One of my daily reads is New York Magazine‘s “The Strategist,” which takes the distinctly old-school (i.e. 2003) notion of a shopping blog and runs it through a filter of bright, cheerful Aughties graphics and tone. I like a good shopping blog when the primary thing being sold is not an influencer’s persona. This one has reported features—quizzing professional trendy people on the stuff they like—and amusing, hyperspecific blog entries about products that address hyperspecific needs.
However, one of my favorite features on The Strategist is “The Best [Fill in the Blank] on Amazon, According to Hyperenthusiastic Reviewers.” As a reader and a consumer, I appreciate that someone did the dirty work of slogging through the grammatically diverse and gloriously subjective testimonials that people are moved to write about for everything from ice cube trays to baby bouncers. As an editor, I am envious that someone else conceived of this format, because it’s just structured enough to reduce the amount of heavy lifting anyone on staff has to do and virtually any product can be highlighted.
This isn’t the only Amazon-centric feature on The Strategist, and I noticed there are a lot of Amazon-centric shopping features on Buzzfeed. While it’s true Amazon’s retail footprint is now to the point where it can literally tank other companies’ stock prices, it’s not so vast that entire beats need to be devoted to the adorable or highly-rated things you can buy on there. So why are sites beginning to launch regular content features that boiled down to “Hey, did you know you could buy stuff on Amazon.com?”
It’s all about affiliate revenue. With features like these, there’s usually an italicized disclaimer about how, if you “buy something through our links,” the site in question may earn a commission. What these disclaimers are not spelling out is how Amazon’s affiliate revenue usually works: When you click through a link on a specific site, your browser downloads an Amazon affiliate cookie. For the next 24 hours, that cookie is active, so even if you decide you’re not going to buy your antiperspirant on the strength of one blog review, if you do decide to buy something else on Amazon, the antiperspirant-blogging publisher still gets a sales commission off the product you did buy. You can see how this works out well for sites on the occasions when someone clicks through to look at a $14.72 Harry Potter cauldron mug and ends up buying a $62 Keurig.
Amazon affiliate revenue has been very good for some publishers. When the New York Times bought the consumer review sites The Wirecutter and The Sweethome, one of the things the Gray Lady was buying was a publishing company that generated $150 million in e-commerce transactions on the strength of reader clickthroughs. Other sites have kept themselves comfortably in the black on the strength of affiliate clicking. And if you’re wondering why you saw so many “Here’s What to Buy on Amazon Prime Day” features, consider the incentive: Even if a reader didn’t buy a single product featured in the blog entry, if they bought something, the publisher made money from it.
So what? If Amazon.com affiliate revenue becomes a significant amount of a publication’s quarterly revenues, exactly what kind of position is that publication going to be in the first time they publish something critical of the company and how it does business? There have been dust-ups in publishing before whenever a reporter publishes or broadcasts something that an advertiser would prefer they did not, so it could be argued that this is not terribly different. However, it could also be argued that back in the days when print dominated, if an advertiser wanted to generate positive attention, that’s what advertorials were for.
Here, the shopping round-ups are positioned as editorial content, italicized disclaimers notwithstanding. The line is a little blurry for both readers and journalists.
Who cares? We should, because publishers’ increasing dependence on e-commerce as a revenue stream is going to present all sorts of institutional challenges on how to cover these companies—and it presents questions of trust and transparency for readers.
Publishers should also care because—yet again—they are yoking their futures to a tech company who can and will change the ground rules when it suits them. We’ve seen it when revenue models were based on advertising traffic and Google re-ranking its search results could make or break a site’s traffic. We’ve seen it with how Facebook algorithm tweaks have shaken up sites’ traffic. And now we’re seeing it with Amazon, which had a shake-up in the commission structure for its affiliate program in March. Big publishers have their own custom affiliate deals with Amazon, so don’t cry for the New York Times‘ bottom line here. But the reality remains: Tech has disrupted the way we get and produce news in this country. It’s changing how we fund it too.