As an entrepreneur who has always paid close attention to the innovation surrounding the digital landscape, it's astounding to see the revolutionary impact e-commerce has had in the last decade. We all know the major players--Amazon, eBay, Zappos--and with recent Alibaba IPO (the biggest initial public offering ever), it's apparent that e-commerce companies are staking their claims as the power players of this generation with a business model that can no longer be ignored.

Recognizing this opportunity, the number of e-commerce startups has increased significantly in recent years, but one major challenge separates the giants from the upstarts: how to acquire users and build a loyal audience of repeat customers.

On the other side of the spectrum, we've also witnessed the rise of digital content creation and the evolution of the web publishing industry overall, whether it's digitally native brands like The Huffington Post and Mashable or established incumbents like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. These properties have dedicated audiences of millions who return daily, yet as "traditional" digital advertising continues to become commoditized, web publishers struggle to monetize at the same scale as their e-commerce counterparts. Therein lies the problem.

Beyond e-commerce: social and native commerce

Over the past couple of years, a handful of innovators have reached the same conclusion that now seems so very obvious: The integration of content and commerce can exist outside the banner ad. They have begun to focus on the "next gen" opportunities around e-commerce, many of the opportunities fueled by social and the changing media landscape. Fancy, a "social commerce" platform launched by serial entrepreneur Joe Einhorn, was one of the first to jump on the e-commerce convergence bandwagon. In one of his first interviews after the launch, he talked about his thinking around building the Fancy:

"[We're asking] what is the medium that people are ultimately going to be consuming this information in? If we really know what things look like, their colors and their shapes, we can be a really rich data set. We've created a fun social commerce system, but we’re also really trying to take on challenges that will set us apart."

Einhorn's vision took off, and with celebs like Kanye West and Ashton Kutcher as fans, the platform has attracted millions of users to discover and consume products in a different way.

The challenge, or shall we say opportunity, today is to understand how to connect with your customers while giving them every reason to stay within your "4 digital walls" once you get them there. After all, brands (whether non-profits or multi-billion dollar companies) spend inordinate amounts of time attracting and retaining customers.

What is native commerce?

The bigger question now becomes how to seamlessly integrate commerce into the content experience while maintaining distinct editorial guidelines. The answer is a recently emerging concept proving to be wildly successful--what those in-the-know call, "native commerce" whereby relevant product recommendations are integrated directly into the content experience.

One of the most compelling aspects of native commerce has proven to be its flexibility. At its core, native commerce solves both issues facing the e-commerce and digital content businesses and organically delivers the most relevant products to the most engaged audiences in the places and at the times they’re most likely to want to learn about and buy them.

A few other successful examples include Thrillist and their tightly woven integration of JackThreads’ products, Gawker Media's new type of embeddable product recommendations throughout its articles via a tight integration with Amazon and its own Kinja platform, and The Next Web leveraging email, social, editorial channels to introduce curated, highly relevant products with a fully native checkout flow. These efforts provide readers personalized product recommendations in the channels they actually care about. Loyal readers discover recommended products, deals, and services, and then become repeat consumers without taking them out of the branded experience they've come to expect.

You may be thinking "native commerce sounds a lot like native ads"--and while they share the same context/medium, native commerce shifts what has proven to be a viable and effective tactic for advertisers in favor of the publishers. Instead of promoting loosely related products as native advertising does, native commerce recommends targeted products and services that fit audience interests. In addition, by keeping users on-site and allowing them to purchase relevant products, publishers can close the loop on a process they were already facilitating but, previously, not owning.

The opportunity for publishers, consumers and brands

Done right, native commerce allows publishers to monetize, engage and grow audiences incrementally with a proven tactic that complements digital advertising or any other existing revenue-generating tactic. Thrillist makes approximately 80 percent of its revenue from commerce, while sites like The Next Web and Cult of Mac are generating seven figures annually in gross sales through their own branded stores.

Consumers already discover, learn about, and realize they want to purchase products through content creators they trust; the only difference now is that consumers can now buy the products directly from those same publishers instead of dropping off to buy them elsewhere. Not only does this add new revenue opportunities for a publisher and keep its audience from leaving, but it also makes the entire relationship stronger--readers now become customers.

Brands similarly continue to benefit with exposure through target media outlets with a new revenue-driving solution (with zero upfront cost) that gets products and services in front of themost relevant audiences.

Thus, native commerce provides a consumer-centric monetization channel for publishers and brands alike, through compelling, useful content and an experience which continues to nurture precious relationships with those who matter most: the target audience.