CNN unveiled Underscored, a new e-commerce review and information platform, on Thursday. The platform, which will compete with The New York Times’s Wirecutter, is a shopping guide that recommends lifestyle, tech, health, and travel products and services based off affordability and quality. Underscored makes money based off advertising, but also through affiliate links on the website. This means that each product has a link to an online merchant where the user can buy said product. If they purchase the product, Wirecutter receives a commission.
Affiliate marketing online is a several billion dollar industry, but that does not mean it is without its qualms. Since each outlet now has a financial interest in selling products, there are questions of conflict-of-interest and whether it can objectively review products. For websites connected to news organizations like Wirecutter and Underscored, the need to prove trust is all the greater. CNN says that Underscored will have its own writers and the team will be separate from the editorial organization of CNN. Furthermore, Underscored, much like Wirecutter, has a disclaimer at the top of the webpage saying that they earn money from people clicking the links. Underscored also has another disclaimer at the bottom, including that “CNN news staff is not involved at all in the selections or product reviews.”
Further underscoring how important keeping CNN editorial and Underscored separate is the visual differentiation. CNN’s iconic red logo is black and in a square (although the CNN logo in a square has become popular on both television and digital under CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker) and the actual CNN logo is smaller than the Underscored logo.
However, Underscored will get to take advantage of CNN’s great reach online, including its website, social media, and newsletter advertising. However, CNN says that any promotion of Underscored will be labelled as such so readers do not confuse it for CNN’s journalism content.
CNN also says that it will follow all FTC guidelines on the matter. As for how CNN will obtain the products (many reviewers receive the item in advance from the maker, but that raises conflict-of-interest questions, and Consumer Reports buys theirs, but that causes their reviews to be later than others), a CNN source says that “CNN will accept the products directly from companies if they offer them.”
“On occasion we may reach out if we think we’ll want to cover them. In that case, if they decide to give them to us, we inform them that we can’t guarantee that we will cover them and also ask if they would like us to return the products as well.”
While CNN does one of the strongest digital news organizations and has been spending heavily, this shows that they are still looking for ways to monetize the online.