Curation: Custom made

In an effort to make their offerings stand out, more brands are combining online commerce with carefully curated content, helping users to navigate sites and purchase with confidence.

To paraphrase the science fiction series Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the internet is big. Really big. The indexed World Wide Web is currently estimated to consist of nearly 4 billion pages; at the end of 2012 there were 634 million websites, 51 million of which had been added that year; and every minute, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube.

Faced with this unimaginable and still-growing quantity of content, how do people find the products and information they want? For brands in every business, it’s becoming more and more important to have an answer to this question, in order to compete effectively for consumers’ limited attention.

But according to Marc Mayor, chairman of ‘curated ecommerce’ site, they are largely failing. “There is a plethora of choice of products. There’s too much and it’s undifferentiated,” he says. For example, if you’re looking for a kitchen knife on Google, the search engine will offer you about 26 million results.

One way of helping shoppers find the one product they want is via personalisation – sites tailor the experience according to information held about each customer, usually based on browsing habits identified through cookies. At its simplest, that means a different home page for new customers from the one that returning customers would see.

There’s also the option of taking an approach that’s more editorially or creatively driven, using different kinds of content – either aggregated, user-generated or independently-created – to help consumers navigate in the most appropriate direction. This is the approach taken by ToTheTops, which focuses on women’s lifestyle products, sorting them according to the recommendations of experts and celebrities including fashion blogger Bip Ling, ex-footballer Patrick Vieira and TV presenter Ben Fogle.

The site launched in France at the beginning of this year and in the UK in the spring. As Mayor puts it, “the idea is to provide the eyes and ears of experts to guide people towards new products and designers”, however, he also points out the concept is hardly new.

“Magazines have been doing this for ages. We’re taking the same approach but going more in-depth than magazines can, then adding all the convenience of being able to buy directly.”

According to Mayor, what makes the site work is the credibility that the experts bring to it, and the trust that customers have in them.

“The site works as a customisation engine, but it’s not a database approach,” he explains. “It’s about following the lead of the experts, and the content really depends on them. So the first step is people getting to know the experts and then getting to know the products.

“What we find is that a customer’s first purchase comes about three months after joining, then repeat purchase rates are very high. And the average purchase amount increases with each order as the customers see the promise of the site being fulfilled. What’s more, the average purchase value is much higher than for most ecommerce sites, and it has doubled since we opened.”

This content-driven strategy isn’t limited to start-ups. Established brands such as online fashion retailers ASOS and Net-A-Porter similarly use a magazine-style approach to highlight new products and styles. And even brands without an ecommerce model, such as Sainsbury’s Tu clothing brand, have adopted a similar strategy, albeit with a slightly different aim.

“Our website has a specific role within the Tu communication mix – to drive awareness and consideration for the brand between store visits,” says Sainsbury’s digital and content marketing manager Susie Doherty. One way it does this is to feature fashion shoots on Tu’s dedicated area of the Sainsbury’s website, offering a ‘shop the shoot’ function that gives product and pricing information along with a store locator.

Left: Sainsbury’s displays fashion shoots on its website to advertise the Tu clothing range, right: Nokia has shifted customer opinion with online marketing of the Lumia phone

“We operate a ‘browse online, purchase offline’ model and structure our content to support this. We use content to add breadth and create features that give our customers easy-to-follow styling ideas and advice. Our content aims to introduce new customers to the [supermarket own-brand fashion] category and encourage those who currently shop with us to look at parts of the range they may not have previously considered.”

According to Doherty, Sainsbury’s research showed that before being persuaded to purchase, customers wanted to see Tu established as a credible fashion brand and to be shown that a supermarket label can not only be an economical way to shop but also a trend-led and inspiring experience. The brand works with content agency Seven to create fashion content as well as tapping into the knowledge of its own fashion experts, buyers and designers, with the aim of establishing Tu’s credibility.

“Ultimately, we are looking at conversion of Sainsbury’s customers to become Tu customers, but to do that we need to build numbers and interest,” Doherty explains. “We track a range of different online measures: reach, engagement and propensity to purchase. And in addition to site analytics, we use online surveys and focus groups to delve deeper into what kind of content our customers would like to see on the site, as well as watching market trends.

