According to Clarence Lee, a marketing professor at Cornell University, gift guides have become particularly effective because nearly everything people consume online, from streaming services to crowdsourced travel reviews, conditions us to seek out internet recommendations as a way to feel confident in our choices. “One of the key drivers in the Western world that’s creating this reliance on user reviews is the rise of Amazon,” Lee says. The retail behemoth’s near-endless options can hardly be digested without help from an algorithm or knowledgable human. Sometimes that help comes from reviews on Amazon, but one of the most popular services that The Strategist offers its readers, according to Swerdloff, is its writers’ ability to pull the best products from the depths of the online-shopping giant; she refers to her staff as “Amazonologists.”
Like most problems in life, though, what to get the most finicky person you know can’t always be solved by scrolling Amazon for hours, even if that scrolling is done by the pros. The Strategist makes recommendations all year, so it has a trove of information about the things real people buy and like, based on months of interviews for other guides. “It might be something I learned from a ‘What I Can’t Live Without’ with, like, Victoria Beckham or something,” Swerdloff says. “We do guides to things that might sell out and we talk to trend forecasters.” Doctors, Deadheads, movie stars, Radio City Rockettes—The Strategist has asked them all what they’d like to receive, at one point or another, and used their answers to direct the public at large. I became a fan of the site after one of its writers recommended a particularly waterproof $11 mascara, allowing me to break my years-long addiction to a Chanel version almost three times as expensive.
That dedication to telling people about good stuff, whether it’s done by YouTube celebrities who personally test makeup for hours every day or reporters who ask hundreds of people about the things they actually like each year, is what keeps the gift-guide economy humming along. Fundamentally, the internet’s gift curators are profitable because they’re doing something that readers want: Breaking down the web’s vast, bloated retail apparatus into a form that humans with a life and a family and a job can confidently navigate when they sit down at their laptop after the kids go to bed, ready to tick Christmas shopping off their to-do lists.
For most of the people who make gift guides, it’s not exactly easy money. Nord and Swerdloff both mentioned how time-consuming it is to make decent recommendations—the research and reporting involved aren’t always obvious to those merely scrolling through. Gift-guide season was certainly the bane of my own existence when I was charged with creating them. That’s because the expansion of online shopping hasn’t just made gift guides something readers seek out; it’s also made many people sophisticated enough to spot a bad one. “We do imagine our readers being smart and savvy and being able to smell garbage from a mile away,” Swerdloff says. “Ours are not just a bunch of random crap.”