Episode #19 – The Performance Marketing Spotlight with Leilani Han

About Our Guest

Over the last dozen+ years, I’ve cultivated a reputation for building best-in-class teams and partnerships in the affiliate space. As the Executive Director of Commerce at Wirecutter, the product-recommendation site owned by the New York Times, I’m responsible for driving a partnership strategy that serves our readers off-platform and in turn drive year over year revenue growth for the company.

My background in the advertiser, network (advertiser and publisher development), and now the publisher side of affiliate brings a unique perspective to my approach in growing our core affiliate business and strategic partnerships while staying true to Wirecutter’s mission of serving our readers first.


In this episode, our host Marshall Nyman is joined by Leilani Hani, executive director of commerce at New York Times Wirecutter. Leilani shares her journey in the performance marketing space, starting from her early experiences with startups to her significant roles at CJ and eventually transitioning to the publisher side at Wirecutter. Through candid insights, she details the meticulous process behind Wirecutter’s product reviews and offers valuable advice for brands and agencies looking to partner with them. Tune in to discover the secrets of successfully working with Wirecutter and gain a deep understanding of the thriving commerce content landscape.



Marshall Nyman [00:00:03]:
Hello and welcome to the performance marketing Spotlight. I’m your host, Marshall Nyman, founder and CEO of Nymonco. Each episode, I will be bringing you someone with deep experience in the performance marketing space, where they will highlight their experiences within the industry. Today I have Leilani Hahn, executive director, commerce at New York Times Wirecutter. Welcome to the podcast, Leilani.

Leilani Hani [00:00:29]:
Thanks so much for having me, Marshall.

Marshall Nyman [00:00:31]:
Of course, very excited to have you on today. I was fortunate enough to share the stage with you last year at PI Live and so excited to have another conversation with you today. Likewise, would love for you to introduce yourself to the audience so they could get to know you a bit.

Leilani Hani [00:00:46]:
Sure. So, Leilani Hahn, as you mentioned, I head up the commerce team at New York Times Wirecutter. I’m actually a San Francisco Bay area native, but I have lived in sunny Santa Barbara for almost seven years now. I had the opportunity to move there because I was working for CJ at the time and I’ve never looked back. I totally get why people don’t leave and some things that I like to do in my spare time. I go to a lot of concerts with my husband and friends and very into craft west coast ipas specifically that. That’s all I drink and they’re so accessible here in SoCal, which is amazing. So yeah, spending a lot of time outdoors and enjoying everything that SoCal has to offer with my loved ones.

Marshall Nyman [00:01:28]:
Awesome. Well, you’re speaking to me. I love a good ipa and was at a couple concerts this past weekend and kept running into people that I know from the industry. So always fun. Would love to know how you got your start in the performance marketing space.

Leilani Hani [00:01:42]:
Yeah. So kind of a classic story of coming up in Silicon Valley startups. My second and third jobs out of college were at these startups and I was a junior level marketing generalist. And I always say I highly recommend startups. If you’re in your early 20s, you’re young, you have energy, and you get so much thrown at you, which is just this incredible opportunity to learn and you still have the energy for it. So I just kind of fell into it. I was really tasked with being a jack of all trades, and I dabbled in it for the first time probably about 17 years ago, dating myself a bit. And I honestly didn’t know what I was doing at all.

Leilani Hani [00:02:21]:
I was following very specific instructions that somebody had just handed over to me for something like super tactical. Right. It was basically publisher side of affiliate, but I didn’t know what I was doing. But when I actually got into it. I think it was around 2008, and that was when the second startup that I was at, they had me support the affiliate program. And so over time I gained an experience and so did my responsibilities that grew in terms of managing the affiliate program itself. And so at the end of 2011 though, that’s when I got the call from CJ. They were recruiting for their advertiser development team.

Leilani Hani [00:02:55]:
And for me it was like this dream, right? I had been at startups for maybe five years or so, and I was like, oh my God, you only focus on just like one marketing channel and have a team to work with. And it was like this established company. So I was super excited for that opportunity. So I made that jump. I started with them January of 2012, and I have been pretty much solely focused on affiliate ever since then.

Marshall Nyman [00:03:18]:
Wow, that’s amazing. So you were at CJ for quite some time. Would love to hear about the different roles you had there.