“We know the approach works, as in research we recently ran 43 per cent of Tu customers said that they thought the brand had improved as a result of seeing our new content.”

Nokia is another brand that has used content in an attempt to improve credibility rather than to drive direct sales – a strategy that has so far continued to be employed since Microsoft announced its purchase of the manufacturer’s smartphone division on 3 September. According to Craig Hepburn, Nokia’s global director of digital and social media, the company adopted a content-led approach in the spring of 2012 to address the fact that the brand was no longer seen as cool like competitors Apple and Samsung.

“It’s all about social media,” explains Hepburn, speaking to Marketing Week before the acquisition was announced. “When you buy an expensive item, you want the validation from your social network that you’ve made the right decision. We can’t say we’re cool or trendy; we need our advocates to say that.”

For this reason, Nokia concentrated on curating external content, such as reviews, rather than creating its own.

“We started working with a company in New York called Percolate, which curates content from the web specifically for you,” Hepburn says. “It was really successful, and we found that rather than us writing content, it was curated content that helped bring people in.”

As a result Nokia developed a website it called Switch Hub to pull together content about its products from around the web using hashtags and keywords.

“We called it Switch Hub because it’s all about getting people to switch their decisions,” Hepburn says. It might be argued that the effort has failed to change behaviour at sufficient scale or speed to save Nokia’s business, but he argues that the marketing activity has succeeded in shifting opinions of phones such as the Lumia, even if the generally good reviews and user feedback haven’t yet translated into a high market share.

He also makes the case that Nokia’s approach to online content, curating it on key web pages to assist customers’ browsing, has had a demonstrable effect all the way through their journey of clicks, from discovering links on sites such as Facebook. “Instead of taking them to a product page, they go to a specific, socially determined landing page. As a result, we’re seeing a 30 per cent increase in time on site and a click-through rate to the product pages four times higher than we were getting with the previous landing pages.”

As with Tu and ToTheTops, the human element of the curation is crucial, but in Nokia’s case it is supported by computers selecting relevant content from other sites.

“Content capture is automated, choice of what to publish is human,” Hepburn says. “We use a social media content management system called EngageSciences across all our sites. When the content managers come in, they see a massive list of content and they choose what to publish.”

A key point for Hepburn is to show both positive and negative comments on the brand’s sites. If people just saw positive comments then it wouldn’t work because people wouldn’t believe it, he says. “When people see a balance of comments, that’s a good thing, although we do take out things like swearing.”

Nokia’s key metric for its content strategy is engagement. The brand has developed a framework that breaks this down into four sections: ‘learn more’, ‘buy more’, ‘do more’ and ‘share more’. Learning takes place pre-purchase, while the last two elements relate to consumers’ actual usage of the products and how they discuss it with peers.

“Against each of these we have key performance indicators (KPIs), so, for example, in social media it’s the number of ‘shares’,” Hepburn explains. “The framework defines the KPIs and the KPIs define what content we curate on the site.”

Hepburn points out that most companies used to spend 90 per cent of their marketing budgets on the equivalent of Nokia’s ‘buy more’ phase. The new framework, with its recognition that people are at different phases of ownership of a product through the year, has changed Nokia’s approach.

All these brands have their own take on take on curating content – where Nokia’s revelation was that they didn’t need to create it because it was already out there, ToTheTops leans heavily on its trusted experts – but all are now relying on it to guide consumers towards the products and information they want and need.

As Hepburn summarises, “more and more companies are looking at the curation of content as a tool.”

Sponsored viewpoint

Pierre Naggar Managing director

Sponsored by Turn

If you go back 10 or 15 years, websites were being developed because brands had to have a presence online. Increasingly, websites are a way for brands to provide a better experience through curated content. A good example is an airline company: it’s not just about selling a ticket, but how you can make travel a better experience. But you can only do this based on an understanding of who your consumers are, what their interests are and what their behaviours are.

Airlines need the ability to take in data not just on whether people have bought a plane ticket, but also to categorise it based on people’s bookings – economy versus premium economy versus business class, travelling with children, the destination and where they’re flying from.

If you’re a frequent flyer travelling to Spain, the airline can then curate information about renting a car, booking a hotel or tips about restaurants.

Companies like Turn allow marketers to build a richer profile of their customers and deliver more relevant messages, whether it’s editorial content or marketing and ads.

