Ecommerce for publishers: how to succeed at publishing commerce 

The publishing world is in the throes of digital transformation. Whether it’s through selling digital material, such as e-books, e-courses, digital archives, or even selling printed books online, more and more publishers are hoping to maximise their digital revenue.  

Savvy publishers are increasingly using online stores, digital catalogues, and social commerce to maximise their online revenue streams. 

We have been creating and helping run ecommerce stores for publishers for pretty much as long as ecommerce stores have been around. We know that there’s a lot to consider when it comes to ecommerce technology and strategy, especially when part of your product mix includes digital products. 

Here are some of the key things we have learned about publisher ecommerce along the way… 

Being strategic about your platforms and services  

You have probably heard that WordPress, coupled with WooCommerce, provides an excellent foundation for publishers. The combination offers built-in front-end tools, flexibility, and a user-friendly interface. However, recognising the diversity of your audience and content formats is crucial. For e-reading, you may want to explore specialised solutions that cater specifically to this niche. 

For example, we often work with a mix of our own specialist systems with WordPress: this is the norm in digital publishing. Do not be surprised if you have a whole host of systems and platforms, rather than a “does all” product – these are increasingly rare and often become victims of technical obsolescence.  

There are also new ways to think of website content management such as the headless CMS, so don’t feel like you “have to” work with WordPress. It is all about finding a tool that best aligns with your systems and processes, and having access to built-in features that are not cost-effective to custom code from scratch. 

Invest in your user journeys 

When mapping out your digital user journeys, you will probably unearth multiple competing customer purposes throughout your website, so be clear on what customer experience you are speaking to and where. (E.g. you may have beginner vs expert content, website areas aimed at authors vs readers, different content catalogues for different professional services etc.).   

  • Be explicit about what you expect users to do on your online store, whether that’s a download, sign-up, subscribe etc. Do not obfuscate. 
  • Offer different journeys for different user groups. Think about how you can speak to different user groups through visuals, branding, your menu structure, copywriting etc. 
  • Have a clear journey for your key target groups: this could even be achieved through different sub brands or websites.  

Plan for digital support queries 

Be prepared for issues with your digital downloads and products, ranging from lost passwords to browser compatibility. You need to plan for support queries and have proper systems in place. 

  • The gold standard for support for digital users is a mixture of automated and built-in support. For example, you want users to have the ability to easily request a new password and self-serve, but you also want to give them a way to get in touch with you or your tech team. 
  • You may want to give out admin or super user accounts for entry-level user management, especially if you work with institutions. This can help streamline support requests.  
  • At the same time, you should also make it clear how people can get in touch with you for a tech support issue, especially when it comes to crashes and product development. Give people the option to submit feedback, not just report on errors.  

Top tip: automated crash reports and contextual help directly from your online store or e-reading platform will help diagnose technical problems. 

Maximising ecommerce data 

Data is one of the key challenges for brands online: collecting it, retaining it, storing it, visualising it, and then crucially, acting on it. As a publisher with an ecommerce arm, learn how to make data your ally and integrate your ecommerce platform with the rest of your business systems.  

In our experience, this is where integrations come into play: integrate your CRM tools with your online store to be able to accurately track and follow users. More usage and reading data will help you give better product recommendations and even make key technical decisions on which products to load etc.  

If you have a print or wholesale arm of the business, create a bridge between the digital and the physical through inventory management and ERP software integrations.  

Learn how to think about data in terms of these processes: data collection, retention, storage, and then, storytelling. The cycle of data should be an essential part of your digital ecommerce journey. Documenting your data architecture will help you create a bridge between tech and strategy. 

Read our blog post on big data

Understanding your product architecture 

When thinking of bringing your product catalogue online, recognise how important architecture is to content discovery. 

You should spend a lot of time researching your niche and speaking to users and user groups to find out how they are likely to search for and find your content. 

  • Product catalogues should be displayed clearly, but keep in mind that products may exist in multiple categories.  
  • Product collections: how can you serve your content to your customers in engaging ways? Think about organising content through topics, themes, industries etc.  
  • Categories based on interest can allow the user to self-serve. 
  • Search is an essential part of content discovery for publishers, so invest in a good search experience. (TimeSearch, our search engine, is one of the specialist publisher tools we have created to help with this).  

Users are busy, offer them information fast 

The digital world can be frenetic, especially when you are in the business of education and sharing information. 

When looking through digital material, users want to get where they are going fast. In your online store, ensure your content journeys are speedy and user oriented. 

  • Have clear content categories, quick links, online user guides etc. 
  • Now with generative AI, you can offer users even better chatbot and search engines to help them search through your catalogue even faster. 
  • Pre-filled forms can also help users convert faster and save time.  

Form optimisation  

Many online systems rely on forms for data collection, for example for creating reader and customer accounts etc.  

Forms are great ways to issue things such as content licences, gather customer data, but they can also be tricky to master from a UX perspective. You will need to strike a fine balance between conversions and data capture. Remember that you want to collect enough data for marketing purposes, but you also don’t want to put the user off or create unnecessary barriers to conversion. 

Forms can also be open to spam attacks so you will need to lock them down and make them secure. 

How good is your IAM? 

Identity and access management is another overlooked element of publisher ecommerce, but we have had a lot of success upgrading clients into more comprehensive IAM systems like SSO (single sign-on). Logging in once and being able to access all your content and their records in one place is a massive gamechanger for customers who will not be impressed by being asked to log in multiple times in multiple places.  

Think about it like this: logging in is a potential customer experience killer and you don’t want to mess it up, so be demanding when it comes to your account creation tools.  

Streamlining your identity and access management is also a key cybersecurity pillar as more streamlined systems are easier to manage and keep secure.  

SEO is not a one-off  

SEO is not a thing you can just turn on, do once, and set and forget. It is a constantly evolving set of practices that help users discover your content and brand. 

From content to technical, you need to have a SEO strategy that encompasses your commercial goals as staying relevant and discoverable requires consistent effort.  

Regularly update your content, adapt to changing algorithms, and employ ethical SEO practices to ensure that your audience can easily find your content and engage with your brand. 

Accessibility matters 

An often-overlooked aspect of ecommerce is accessibility. Future-proof your online store by making it as accessible as possible. This includes designing an intuitive user interface, optimising for screen readers, and ensuring compatibility with assistive technologies. Prioritising accessibility not only expands your audience but also aligns with ethical and legal standards. 
 

Serving the same content in many ways 

Rather than incessantly creating new content, focus on serving your existing content in multiple ways. Repurposing and reformatting content can breathe new life into your material, reaching different segments of your audience. This not only maximises the value of your content but also provides a more comprehensive user experience. 

For example, you can create curated collections or offer unlimited licences for people who want to access all your material. You may also want to have specific licences for educational institutions that are tied into other content bundles and deals.  

Focus on creating better specification 

Last, but not least, think very carefully before you dive into your ecommerce project. We often see brands jump in with an online store, then having to take a step back and slow down when they realise that they have not considered a crucial element.  

Detailed specification is key: really take the time to plan meticulously, considering the user experience, payment gateways, security measures, and integration with other systems. A well-thought-out specification ensures a smoother implementation. 

Also, monetising online content is very different to selling books in-store, so invest in good consultancy support when it comes to growing your online revenue as a publisher. 

In conclusion, strategic data planning, diversified content delivery, and meticulous project specifications are key elements in leveraging ecommerce for publishers. By adopting these practices, publishers can unlock the full potential of their digital content, expanding their audience and revenue streams in the competitive online landscape.