Leilani Hani [00:03:25]:
Yeah, I started in advertiser development, like I mentioned. Like now it’s actually referred to as client development. And I had a portfolio of advertisers. I was responsible for managing the overall channel strategy for them across a whole bunch of different verticals. And that was amazing because I got to learn about different verticals, different program management strategies. I really got to lean into leading teams of more junior team members and I got to be a part of their development, which I have since become really passionate about. And then after a few years, I had the opportunity to join the publisher development team, and that was stepping into a new role that was responsible for managing enterprise content publishers. And so this was back in 2016 when commerce content, I think, was really just kind of in its infancy and starting to come into its own.

Leilani Hani [00:04:14]:
That term didn’t actually exist yet. And I was working with the portfolio that ranged in levels of maturity, and most of them had experience with Amazon and sub affiliate networks, but we’re branching out to working directly with brands via the networks. And so that was really the first time I got to start working with all of the peers within the commerce content space. Today, that Wirecutter is among awesome. Yeah. And then the final role that I actually had there, that publisher development team restructured, and then I got to be responsible for. I had a small team. We were responsible for recruiting new publishers and also identifying the new to network publishers, the ones that probably got in for one specific advertiser, and they’re like, oh, we’ll just do this one thing.

Leilani Hani [00:04:58]:
But they actually had the promise to scale to something much bigger. So we really provided consultation services. We advised on things like how to develop your pitch and where does affiliate actually fit into the broader consumer offerings that you have, and how can we actually consult on your product roadmap to expand your possibilities with an affiliate? We negotiate rates on their behalf and so forth. And so that was super fun because I actually got to work with some up and comers. Like, one of my favorite stories is that I got to work with a firm back when affiliate was just a project that they were working on. But this was also a time, again, where a bunch of commerce content publishers were really coming to the network. So I got to work with Vox and Consumer Reports and help them get started with all the networks. Well, specifically CJ.

Marshall Nyman [00:05:50]:
Amazing. So you had a great start at CJ.

Leilani Hani [00:05:53]:
It’s definitely, I loved my time there.

Marshall Nyman [00:05:55]:
Launch pad for a lot of people in the industry. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had on the podcast that it was their first job straight out of college. So you had a great run there. And what made you make the switch to the publisher side?

Leilani Hani [00:06:07]:
Yeah, I mean, it was tough because, like I said, I really enjoyed my time there. But like 2018 or so, I think I found myself ready for a new challenge. I’d been there in total for about five and a half years at that point. And I wouldn’t say that I was actively looking, but just kind of keeping an eye open. And my good friend Linda Mann, she had just left Wirecutter to join digital trends. And so there was an opening on that team. And I happened to know Jessica Spira, who was the head of revenue at the time for Wirecutter. I knew her from my time as the enterprise account director at CJ, managing Ziff Davis.

Leilani Hani [00:06:40]:
And so it was, I mean, I guess you could say the stars and planets were aligned, so to speak. It was kind of this perfect progression of this journey that had started in publisher development. And I had really spent all this time immersing myself in this world of commerce content, which was just kind of starting. Right. And I just loved it. I loved the service journalism aspect of it that it was such, at the time, really kind of a unique take on affiliate. You have to take that inherent trust that you have built with your readers to actually have them take action and purchase that specific thing that you’re, you know, Wirecutter was and still is at the pinnacle of that trust. And, you know, it doesn’t hurt that that was maybe a year or so after the New York Times had acquired Wirecutter, and it was such a huge validation of not just the business model, but also Wirecutter’s unique approach and the way that we were really looking at the way that we wanted to be.

Leilani Hani [00:07:39]:
True service to the. So, you know, it was just kind of a no brainer by the time the offer came around.

Marshall Nyman [00:07:45]:
That’s always the best, where it’s an easy decision.

Leilani Hani [00:07:48]:
Yeah, definitely.

Marshall Nyman [00:07:50]:
So for anybody who may not be familiar with Wirecutter, I know a lot of us know New York Times. They’ve been around for, I would say, a very long time. But tell us a little bit about Wirecutter and what makes them unique.

Leilani Hani [00:08:02]:
Sure. So, Wirecutter, we are the product recommendation arm of the New York Times, and we’re known for our very deeply researched and rigorously tested product reviews and recommendations. And from the very beginning, we’ve really prided ourselves on taking this approach of being, like, the smart and helpful friend, the one who just has the in on all the best things. And as it relates to the relationship that we have with the Times, there’s definitely many areas where we do collaborate together, certainly on the digital side and then definitely on the audience side, but we do remain separate from the newsroom. I will say that whether or not you’re in the industry, you may know this, but we’re somewhat infamous for our very stringent separation between business and editorial, and for being incredibly thorough and detailed. At one point, we had reviews that ran upwards of 10,000 words. Right. That’s pretty lengthy.

