The Five Levels of Content Marketing in the Fashion Industry

Fashion companies tend to be traditional, protective of their brand and operating in a climate that’s flooded with content. This doesn’t create a very promising environment for content marketing. But it does make for an interesting case study.

Given these challenges, what does content marketing in the fashion industry look like? After studying a wide range of fashion brands' online presence, I've broken their efforts down into what I've called the 'five levels of content marketing':

Level 1 - Overtly promotional content

I’d estimate that 75% of my wardrobe is from Zara. But it’s certainly not because of their content marketing. They don’t even have a blog. In fact, it’s difficult to find any examples of conventional content marketing from them at all. However, we can still learn something from Zara’s 'non-approach'.

It’s a lot harder to funnel people towards your own website than to engage with them wherever they are naturally. Therefore, Zara focuses on reaching fans through social media.

Zara posts two types of content on social media: promotional content and then more promotional content. They can get away with this because people actually care about their promotional content. They aren’t advertising their blog post about  “5 Reasons You Need to Wear a Scarf This Winter”; they’re advertising something their followers care about: sales and new items. Which of these tweets would you prefer if you were following a fashion brand?

Source: Twitter

This also underscores the need to tailor your approach to your specific industry. Can you imagine if a content marketing juggernaut like HubSpot only tweeted promotional content related to new product features or limited time offers?

There are also a few tactical differences in how Zara approaches social media. For example, they showcase clothing being worn by people in their photos rather than showcasing the clothing on its own.

A typical Instagram photo from Zara

A typical Instagram photo from Nordstrom

Another difference is in the use of hashtags on Twitter. Zara uses about seven times as many hashtags as Nordstrom, averaging around 3.5 hashtags per post vs. Nordstrom’s 0.5 hashtags per post.

Zara’s approach has helped them garner five times as many social followers as Nordstrom’s across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Zara is a good example of still reaching your fans effectively without typical content assets. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t invest in content, but rather that conventional content isn’t a prerequisite for digital success in the fashion industry.

Level 2 - The classic blog

The next step up from having no content is throwing up a blog. A lot of brands launch a blog because they “have to”. It doesn’t have much direction or strategy behind it. Predictably, these blogs don’t do much.

Take Nordstrom’s blog for example. They’ve published thousands of posts and have received about one social share per post. Their solution to the problem of writing content in the very competitive fashion space is writing content in equally competitive spaces such as food recipes and travel.

Nordstrom is certainly not alone in this; the results for other companies are often very similar and it’s clear that having a blog and writing a bunch of content isn’t enough:

Total referring domains to blog (ahrefs)

You can see a New York Tumblr account - What I Wore, is handily beating out these huge brands and it’s not alone. In the face of these challenges, some companies such as Shopbop have decided to scrap their blog altogether.

These blog troubles aren’t surprising given the level of competition. Consider for example how many pages there are that talk about “fall fashion trends”:

The takeaway from level two is that a generic blog isn’t enough. Content marketing very much follows the old rule that “you get what you pay for”. If you want to see returns from your content efforts, you need to be prepared to invest in it properly.

Level 3 - Making your content unique

A lot of content strategies boil down to “let’s make content that our target demo likes”. This kind of thinking leads fashion companies to create content about everything from cocktail recipes to tech news.

However, this also doesn’t mean that focusing on fashion related content is the answer. As a thought exercise, consider how much work a company like Vogue puts into its fashion content. How hard do you think it is to become a writer there? How many years spent dedicated to writing about fashion do you think they expect from someone before they’ll publish their work? How well plugged into the fashion world do you think their writers are? Now contrast this to who you might have writing fashion related content for a company like Neiman Marcus. Do you really think a retail-focused company like Neiman Marcus can compete with a company like Vogue that is built from the ground up for one purpose (fashion content)?

