The Atlantic’s Wirecutter-Style Review of Wirecutter

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Written by Brook Schaaf

Wirecutter, beloved by affiliate marketers and once lauded by The Atlantic as “admirably restrained,” seems to be facing a decline in popularity.

This quote captures the sentiment and thesis of an updated review from The Atlantic: “To hear former staffers tell it, Wirecutter’s founding spirit was diluted over time as a result of the Times’ effort to chase scale.”

This “founding spirit” is meant to act as a guide for Wirecutter’s researcher-writers looking to entice readers to buy certain products. “Your pain as a reviewer translates into another person not having that pain,” said founder Brian Lam, with the remuneration being a commission earned.

The piece’s author, The Atlantic staff writer Charlie Warzel, describes the site as “a service-y complement to the newspaper’s own journalism,” coming remarkably close to “service journalism,” a term of art in our space. The approach is journalistic (in the favorable sense of the term) and provides a service by acting as a key layer of filtration for the purchaser, who has to confront a “too-big” internet “filled with too much stuff.”

As affiliate consultant Adam Weiss noted to Martech Record in a Slack channel, the piece totally misses the perceived demand of content for SEO purposes. Mike Mallazzo of Brandable offered further conjecture that “WC exists within the context of a very specific NYT corporate strategy … and for better or worse, serves that strategy very well.” This seems about right to me. “Publish or perish,” as the academics say.

The model has proven so successful that Ben Frumin, Wirecutter’s current editor-in-chief, told The Atlantic that “the internet is so awash with reviews now that it can make the genre feel like a commodity.”

Of course, the visitor’s attention and trust must be retained. If the trust is lost, as this piece describes, more traffic will likely be lost. “Multiple former Wirecutter employees told me [author Warzel] that they see a broad shift, with people migrating to trust influencers and people they know (or feel that they know) over institutions. So if review sites are the new coupon sites, perhaps influencers are the new review sites.”

Contrary to Warzel’s opinion, I am inclined to agree with Mallazzo — that the chosen strategy has been and will continue to be successful because Wirecutter has actually chosen a somewhat balanced approach between last week’s example of eschewing monetization and growth and scaling geometrically to truly be all things to all market segments, which leaves a nice market opening for influencers and everyone else.

My hope is that The Atlantic’s article ten years from now is once again favorable.

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