Leilani Hani [00:08:59]:
But I think for the person who’s really discerning and wants to have the confidence in knowing that they can trust our recommendation, that is a nice way to have that confidence. And then if you actually take the time to read through it, I think that’s where this certain genese qua kind of comes to life about the reviews that I think it’s actually kind of hard to put your finger on what makes us so special. I mean, admittedly, I didn’t drink the Kool Aid until after I started working like this. I like to refer it to as this unexpected joy that comes from having a product that does exactly what you want it to do, but then has certain surprise and delight moments that you just weren’t looking for. And the funniest thing is, it’s coming from these, at times, very utilitarian products. And so there’s something very special about having just the right thing do exactly what you want. And I think another thing that makes us unique, we don’t recommend products just for the sake of trying to sell you a product. We are here to provide advice.

Leilani Hani [00:10:00]:
And so sometimes that actually comes down to telling you to not buy something, or we give you advice on how to take care of that product that we’ve recommended, how to clean it, and to repair it so that it actually lasts over time.

Marshall Nyman [00:10:13]:
Yeah, I love wire cutter, and it’s.

Leilani Hani [00:10:16]:
Because you love to hear it.

Marshall Nyman [00:10:18]:
Thorough, in depth reviews. And one of the things that I enjoy is how long they are and how detailed they are. And if you ever go to the very bottom of one of the reviews and you expand the bottom, it’ll tell you all the research that they did, what went into the research, what products they reviewed, and that, to me, always sheds a lot of light on, okay, this is who they’re testing. This is the process. I can really trust this. So I definitely use it when I’m trying to decide if this is a product I want to buy. So good to hear all of that information.

Leilani Hani [00:10:49]:
Quick question for you, then. Since you said that you are a fan, what’s the favorite thing that you’ve ever purchased from Wirecutter? Or what’s a recent purchase?

Marshall Nyman [00:10:57]:
What’s a recent purchase? I don’t buy anything online. I’m, like, the worst person.

Leilani Hani [00:11:01]:

Marshall Nyman [00:11:03]:
It was probably something my wife probably bought for one of our babies. I literally. You can’t get a conversion out of me for some reason.

Leilani Hani [00:11:11]:
Except your own clients, right?

Marshall Nyman [00:11:12]:
Yeah, except my clients. But my wife is the one that does all the shopping, so she’ll tell me, oh, I’m looking at this or that, and then I’ll maybe go to wire cutter and kind of say, okay, this is where they’re leaning. Usually. Most of the time, it’s baby gear. What’s the best stroller? What’s the best car seat?

Leilani Hani [00:11:29]:

Marshall Nyman [00:11:30]:

Leilani Hani [00:11:30]:
We’ve gotten lots of feedback from parents that they go straight to us for their baby product recommendations.

Marshall Nyman [00:11:36]:
Yeah. And I do a lot of cooking, so definitely a lot of cookware and cooking product reviews. There’s definitely a lot of good information there.

Leilani Hani [00:11:43]:
Yeah, I have ton of those in my own kitchen.

Marshall Nyman [00:11:47]:
So you’ve been at Wirecutter now for almost six years. Three different roles. Would love to hear about the different roles you originally started in the business development role. Take us through the different roles and where you are now.

Leilani Hani [00:11:58]:
Yeah. So I started as a senior manager. I guess I would describe my overall path at Wirecutter as the evolution of the partnerships track. Really. So when I started, I was actively in a partner management role. So we were basically taking our direct partnerships from a couple of dozen relationships to really expanding that and trying to diversify our overall portfolio in a much more robust way. But along that path, really establishing these best practices across partner management and cross functional workflows, that’s really built the foundation for what we have today and have been able to grow the team from a team of three to ten that are specifically focused on the affiliate side. And now I’m in a role today where I’m part of the leadership team that looks toward the future ambitions of how we’re going to continue to be helpful to our readers, and really translating that into a strategic vision and plan for the team on how we bring those opportunities to life for our partners.

Leilani Hani [00:12:58]:
So not as hands on, not as tactical as I used to be, and sometimes I definitely miss that. But it’s also exciting to know I have this opportunity to be a part of the next phase of Wirecutter.

Marshall Nyman [00:13:11]:
Amazing. So we were talking a little bit about how in depth the reviews are. Would love to hear what goes into the process from start to finish so much.

Leilani Hani [00:13:22]:
These reviews, I mean, depending on the product that we’re talking about, that can take anywhere from weeks to months of research. And that’s not even including all the other components of bringing something to life. Right. That’s just the actual review process itself. And this is really also built upon years of experience that we have, both as an editorial organization, but also when we look at the beat experts, they bring years of their own expertise. We’re also gathering interviews and data from the best sources, which can include subject matter experts. We really go deep over customer reviews to find out what matters to the real people who actually already own this product and how they’re using the things that we’re assessing. And so all these different pieces ultimately help us to figure out the baseline for how people are using it and what the pain points are, what people want to see in these products.

