Gilt City’s City Unlisted: Merging Commerce and Content

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Last week marked a certain kind of end to the daily deals industry’s first act. The news of BuyWithMe’s fall from grace and its subsequent fire sale was quickly eclipsed by Groupon’s long awaited, and so-far successful IPO Friday, leaving the future of the deals space as muddled as ever.

Gilt City, the city-centric offshoot of luxury commerce brand Gilt Groupe, has found itself in an admirable position.  After snapping up BuyWithMe and effectively fortifying its presence in its existing markets, the brand is poised to occupy the third spot in the deals pantheon behind LivingSocial and Groupon.

The New York-based company has — among other things — built its business on developing a strong editorial voice mostly through the selection and presentation of its offers.  In May, however, Gilt City launched an under-the-radar beta project called City Unlisted to experiment with an alternative approach to pairing content and commerce.

“The model so far for City Unlisted is as stand alone site that parallels Gilt City — a different model to the rest of the Gilt Groupe that tends to integrate their content,” City Unlisted’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Widdicombe told Street Fight in an interview.  “So we’re a test, essentially to see if the parallel model works.”

The New York-local site posts three to four pieces of content daily, ranging from lists and recommendations to topical exposés like “The True Cost of Interborough Love.” Widdicombe, who left a freelance gig with AOL in the Spring to head up the project, says that the site channels the tabloid DNA that he developed in a long career with the New York Daily News: “Although we do like those little cheeky stories that grab an eyeball, we also have a standard to uphold,” says Widdicombe. “We have to make sure that we represent Gilt as a luxury brand. That’s the line we walk.”

That line is increasingly being blurred as the structures that have traditionally governed the division between commercial interests and editorial integrity dissolve. “There is a convergence,” says Widdicombe about the coming together of editorial and commercial worlds. “Consumers of information are not used to paying for content anymore and advertising has not filled that gap.

“There will always be those stand-alone media brands that will have absolute integrity like the New York Times but, the reality is that they are occupying a smaller portion of the media landscape,” says Widdicombe.

Filling that gap is a fundamental shift in the way consumers are interacting with media brands, says Gilt City senior editor Maggie Coughlan: “I live in New York and I want to know what to do: I’m going to go on Gilt City, I’m going to buy an offer, I’m going to read City Unlisted to find out what to do, and I’m going to live and breathe these brands whether I realize it or not.”

From a commercial perspective, editorial content can improve brand awareness as well as effectively counter an increasing commoditization of offers in the deals space — a trend that arguably contributed to the rise and fall of clones like BuyWithMe. During a panel at the Street Fight Summit last month, Wellcomemat CEO Phil Di Giulio made a similar point about New York’s extremely competitive real estate market: “The individuals and companies who focus on being an information resource, by providing unique content, or signals, stand the best chance of winning new business in the future.”

Commerce and content have always shared an interdependent relationship, says Widdicombe who points to magazines like Vogue as examples of publications that have highly symbiotic relationships with the industries which they cover. “There will always be those stand-alone media brands that will have absolute integrity like the New York Times but, the reality is that they are occupying a smaller portion of the media landscape,” he explained.

As a model for bridging content and commerce, traditional advertising does not leverage the symmetrical structure of digital media. Local media brands in particular, have an unprecedented ability to facilitate commerce, but must develop new models in order to capitalize on that transaction.  Companies like white-label deal platform Tippr and advertorial publishing network Nearsay/LocalVox are building products that allow hyperlocal sites to tap into the high purchase intent of local consumers.

As for City Unlisted, the project remains in beta as it approaches the 8-10 month mark originally set by Gilt City leadership. Widdicombe would not comment on the specifics of its roadmap, but says: “We have a particular roll out strategy with a major brand-name Internet partner, and that will be rolling out in the next couple weeks.”

Steven Jacobs is an associate editor at Street Fight.