What’s the Real Value of Content on E-commerce Sites?

On the homepage of the Montreal-based online retailer Ssense, visitors today will find an essay tracing the lineage of a pair of Loewe loafers through associations as diverse as Bernie Madoff and Sally Rooney, a photoshoot and interview with the queer pop star King Princess and a fall fashion report replete with elegant collages illustrating trends like “Scorpion Black” and “Time Cher.” And that’s before they even start shopping.

Putting editorial content adjacent to e-commerce is a well-established practice in 2019, but Ssense’s mix is particularly distinctive in a voice it has honed over three years of publishing five stories per week.

“That’s given us a wealth of stories to look back at to understand what the Ssense reader cares about,” said Durga Chew-Bose, managing editor for Ssense and author of the critically acclaimed essay collection “Too Much and Not The Mood.” “Our strategy is fueled by seeing how we can best curate what they want while intentionally folding in stories that stray from that to introduce an element of unexpectedness to the platform as well.”

Consumers today are confronted with nearly endless options of media to consume every time they pick up their smartphone, so brands and retailers have to invest in content that breaks through the noise. Otherwise, what’s the point? For an upstart label, this could mean a well-curated Instagram feed with original images and clever copywriting. For a company with more resources, it could mean a dedicated editorial team producing magazine-quality features. Either way, the results could be highly favorable, but it’s essential to go in with a plan.

Ssense Mikey Alfred Portrait
Portrait of skater turned entrepreneur Mikey Alfred from the Ssense article “Mikey Alfred Makes L.A. Feel Small.”

“A lot of brands maybe turn a blind eye to the ROI of content,” said Richard Agerbeek, chief creative officer of Sweden Unlimited, a creative agency focused on fashion, beauty and luxury e-commerce. “It’s something they see a lot of other brands doing, so they just throw money at content without any real strategy or knowing what they want to measure. The best success comes from knowing what you want out of it: what kind of goals you have, what things you want to measure. That’s important stuff.”

And in the online realm, Agerbeek added, there are numerous metrics that can be used to gauge results, including traffic, page views, time spent on site and returning visitors.

The multi-brand retailer Need Supply has shifted its business strategy in the past six or so months to ramp up the frequency of its web content, adding profiles of up-and-coming creatives such as neo-soul singer Dahlia Elliott, service guides to things like making herbaceous salads and exploring the retailer’s hometown of Richmond, Va. and fashion editorials about products or macro-trends.

Need Supply
A look from a Need Supply denim editorial.
CREDIT: Need Supply

“What we’ve decided to do is to leverage our content not to necessarily conceive of it as a tool for sales, but more as a tool to contextualize our product,” said Fanny Damiette, VP of brand and marketing at NSTO, the parent company of Need Supply Co. and Totokaelo. “So it’s creating a story around products that we carry, around people that we think are interesting for our community, around cultural movements that we think our audience should be aware of.” She noted that social media and the internet have made consumers very aware of trends and brands already, so the goal is to add more to the conversation.

In terms of measuring success, Damiette said Need Supply tries to avoid getting stuck on attributing sales directly to content — at least for now. “Obviously, we do it like everyone else, but it’s kind of reductive because, to me, this is a long-haul endeavor; it’s not an immediate reward,” she said. “But in the long term, you will see engagement growing, and you can definitely attribute it to certain pieces of content, to certain people we’ve featured at certain times and to certain partnerships.”

Experts said that over time, these results become easier to evaluate and leverage without compromising editorial vision. When Net-a-Porter announced last year that it was ramping up its online content to a daily rather than weekly publishing schedule, the luxury e-commerce company — which also produces a monthly print magazine, Porter, and a weekly online magazine, PorterEdit — told Internet Retailer that readers of the latter had an average order value 26% higher than other customers. Magazine subscribers also spent 5% more and purchased more often: 5.3 times per year compared with 4.1 times for others.

Chew-Bose told FN that Ssense has a multilayered approach to assessing ROI. “The company is extremely data-driven and does consider engagement, clicks, even how a story performs on our social media channels, but we also acknowledge the importance of intuition when evaluating each story,” she said. “I love seeing our content being engaged with in a meaningful way. For instance, our recent interview with Christophe Lemaire and Sarah-Linh Tran of Lemaire performed exceptionally well in terms of time spent on the page. The co-designers are known to be quite reclusive and rarely do interviews, so people were hungry for it; and when Ssense was able to publish the exclusive interview, our audience read the piece with care.”

While multi-brand retailers can leverage their rosters of designers and warehouses of inventory, individual brands have to think a little bit differently, particularly as they are starting out.

Flip-flop brand Tidal New York has garnered steady praise and devout fans since it launched four years ago, but in 2019 it has been focused on developing a recognizable brand voice across all its channels. One way it’s doing so is by highlighting a distinguishing feature of the brand (that its shoes are produced just outside of New York City in New Rochelle, N.Y.) by tapping local talent.

“One of the coolest things about being based in New York is the sheer volume of creative, exciting people that we have access to work with,” said Ben Dunmore, Tidal New York’s creative director. A recent shoot at Rockaway Beach featured native New York models and a local creative team, for example. With its rebrand, the team has also moved downtown to an office on Canal Street and has begun developing a community within its new fashion-centric neighborhood.

Tidal NY
Tidal NY’s summer editorial, “One Day Holiday,” was produced with a local cast and crew.

While it’s still early to be gauging the impact of this expanded editorial direction, Dunmore said he’s been encouraged by one outcome so far: “The amount of people who are really ready to work with us,” he said. “When we’ve got the creators wanting to work with us, that’s when we know we’ve really got it right, because they know that their work can be seen and appreciated in a way that’s true to them and true to us.”

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Watch FN’s interview with model-turned-designer Alexa Chung:

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