Leilani Hani [00:14:17]:
And this is how we build the basis for how we actually end up testing a product. It’s also helping to inform us in terms of what products we should include in our short list of the items to actually review and in terms of how we’re testing it. Again, we’re going back to how are people using it? What are the pain points? And so this is actually manifested in some really fun examples of the way we test for these real life scenarios. That’s one of the things that we have spoken about in the past. We don’t just test things solely in this very controlled lab setting kind of environment. We go out in the real world. So our travel writer, he ocean surf to see if one of our duffel bags was actually waterproof. Another fun one.

Leilani Hani [00:15:02]:
We have created a room size box which we set on fire to test fireproof safe. And our smart homewriter, when he was testing the smart locks, he taught a six year old how to pick them, which I thought was funny. So I mean, really, our ultimate goal is in this world of this plethora of products that are just stuffed to the gills with all these different features, we want to recommend the high quality things that actually warrant their price. And we don’t push those extra features on you that we don’t believe you’re going to use because these are recommendations for products that we feel should be meant to last and not be replaced every year. And then we are constantly. Our editor in chief likes to call it tending to the garden. He shared with me that I think some people would probably be surprised at. 80% of our journalist time is actually spent on re reviewing, retesting, updating the guides because we can’t just write the piece and walk away from it.

Leilani Hani [00:16:01]:
If we want to be continuously helpful to a reader at any given time, we need to make sure that it’s constantly staying updated.

Marshall Nyman [00:16:09]:
Yeah, products are changing all the time. New products are coming out. So people are always looking for the newest and the best information. So yeah, updating that all the time is important. I think the other thing you said, sometimes it takes weeks or months, I think maybe even sometimes years for some of those reviews, depending on the product. I know it can be a long process. Obviously everybody wants to get their products covered on wirecutter, but what are some things that brands or agencies could take into consideration when maybe trying to introduce a product to wirecutter?

Leilani Hani [00:16:38]:
Great question. And I always like to say this is unique to every publisher. So if you are working with a network rep, definitely lean on them to just get some advice on how to pitch that particular publisher for Wirecutter. Don’t pitch my team. We can’t help you. We don’t make introductions because at the end of the day, our separation is very strict. And so we make sure to really honor that level of editorial integrity. What I would recommend is find out who the writer is and tailor your communications to them.

Leilani Hani [00:17:12]:
Don’t talk about rates or monetization. They’re immediately going to tune you out. They’ll probably toss you back over to us and we can’t help you because this endless cycle of being tossed back and forth, I would also say, never assume that they’re going to write about your product simply because of your pitch. What you want to do is aim for it to get tested. You want to get it into their consideration set. So go look at the review if it already exists, and take a look at what we’ve recommended and what we have not recommended and what are some of the attributes that really surface. And then from there you should focus on your product itself and explain why is it superior or what is the unique value add that it brings to the consideration set that none of these other products have. So try to understand what’s being recommended and point out the differences and why they should consider testing this one next.

Marshall Nyman [00:18:04]:
I hope everyone was listening closely because that was some killer advice. So definitely take that into note when you’re reaching out and trying to figure out who should be. I think a lot of people just quick to say this should be a fit, but really looking at the past reviews and finding those opportunities and helping sell them on why they should review the product I think is really important. So great advice. I think another angle is also sometimes going the pr route and establishing relationships with editors can help kind of go on that other side, keep instances separate from the affiliate things. So shifting the conversation a little bit, we’ve seen a huge boom in commerce content since you started at Wirecutter. What has it been like to see this area just explode?

Leilani Hani [00:18:53]:
It’s been really fun. I mean, it definitely keeps you on your toes because the space becomes busier and more crowded. But actually, I love that it’s such a validation to see this space boom and become such an important component of affiliate programs, especially since I feel like I was there for the beginning stages of this and I feel this way. I think in part because I came up with these people, they used to be my clients, and we become friends over time. And even though we’re technically competitors, it’s also just been really rewarding to see your friends succeed. And overall, we’re helping to further grow this vertical into what it’s become today. And again, despite the fact that friends are competitors and vice versa, it’s also just been helpful to share insights and challenges with each other so we can learn and benefit from our collective experiences. So yeah, it’s been fascinating to see.

