Beloved product review sites The Wirecutter and The Sweethome–which were bought by the New York Times last year for about $30 million–are rebranding… slightly. The Times is dropping the “the” and collapsing both into “Wirecutter.” As its business surges, the brand is also getting a whole new logo and look, and in some cases, the Times says, product reviewers and journalists will start to work closer together.
In a press release, the Times said this was part of the company’s “strategy to become the go to source for figuring out what to buy across all categories of products and services.” Which is to say, the Times is seeing steady non-ad-related revenue from the Wirecutter—thanks to a thriving affiliate ads business, whereby it gets a commission for every product you click through to and buy—so it wants to make it a more streamlined brand that readers will turn to.
The company says the site’s sales have increased 50% from a year earlier as it’s added a wider range of categories beyond its traditional focus on tech gadgets (the site was founded in 2011 by former Gizmodo editor Brian Lam). It’s still a small part of the Times‘ business, which is mostly based on subscriptions and ads and which generated $407 million last quarter.
Time was when The Wirecutter was an occasional columnist at Fast Company (2014). (And, full disclosure, I wrote a few articles for The Sweethome when I was a freelance writer.) In 2015, the startup drove $150 million in e-commerce sales, Lam told Bloomberg. A swarm of other media companies have since jumped on the affiliate link bandwagon as they struggle to make up for sinking advertising revenue. Affiliate sales are now used by Time Inc., Conde Nast, Vox, Hearst, and The Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos, founder of the historically huge affiliate marketer Amazon).
Spending on affiliate marketing in the U.S.—the commissions that sites like Wirecutter get—has jumped nearly 17% in five years to $4.5 billion in 2016, according to a Forrester Research study.
In addition to Wirecutter coverage, the Times already uses affiliate links in its bestseller lists and reviews of restaurants, films, and theater, according to a memo to employees last year obtained by Politico. The continuing shift raises one question: How do you maintain journalistic objectivity when reviewing products, knowing that you’re also relying on the sale of those products to make money?
“We’re really looking and saying, ‘where are reader interests?’ And let’s pursue that regardless of revenue opportunity,” David Perpich, general manager of The Wirecutter, said at the Code Commerce conference this morning. You can watch him and BuzzFeed’s Ben Kaufman (of Quirky fame) discuss new revenue streams for media in this video.