The solution is to own a specific content niche that relates well to your brand. The best example of this is Nasty Gal. Rather than writing about fall fashion trends, they write about empowered women. They interview female role models, have a podcast and run a microsite, Girlboss.com, that showcases their podcast, physical book, newsletter and the financial aid they give to women. This unique focus has powered a ton of incredibly on-brand content in a less competitive space and has resulted in thousands of shares and twice as many referring domains as a site like Neiman Marcus, for example:

Referring domains to blog (ahrefs)

The importance that Nasty Gal places on their blog is highlighted by the prominent position it occupies on their homepage:

Source: Nasty Gal

Nasty Gal wasn’t an overnight success, though. It goes back to the idea that content marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. Anybody that’s looking to content marketing for a quick fix is using the wrong channel:

Referring domains to Nasty Gal blog (ahrefs)

Nasty Gal is a great example of how to avoid oversaturated content spaces and find an on-brand niche that you can own. Other brands can follow suit by honing in on what makes them unique and owning it. For example, Nordstrom could do something related to exceptional service or people helping each other out, Bloomingdale’s could do something related to the “Bloomingdale’s lifestyle”, Burberry could do something related to legacy/history and so on.

Level 4 - Engagement and interaction

Creating engaging conversations online is tough, especially when it involves opening up your exclusive fashion brand to user inputs. Burberry is a great example of creating engagement with fans, without compromising your brand and they do this through ambitious digital campaigns:

Art of the Trench: showcases the beauty and versatility of Burberry’s iconic trench coat by encouraging you to take and share pictures of people wearing the trench coat. Burberry seeded the campaign with professional photos but opened it up to the public in a form of “curated crowdsourcing” where they select the best photos and host them on their own platform, effectively controlling the look of the campaign.

Burberry Kisses: a very personal and emotional way to connect with fans and promote the Burberry line of beauty products by allowing users to send a virtual kiss to someone anywhere else in the world. The ease of use, novelty and relevance to Burberry’s line of beauty products are what makes this campaign stand out.

What’s even more impressive is that Burberry doesn’t have a blog and they very rarely interact with fans one on one. In fact, instead of responding to fans from the official Burberry account, they’ve opted to maintain an air of exclusivity and use a dedicated Twitter handle, @BurberryService, to deal with customer service requests.

Defining content marketing can be subjective and you might not consider these Burberry campaigns to be “content”. But that’s kind of the point. Creating text-based content, running a blog and putting up a couple of data visualizations is one approach. But a content strategy doesn’t need to revolve around fixed content assets and your industry might require a broader approach.

Rethinking typical content assets is important but there’s a bigger insight to draw from Burberry’s example. Burberry caught on quickly to the importance of digital and shifted 60% of their marketing budget to digital channels back in 2011. It’s one thing to pay lip service to how important digital is to the future of your brand; it’s another to put over half your marketing budget towards it before some brands were even on Twitter.

Level 5 - Bringing everything together

This is a theoretical point where you’re creating unique content that’s on-brand and engaging customers wherever they are. To be honest, no fashion company seems to have this fully figured out. There are a lot of companies that come close but they’re usually missing a couple pieces. So, instead of focusing on one brand that represents the pinnacle of content marketing in fashion; let’s build a Frankenstein-like creature out of the best individual pieces out there.

The blog: The Nasty Gal blog is a great example of picking an onbrand niche (empowered women) and owning it with more than just text content.

Big content pieces: Any look at content marketing in the fashion industry would be incomplete without mentioning Louis Vuitton’s incredibly ambitious Nowness website. In a nutshell, Nowness produces a lot of very high quality, artsy videos from a variety of filmmakers and has almost no branding for Louis Vuitton itself. This makes it a really interesting piece of marketing. It’s easy to assume it’s awesome for Louis Vuitton because it’s awesome content. But the tieback to Louis Vuitton is so minimal (there are a total of 10 pages that even mention Louis Vuitton in the title and too few links to louisvuitton.com to even register on ahrefs or Open Site Explorer) that you have to dig deeper to really find the value it provides. From my perspective, there are a few ways Louis Vuitton benefits from Nowness:

  • It provides valuable user data to Louis Vuitton about consumer behaviour and what trends to invest in.

