Dwell Media eyes a future of 'contextual commerce'


Media companies looking to expand into e-commerce face plenty of challenges in finding the right model and the right partners. Dwell Media has found what President Michela O'Connor Abrams believes is a winning formula for its audience of design enthusiasts: contextualized commerce.

Over the past two years, Dwell has experimented with different e-commerce models through partnerships with OpenSky and Gilt. Those initiatives have come and gone as Dwell searched for a deeper, more integrated shopping experience for its audience.

“Flash sales were fine when they first came on the scene, but that model is fatiguing,” O'Connor Abrams said in a phone interview. “We’ve been looking at the best way to utilize our content in the commerce world, and our firm belief is that contextualized commerce is the future.”

Integrating product offerings with editorial content – in a way that does not compromise editorial integrity – is gaining favor among some enthusiast publishers that are looking to connect potential buyers (aka their audience) with sellers (aka advertisers). In Dwell’s case, O'Connor Abrams said, “we want to bring the content to life in a way that allows you to understand more about a home or lifestyle and then be able to buy what you’ve been inspired by.”

Dwell is now partnering with AHAlife, which has built an e-commerce platform for lifestyle products. AHAlife.com features a Dwell section, and Dwell and AHAlife also collaborated on a “fully shoppable” issue of Dwell magazine. The special issue, included with Dwell's December/January issue, was enabled by an augmented reality (AR) smartphone app that lets readers scan products in the magazine, which links them to the AHAlife site to purchase the product.  

The issue, sponsored by MasterCard, was a “smashing success,” said O'Connor Abrams. The open rate of the AR app was in the high 30s, and conversion rates were around 11% – including items such as a $3,500 rug and a $1,000 table.

Dwell dug into its archives to find content for the special issue, then threaded relevant product collections into previously published features. Dwell plans to produce three “shoppable” magazines using the AR technology this year, O'Connor Abrams said.

With this type of contextual commerce – in print and online – “content gives way to commerce in a perfectly natural way,” said O'Connor Abrams. “We are fundamentally shifting our company to be a design department store.”

Expanding its digital mission

In addition to e-commerce, Dwell is investing resources in several other digital initiatives as part of its core mission: Delivering modern design ideas to anyone, anywhere, anyplace, in any form, with the audience firmly at the center.

In December, the company completed a switch from a legacy web CMS (Clickability) to Drupal. “It’s only been a month, but SEO has picked up dramatically,” said O'Connor Abrams. “We’re very excited about the potential to make Dwell.com a much more significant presence.”

Original web content will continue to be a key element, as half of the website’s visitors don’t subscribe to the print edition. Dwell’s editors are also poring through 12 years of print archives to “re-curate” content and add more depth to it online – a task made much easier with Drupal, O'Connor Abrams said.

Dwell also continues to expand its presence in social media, where it has amassed more than 600,000 fans and followers. Pinterest is particularly appealing for Dwell’s visually oriented content – so much so that the company is building a 3,000-square-foot Pinterest pavilion, featuring 3D "pin" boards, for its annual Dwell on Design conference, scheduled for June in Los Angeles.

Surprisingly, Dwell has yet to make much of a splash in the tablet space, offering only a digital replica of its print magazine through Zinio. O'Connor Abrams acknowledged the current tablet experience does not deliver on the promise of what magazines on tablets should be.  She expects the tablet to play a larger role in Dwell’s contextualized commerce strategy – a smart move considering recent Adobe research that found tablet users spend more than 50% more per purchase on online retail sites than smartphone visitors and more than 20% more than desktop/laptop visitors.

An evolving multi-platform strategy

Dwell has built an audience of 2.1 million design enthusiasts across print, web, social and events. Print still accounts for 58% of revenue, with digital contributing 30% and the remainder across the Dwell on Design event and other channels. The management team emphasizes cross-platform skills across the staff instead of product or channel specialists.

“Part of our mission is that everyone participates in every platform,” said O'Connor Abrams. While some positions require channel-specific expertise, “by and large the whole staff knows that everyone’s contributions are critical on all platforms,” she said.

That includes the sales staff, led by seven regional “brand directors” who are taking on a more consultative role with clients instead of just pushing print ads or banners.

“The idea is to create a completely tailored program that will yield demonstrable evidence to help you reach your brand goal,” said O'Connor Abrams. “That requires us to think very differently than a transactional salesperson does. And it’s so much more interesting to sell that way.”

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