In yet another triumph for the rapid ascent of ecommerce, 2017 is the first year that the majority of gifting purchases will happen online instead of in stores, according to Deloitte’s annual holiday survey.

Throughout the 20th century, third-party retailers and large department stores reigned supreme because they held the power to funnel consumer demand. People went to big stores to shop from hundreds of different brands and when the holidays rolled around, it was logical for these stores to assemble gift guides, showcasing the most promising products and brands. Retailers decided which brands it would feature prominently in its windows, catalogs, and product displays—decisions that had a significant impact on a brand’s sales.  

However, as shopping moves online, traditional retailers are losing power. Digital media companies are much better aligned—and incentivized—to curate and disseminate gift guides online, replacing department stores as essential holiday distribution.

This shift is happening for two main reasons:

  1. While traditional print publications, including magazines and newspapers, often made gifting guides and recommendations, customers lacked the means to make a direct purchase—buying a given item necessitated going to a store or making a phone call. As a result, print publications could not track the sales they helped foster, which meant there was no way for them to generate revenue based off of their efforts. But on the internet, digital media sites can track the entire journey from discovery (learning about the product) to conversion (checking out online), and get paid accordingly.  
  2. Intense brand and product competition in almost every category is creating significant noise. This makes finding the right gifts for the right people—and then ensuring the companies are of quality and provide on-time delivery—very challenging. As the number of options has skyrocketed exponentially, shoppers need direction about where to browse and buy.

For these reasons, media companies are winning over new levels of consumer attention and spending, particularly when it comes to gifting. Many digital media sites are placing increasing emphasis on their holiday gift guides, hoping to point shoppers in the right direction in moments of confusion and paralysis. These initiatives give publications a piece of the holiday-sales pie, while growing their website traffic and relevance.

Digital media companies now have an immense amount of power in distinguishing the winners from the losers and broadcasting these decisions to tens of millions of people. For example, The New York Times’ purchase of The Wirecutter, a product review site, supercharged its gift guide this year, giving it both additional expertise and a load of commercial relationships with brands. BuzzFeed is also using its massive reach, modern personality and growing Product Lab arm to feature both its own and third-party products. When digital media companies publish content that leads to sales, they can extract increasingly sizeable affiliate fees.

For brands, this is new territory. The potential online reach—especially with a boost from a media company—is massive, and media sites often send traffic directly to a brand’s website, which allows it to build direct relationships with customers. Even with an affiliate fee, which can range anywhere from 5-15% of sales on average, there is still plenty of margin for brands.

Even so, digital media is often unpredictable and nearly impossible to control. Most products will not make it to a gift guide—there simply isn’t enough room for all of them. For the majority of products that get left out, it’s much harder to cut through the noise. A brand can try to compensate by advertising heavily during the holiday season, but the cost to be heard, in the face of ferocious competition, is only rising.

This is also uncharted territory for media companies. While they are used to swaying public opinion, few reputable ones profit directly off of the subjects they report on. Product endorsements, conversely, have direct financial benefits. With media companies entering into a growing number of affiliate relationships with brands—which account for increasing percentages of their overall revenue—the lines between business and editorial teams are blurring.

Media companies must be careful about how they use this power and they need to be transparent about their financial relationships. Brands should be wary of relying too heavily on the sales boosts that accompany press features, since these relationships are precarious. When the Times recommended a coffee machine in its 2017 Gift Guide, an outpouring of negative comments about the machine’s speed and size led the outlet to rescind its recommendation—a major credibility hit for both the Times and the coffee company. Tying the success of your brand to a distribution channel you do not control is nearly futile. This, however, is nothing new.