie Claire brand.

“We have done things our own way through a combination of luck and judgement.

“We had the foresight to know that we needed to do something and, even two years on, Fabled is still one of a kind. Edit, meanwhile, is a first because of the high quality and depth of its content and the degree of its content integration.”

Moving forward, adding more categories to Edit will be a big step, she readily admits, describing the volume of brands you need to make a fully-functional ecommerce service as “huge” and the heavy lifting required behind this as “significant”.

Interesting to see will be how other publishers further evolve their strategies, of course. But so too will be how the brands they partner evolve their systems and structures towards the integrated approaches and solutions that they now expect and demand from the publishers they choose to partner with.

“There is clearly a desire from retailers and other brands for more joined-up conversations with editorial providers. But it is also the case that those businesses themselves are often not necessarily joined-up sufficiently internally to act in as joined-up a fashion as they would like,” Southall observes.

“PR and marketing may have similar objectives, for example, but they are often sitting in different segments of a business and have different agendas. Achieving a truly joined-up approach is an education for them as much as it is for us.”

There is clearly a desire from retailers and other brands for more joined-up conversations with editorial providers.