Leilani Hani [00:19:47]:
It’s kind of wild to see in comparison where in 2016, where advertisers were just kind of figuring out how to speak differently to this type of a publisher, understanding that you can’t just offer your default rate and a product feed had less meaning for them versus maybe a coupon publisher and being able to see where it is now, where it’s come into this place where there’s agencies that really cater to working with this type of publishers and everyone actually understanding how to work with us and inherently understanding what the why behind the ass that we have is just really gratifying.

Marshall Nyman [00:20:30]:
Yeah, the people are a big part of the industry for sure. I would say I don’t even feel like anybody’s really competitors. We’re all just like colleagues and friends. It’s really not competitors. So it’s funny you say that as well. What are some of the biggest challenges faced working as a publisher in the performance marketing space?

Leilani Hani [00:20:50]:
To be bluntly honest, I’m going to just start first with the margins. I think especially for a commerce content publisher, the overhead is quite significant. It is for any business, for sure. But when you consider, at least for our operations, Wirecutter is a team of over 200 people, and I would say close to two thirds of that are all on our editorial side, primarily journalists, audience development, production. And so there’s like a real overhead cost to that. And then when you think about that relative to figuring out how to adapt your business in real time to the macroeconomic factors that can be happening, the realities of being reliant on these giant tech platforms that do drive a significant portion of your business. So on the one hand, it’s a great model because you have this direct line into whether or not you’re resonating with your readers. And we have that proof of our influence and our value, and our partners really understand that and have this willingness to compensate us for what we believe is a fair value for the independent journalism that we produce.

Leilani Hani [00:21:54]:
But on the other hand, performance based business can be tough when you need to grow your bottom line while the affiliate space continues to mature and innovate.

Marshall Nyman [00:22:04]:
Absolutely. Final question, what has been your favorite part of working in the performance marketing industry?

Leilani Hani [00:22:11]:
The people. The people are amazing. I think once people figure out this amazing secret, not really secrets so much anymore as it was back in the day. But this industry where I feel because we are a performance based business and one side really doesn’t succeed without the other, I feel like we’re all invested in each other’s success that maybe may not be present in some other marketing channels. And so people who fall into it tend not to get out of it. And we’ve all grown to know each other over time, like we just talked about. We’ve become friends. It’s really fun to meet the new people that enter the industry.

Leilani Hani [00:22:46]:
And so it’s just really nice to know that there is this overall community that we have been able to be a part of that continues to grow and to see how affiliate marketing becomes an even more important, integral piece of marketers plans, like year after year.

Marshall Nyman [00:23:05]:
Absolutely. I mean, for me, it’s always been the people, and that’s what’s pulled me into the industry, and then it’s what’s kept me here. Well, before we wrap, I do want to mention one thing. At the end of the month here, February 29, Leilani is going to be speaking at the first Martech record LA event. Really excited about that. Nymo and co. Is also a sponsor, so if you’re thinking about coming out, we’d love to see you there and stop by and say hello. So a big thank you to Leilani from Wirecutter for joining the podcast this week.

Marshall Nyman [00:23:37]:
Really great insights into your background and how to best work with Wirecutter. What is the best way for listeners to connect with?

Leilani Hani [00:23:47]:
You’re able to reach my team at commerce@wirecutter.com. I’m going to be very honest. If you do not carry or sell a wire cutter pick, that is the first requirement for a partnership. Actually, I’m going to start that one over, so let’s cut out that part.

Marshall Nyman [00:24:05]:
Okay? A big thank you to Leilani from Wirecutter for joining the podcast this week. Some great insights into her background and how you can best work with New York Times wirecutter. What is the best way for listeners to connect with you?

Leilani Hani [00:24:19]:
So I should first mention, I would be remiss if I did not, that the first requirement for a partnership is you have to carry or sell a wire cutter recommended product. Everything starts and ends with the wire cutter pick. And so if we don’t recommend something that you carry or sell or that your client doesn’t sell, then we unfortunately don’t have the opportunity to partner. But still send us a shout at commerce@wirecutter.com even if your product may not be a pick today, that doesn’t mean that it may not be in the future. So it’s just a helpful way for us to know who is representing what and how to get in touch with you in the future. If you do carry a wire cutter pick, definitely make a mention of that in your email and let us know what network network you are on and what you’re able to offer. So we’d love to hear from you at Wirecutter.

Marshall Nyman [00:25:06]:
Perfect. Again, thank you. Leilani really appreciated you joining today. If you’ve enjoyed this content. Please give us a like and follow. Thank you for listening in. I’m Marshall Nyman, host of the performance marketing spotlight, signing off. Thank you and have a great day.