March 21st, 2011

At Thrillist, Mingling Commerce and Content

The New York Times

The Web site Thrillist publishes daily e-mails aimed at a young, male audience, with tips about activities in various cities. But along with that content, it offers separate e-mails selling clothes and deals at local businesses, melding commerce and content in ways that have long made traditional publications bristle.

Thrillist started a daily deal site in December. More media companies, including some of the old guard, are selling products.

For Thrillist, the so-called Chinese wall that publications have between the editorial and advertising sides of the business is more of a bridge. It can be hard to tell the difference among reviews, ads and sales, in part because it calls its sponsored posts “allied e-mail” instead of ads and has sold deals for restaurants it has also reviewed.

“That’s a very old media way of thinking about things,” said Ben Lerer, 29, co-founder and chief executive of Thrillist. “This is not a digital magazine that sells some stuff. This is the beginning of what a new media company looks like.”

Many Web publishers sell things, like restaurant meals and spa services on the Sugar blogs, which are aimed at young women; designer clothes on DailyCandy, a local e-mail newsletter for women; and books on Salon. But the trend of mixing commerce and content is not limited to online publications or to those that write about soft news.

This month, companies including The New York Times and Meredith Corporation, publisher of Ladies’ Home Journal, announced that they would team up with an e-commerce company, Group Commerce, to sell daily deals. The Times will introduce e-mail discounts for restaurants, events and travel from advertisers, and Meredith will sell deals to subscribers, like children’s products to readers of Parents magazine.

Debates about the divide between commerce and content on the Internet have been going on since the mid-1990s, said Steve Outing, director of the Digital Media Test Kitchen at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Journalism. But now “the lines are just definitely a lot more blurred,” he said. “Depending on the site, a lot of the time you can’t necessarily tell the difference” between ads and editorial, including on Thrillist, he said.

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