‘Context aware’ commerce: How two publishers are riding the next wave

Posted on December 1, 2011


Publishers have long relied on their ability to target an audience, build content for that audience and subsequently sell associated advertising and/or subscriptions. For hundreds of years, the recipe has worked with little variation.

Fast-forward into the digital age and many publishers are now struggling to find a new model to maintain value and create associated revenue streams.

For many, this quest takes on a nearly feverish quality, and seems to belie what has made publishing such a winning industry: understanding your audience. Simply put, ad sales aren’t the secret ingredient; it is the publisher’s unique ability to present a full range of resources – articles, guides, events, research, books, etc. – to each reader at the right time.

Being “context aware” can drive many forms of revenue for publishers:

  • Better targeting of circulation efforts
  • Higher CPM-based advertising and sponsorship revenue
  • Improved attendance at events and conferences, and even more “clicks” with contextual content presentation.

However, the most direct lift to the publisher’s bottom line can come from e-commerce – specifically the introduction of context-aware e-commerce opportunities.

A tale of two publishers

Success Magazine and Modern Distribution Management (MDM) are vastly different enterprises – yet both have succeeded with the same approach. First, they adopted the mindset of increasing their average revenue per reader (ARPR) and adopted ARPR as the key metric in driving decisions.

Second, they began aggressively creating context around their content, community and e-commerce offerings.

While circulation growth is still important, it has been supplanted by ARPR as a primary business driver. Each new subscriber added is now generating more revenue, resulting in a higher ROI for any audience development/marketing effort.


Success Magazine is a newsstand stalwart – and a brand that was in need of some new energy. When they looked at their audience, they saw information-hungry readers who as entrepreneurs and small business people were willing to spend money to better themselves, their businesses and their lives.

Publisher Darren Hardy made a decision to categorize content to reflect the way readers thought about their lives: Business, Relationships, Wealth, Well-Being and Giving Back. This categorization began in earnest with content, video and social media, which complemented a growing catalog of hard goods (such as books and DVDs) and soft goods (downloads, events and subscriptions).

A quick visit to Success.com immediately reveals the high-value content used to drive search engine optimization (SEO), which in turn spurs direct sales. How do they do it?

Success.com’s mantra early on was “one reader, one experience, one shopping cart.”

The foundation of this strategy was to gather every user’s e-commerce activities and history, plus e-mail preferences, personal profile, and circulation system data into a single online system. Having this data accessible in one place gave Success’s staff the ability to make informed marketing and merchandising decisions, while encouraging users to self-manage their relationship with Success.

The publisher then leverages this data to create a transparent experience where searching and reading leads to shopping and purchasing (and back again) without any friction. Success.com readers alternate between the two as though it were a single experience.

Analytics for the site support the story. In a typical scenario, a user’s final action on any given site is to check out of their shopping cart. Success Magazine is quite different, because the majority of users continue reading after checking out.


Modern Distribution Management had a similar trajectory as Success. But as a small, highly vertical and content-focused B2B player, publisher Tom Gale had to take bold steps to diversify his revenue base. With the recession in full swing, he decided there was no better time to innovate.

The publication’s website, mdm.com, historically sold subscriptions and webinars online – but there was no context for readers other than presenting house ads to drive internal sales efforts.

The initial goal for MDM was to create content and e-commerce opportunities for the reader on every page. Where Success.com focused on driving sales of hard goods, the primary long-term opportunities for MDM were the sales of their premium content.

Gale created a multi-tiered strategy for the gating of content – with levels including free, registration-required, subscription-driven, association membership and many others. These were used to test offers with the objective of converting each of the non-paying constituents into paid circulation.

Early efforts focused on ensuring all content and e-commerce opportunities were automatically relevant to the reader. As a very metrics-driven team, MDM focused on continual refinement toward their goal of increasing visits to their “gated content subscribe page” and pushing for increased views of their subscriber-only content.

Within six weeks, they had early successes that pointed them in the right direction. Key performance indicators included:

  • Time-on-site increased 344%
  • Ad impressions increased 45%
  • Achieved their highest grossing month of content sales.

These early improvements were driven by both underlying contextual relevance and improved presentation.

MDM quickly saw that the more relevance they created, the more dramatic the improvement in their e-commerce revenue streams. Sales were rising for all e-commerce opportunities, from webinars to products – but the primary definition of “winning” was to sell more content.

Within six months using various user interface and “context mechanics,” MDM reinforced its commitment to driving more revenue per reader and produced stunning results.

One example of MDM’s tactics included implementing a teaser strategy to align highly relevant paid content next to free content. The result was an increase in visits to MDM’s “subscribe” page by over 1,000 percent. Another key driver – premium content views – rose 1,400 percent in the same six-month period.

MDM’s approach was so successful that it took enough market share to contribute to the demise of a competitive title.

Using context to drive transactions

Publishing success still depends on understanding your readers; new media success requires a focus on diversifying revenue streams and employing context to drive transactional revenue.

The key factor that produced results for both Success.com and MDM.com was to create a transparent, simple e-commerce process that readers viewed as a benefit. An important lesson: Never, ever take the reader outside of your site to manage their subscriptions, make a purchase or perform any other transaction.

By blending commerce into their content, publishers can add new revenue immediately, with ARPR expanding at a faster rate than through any other means.

The historic recipe remains the same. We simply need to add a few more ingredients.

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