  • It allows very occasional branding.

  • It subtly positions Louis Vuitton as an avant-garde thought leader since most influencers that visit Nowness likely know that Louis Vuitton is behind it.

  • It creates relationships with artistic influencers.

  • It provides content that Louis Vuitton can use elsewhere.

  • It can eventually ramp up Louis Vuitton branding slightly once they feel comfortable enough with their user base.

  • Lastly and perhaps most importantly, they have a very cool form of video called shoppable videos such as this one. These shoppable videos allow you to click on items within the video itself and purchase them from a variety of sellers, presumably with a kickback to Louis Vuitton.

Evergreen content: Mr. Porter has put together some amazing resources for their target demographic: stylish men. They cover everything from general style advice, to tips from fashion experts to a style glossary and do it all with the distinctive Mr. Porter flair.

Social media: A lot of companies feel like they’re forcing a social media personality. They’d rather just tell you about their new sale but they occasionally post something non-promotional because they “have to”. Nasty Gal to the rescue (again). They do a great job of publishing on-brand, edgy posts with promotional content mixed in, while feeling authentic.

@NastyGal

NastyGal - Facebook

YouTube/Video: In a world full of style tutorials and makeup tips. Mr. Porter stands out again by honing in on their specific demographic: stylish men. They post everything from how an Aston Martin is made to Nordic cooking in the wilderness and their unique approach has helped them amass more YouTube subscribers than almost any other fashion brand.

Engagement with fans: Burberry’s creative campaigns for engagement with fans are second to none. It’s not easy to open yourself up to user inputs as an exclusive fashion brand but Burberry has consistently managed to do so through projects like Burberry Kisses and Art of the Trench.

Physical content: Content doesn’t need to live online. Many fashion brands have created physical magazines or books but few have taken it as far as Net-a-Porter with their Porter magazine and their weekly Edit publication. Investing in an ongoing magazine is hard and you’re competing against some big names so you might be better off just publishing a one off piece of content like Nasty Gal’s Girlboss Book (I promise I don’t represent Nasty Gal in any way).

Outreach: Good content isn’t enough and most content strategies depend on effective outreach. The amount of fashion related websites out there makes the industry extremely competitive but also creates the perfect outreach environment. Fashion bloggers make great outreach partners because they usually have highly engaged viewers for their content and perhaps more importantly; they usually link out to the different products that make up their outfits. This creates a very natural path to purchase: you see an outfit you like from a blogger you respect and click a link to buy the products that make up the outfit.

A lot of fashion companies do outreach effectively but Nordstrom is perhaps most well known for it. It’s not the creativity of Nordstrom’s outreach that sets it apart, it’s the scale. Most of these blogger-based outreach links are nofollow (because they’re affiliate links), therefore, we can use the number of nofollow links to Nordstrom as a rough proxy for the scale of their blogger outreach:

Source: Semrush

Wrapping up

That’s it! We have now advanced through the five levels of content marketing. You’ll notice there’s a theme of unconventional approaches winning out in the competitive fashion space. We see this theme in the popularity of Zara’s promotional content, Burberry’s selective interaction with fans, Nasty Gal’s focus on empowered women rather than their actual product (clothing) and the decision by many brands to forego a blog altogether. Putting it all together, it’s clear that there are big wins to be had for fashion brands who are willing to rethink traditional content playbooks.

Going forward, I think we’ll see more and more fashion companies take an all or nothing approach to content. The middling ground of running a mediocre blog will be replaced by either the non-approach of a brand like Zara or the full steam ahead approach of a brand like Nasty Gal.

Can you think of other examples of content done right (or wrong) in the fashion industry? Or, do you think there are other potential levels to the hierarchy of content marketing in fashion? Let me know in the comments.

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