Today, everybody's in the content business.
But it wasn't always so. In the final years of the last millennium, a print catalog for a teen retailer called Delia*s started showing up addressed to me. I always read the thing cover-to-cover—not for the chunky sandals or stackable lip gloss, but for the narrative. There was a single storyline that ran through every catalog; the text on each page corresponded in some way to whatever outfit or accessory appeared there. None of it was sophisticated. Sometimes Delia*s had Mad Libs-style fill in the blanks. Sometimes it was just a poorly written poem that appeared in 1990s LeTeRriNg LiKe THis. I thought it was brilliant anyway.
Today, those glorious vintage catalogs are listed for as much as $10 apiece on eBay, a retailer that's about to make its own leap into the storytelling business.
Of course, we're used to brands telling stories by now. Pepsi has its own pop culture website, Pepsi Pulse, that curates top-trending entertainment stories from social publishing platforms. Red Bull has its own magazine. MiniCooper, too. All kinds of brands rightly obsess over their Twitter and Facebook publishing strategies.
And so: eBay is hiring editors and long-form writers to help turn its site into a "digital magazine," according to president of eBay Marketplaces Devin Wenig. Since October, the company has had a "chief content curator" act as editor of the site. You can see the beginnings of this digital magazine take shape at "EBay Today," a page that highlights different items or themes with blurbs of information and backstories—and, of course, links to products you can buy. The Pinterest influence seems obvious here, and eBay curates visually-rich collections by sellers on the page. But Wenig told me in an interview that the site is set to dramatically expand its foray into content. He wants eBay to be a retail-publisher, not a social network.
"We're now in the content business," Wenig said. "So, for the first time, eBay has a voice. We're telling stories. We have an editor. We have curators. And we have writers on-staff. You'll see that evolve to some longer-form stories, some really beautiful pictures... It's media-like."
EBay plans to publish the same kind of content that a news organization might want to publish about the company—data-driven stories about the items people are most searching for, infographics depicting surprising top sellers, and so on. This intersection of retail and publishing makes sense to Wenig, who was previously CEO of Thompson Reuters Markets. Just as online communities flourish around ultra-specific sets of interests, eBay will tailor its articles to the niche users who are already the driving force behind eBay.
This strategy will make for a mix of mainstream and targeted content, stories told for a broader eBay audience and for more specific demographics—say, the fixie bike enthusiast or the person who checks the site for rare Invisible Scarlet O'Neil comics. "There are very passionate sub-categories on eBay," Wenig told me. "We want to bring in people from those communities who are influencers, and allow them to begin to tell stories about what they love about eBay, the things that they do, and almost create a community dynamic in some of those verticals."
This content push is based in part on the auction site's plans for adapting to the mobile Internet age. As more and more eBay users flock to mobile, the company wants to encourage people to check eBay every day—and from everywhere—rather than just visiting the site when they're searching for something specific.
And there's no question that eBay's mobile moment has arrived. Half of the sales that happen on the site are—at some point during the transaction—happening on mobile. People now use mobile devices to buy some 12,000 cars via eBay a week, Wenig told me.
"We're entering a post-mobile age now," he said. "Mobile is so important that it's almost silly to talk about mobile."
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