For CafePress, Tags Are It

Imagine for a moment that you want to market 25 million different products online. Now imagine that many of those products are timely items strongly linked to events in the news. Finally, imagine that you have to add almost a million new products a week to your line—not to mention taking 1 million out. How do you get all those things up on the Web in the most efficient manner?

If you’re CafePress, specialist purveyor of snarky T-shirts and irreverent mouse pads to the iconoclasts of the world, you do two things. First, you institute an on-demand supply chain that guarantees you’re not stuck with a warehouse full of items relating to last year’s news—say, running shorts making some comment about the Runaway Bride. And second, you enlist the Internet’s army of bloggers to help you sell your merchandise and get yourself in on the ground floor of “tag-vertising”.

In case you’re not familiar, CafePress is one of a number of online markets that have sprung up to let graphic designers—or people with just one good graphic idea—get their novelty products to market. According to CafePress, its Web site averages more than 6 million unique visitors per month; more than 1,000 new independent shops join the CafePress.com network daily, and the site adds about 25,000 new unique items every day.

Basically, CafePress member merchants upload their designs to CafePress. The company gives them an online store to sell from, produces the item on demand, handles payments, ships the order, and sends off a check to the merchant.

All of which brings us back to tagging. When the merchants send their designs to CafePress, they tag them with keywords that describe the categories to which they’re relevant, much the way users uploading photos or bookmarks to community sites tag their output to describe and organize it properly.

Gradually it dawned on the CafePress operators that they could use those tags to build more relevance into the product ads that the company ran on its network of Web site affiliates. Most of these are blogs, which tend to match the merchandise offered by CafePress in the strength and contrariety of their opinions.

“The tagging infrastructure is the foundation of how we allow people to search our marketplace,” says Maheesh Jain, CafePress co-founder and vice president of business development. “With the rise of contextual advertising and of blogging in general, tagging is becoming a big element in how people are identifying the content of their posts. So it just made sense for us to connect blogs and Web publishers to the content on our site through tagging.”

The result is TopicAds, which lets CafePress place ads on Web pages based on the tags the publishers use to describe their content. It’s not literally contextual advertising, because CafePress servers are looking not at the actual page content but the keywords that publishers use to describe that content. That being said, it works in the same way that contextual ads do, by finding the most relevant and timely ads related to that topic and serving them up for visitors.

Until the launch of TopicAds, CafePress was serving static banners that related generally to the topic of the blog but couldn’t target specific products. “With this product, we can continually have relevant designs,” Jain says. “Especially in politics, where there’s something going on every minute of the day, you can bring timely products through the ad channel.”

Web publishers who opt into CafePress TopicAds can earn a 20% share of the sales revenue from their site; that might be a bit less attractive than getting paid for ad click-throughs by Google’s AdSense program, but most CafePress merchants are probably not in a position to pay for anything less than sales. Web sites can choose a kid-friendly version of the program if they wish. (CafePress does not use explicit images, but some of the language can get adult.) All that’s required on their end is to ad a line of HTML code on their site and then to tag new content before it is added. The company is now working on plug-ins and wizards that should automate the process of configuring the ads to fit pages produced in TypeScript, WordPress and the other popular blogging software programs.

CafePress launched its affiliate program last October, and Jain says it now numbers “well over 10,000.” Right now, at least, a relatively high percentage of those are blogs. “As a company, we tend to have a high penetration within the blog community,” he says. “They tend to be creative and opinionated. They’re creating a lot of the content today, and we wanted the relationship between their content and our products to be a bit stronger.” Many CafePress sellers are also bloggers.

One problem could keep CafePress’ tagvertising model from catching on with either Web content publishers or advertisers: spam. To work, the system depends on merchants and publishers using tags properly, and a seller determined to have an ad show up in lots of placements might be tempted to tweak his tags to make sure his goods show up wherever bloggers are talking about the hot story of the moment. Jain says that while most CafePress merchants are scrupulous about tagging their designs accurately, the company has already taken on the job of looking at the thousands of new images uploaded daily for intellectual property infractions. So checking merchant tags will not be much of an added burden.

“We’ll integrate that process into the reviews that we already do, to make sure that the tags are relevant and to ensure the quality of the system,” Jain says.

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