Research from our Global Digital Audience Report shows that the ‘digital elite’, which consists of the top 2 per cent of brands’ audiences by value, are four times more likely to engage with a brand across channels and 32 times more likely to do so in three or more channels. The ability to deliver personalised content is important and increased time spent on a website is a good measure of success.

You should use both data and judgement, and I always talk about combining art and science. Using technology lets marketers focus more on building and curating relevant content by allowing them to connect the messages and audiences in real time across multiple devices.

Marketers should be channel-agnostic and think about audiences rather than channels. If you look at the past 15 years in digital, and offline as well, our industry has structured itself around media and marketing channels, and strategies have been built with a single-channel focus – big silos where people are looking at TV versus digital, and even within digital it’s display versus search.

But consumers are now on the move – they are going to interact with content across multiple channels. We see that people use their smartphones for research but rarely complete a purchase on them. However, they may browse a lot of content first in order to complete a purchase on a tablet or desktop computer.

It’s critical to understand these behaviours in order to deliver the right content in the right format. If you have a better idea of how people interact with devices, you will curate the right content and this will create better returns for the brand and a better experience for users.

Case study


“ is a ‘socially curated’ ecommerce site. We have 7 million users constantly sharing things they love on the site, then we’ve created the infrastructure to allow merchants to sell them those items.”

That’s how Rory Golod, vice-president of business development at Fancy, describes the start-up that by July 2013 had raised around £380m of funding from investors.

“People go to sites all over the internet, they see things they like, but they can’t always source [where] to buy them. We get rid of that.”

Fancy launched in the first quarter of 2011 and now has users in 75 countries. The social model is similar to Twitter’s: once you sign up for the community, you can follow people whose taste you share, and other people can follow you. When you see something that appeals to you, you can ‘fancy’ it.

According to Golod, as well as the regular users of the site, there are trendsetters who have become mini-curators in their own right, and celebrity curators who select a few items a month to share with the followers of their channel.

“There’s the social curation aspect, but there’s also a discovery element – people come to to discover things,” Golod says. “Users can post things directly from a merchant site or they can upload images they’ve taken themselves. Then, as other people engage with those items, we work with merchants to allow them to sell the items on the site.”

Alongside the social curation, also employs a curation team that chooses 60 items a day to feature on the site. Golod says these can range from a simple iPhone accessory to a piece of furniture, or even a car.

“The quality of the images is paramount,” Golod says, “They have to speak to the audience. We don’t want the site to be bland the way so many sites are now, not giving the sense of the layout’s potential.”

 Best practice


Ben Davis

Content and community producer


Ecommerce treasure hunt

A new ecommerce model is emerging that encourages customers to ‘bag at will’. All retailers need to do is bring to the surface rare, high- quality products that have proven appeal on social media and look desirable.

Curating products that tempt the impulse buyer is the foundation of some promising ecommerce start-ups. Like Amazon’s Collections and image- sharing site Pinterest, they have a magazine feel. is the most radical.

Filtered and curated

Innovative filters are one of the keys to Fancy. When you’re bored of scrolling past random items, you can browse by category or use a search term. If you’re buying a gift, Fancy provides a filter to choose the age of the recipient and their relationship to the buyer. Fancy also offers a box service, where mysterious stuff is sent to customers in a box. Underlying all this is the need for the right products. The curation element is in picking them and tagging them efficiently. Fancy also has a referral scheme, where users are incentivised with a fee to share this content.

Millennials’ new mindset


Part of the mindset change in younger generations is the intuitive finding and selecting of information online. They are used to social networks, a variety of web formats and they make purchases on phones. So, what can ‘traditional’ online retailers do to cash in on this trend? Retailers should be making sure their products are visually stunning and easily sharable. This doesn’t just mean having big old product images and a tweet button. It can also include:

  • Product filters that allow a mix of serendipity and structure, such as a ‘for mum’ section;
  • User-generated images;
  • Product lines curated or endorsed by a celebrity; 
  • Social log-ins allowing customers to share what they’ve bought. Try incentivising this sharing with a future discount, or even hard cash;
  • A ‘spotted’ section where your products are being used by the public and/or celebrities;
  • Signing up on sites like Fancy to try them out.



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