Conference Notebook: Commerce and Content Collide

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Selling stuff makes most editorial folks uneasy. But as the price of online — not to mention mobile — advertising inventory drops, online shops, affiliate programs, and daily deals are becoming a key revenue strategy for local and national publishers.

The question remaining is how important e-commerce will ultimately be for online media’s bottom line. Panelists and speakers at yesterday’s Think Commerce Summit in New York, an event hosted by white-label e-commerce provider (and interested party) Group Commerce, expressed a reserved optimism.

“We’re taking a more managed approach,” Ezra Kucharz, CBS‘s president of local digital media, told Yipit’s Jim Moran about the company’s wide-ranging e-commerce efforts. “It’s profitable and continues to grow. We’ve just taken a different approach than a publicly traded media company.”

From a local standpoint, taking a managed approach means finding the right aspects of commerce to complement a media company’s existing business.  More than 30% of the media executives surveyed in a Forrester study conducted in connection with the conference said the top barrier preventing their organization from offering better or more e-commerce was their company’s business model.

“One of the challenges for media companies, particularly the media companies that might not be as local as others, is sometimes scaling the local approach,” said Nick Lehman, president of NBCUniversal’s entertainment and digital networks.

For NBCUniversal, at times this has meant expanding its existing product to drive the e-commerce offering. Daily Candy, an NBCUniversal brand and one of the more successful content-driven offers sites, has managed to leverage its users as lead generators by offering consumers incentives for submitting pictures of products from brick-and-mortar stores via a mobile app.

But it’s media’s complex relationship with its core asset — the consumer — that causes apprehension around commerce initiatives.

“From an advertising perspective, there’s long been a church-and-state divide between editorial and advertising, so to move into commerce we’re not asking to lower that divide to step over it; we’re asking to trample it,” Peter Minnium, the IAB’s head of digital brand initiatives, said, echoing the concerns of a handful of speakers throughout the conference.

Lehman, an interactive media veteran who came to NBCUniversal after stints at IAC and MTV, quickly responded to Minnium’s concerns, saying, “The whole separation of church and state is going away.” While this is not the case for  every vertical, he said, “In many verticals, consumers are starting to embrace that fuzziness.”

But it was Thrillist founder Ben Lerer, whose company has built a massive e-commerce business on top of its daily, who perhaps best nailed the evolving “fuzziness” of this relationship.

“If we’re not going to sell a magazine, why not sell them a T-shirt?”

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.