Last week I published the Econsultancy best practice guide to Fashion Ecommerce and Content Marketing. The project actually started in January 2013, when I looked through about 25 different fashion ecommerce retailers and noted their most common content trends – I then used some of this research at a presentation at the Sheerluxe conference called ‘Content Marketing and Lifestyle ecommerce.’

My observations back then were that not many fashion ecommerce websites were producing much editorial content. Out of 25 reviewed, I really felt that only a handful of websites were doing it well, with Net-a-Porter and ASOS amongst the strongest.

The project then went on hiatus for near 15 months, and was restarted this September. I took my initial set of 25 and then whittled this down to 20 to create a lengthier paper looking at as many aspects of content marketing I could see in the industry.

Below are some of the key trends of the report, although through downloading it you’ll be able to see a great deal more examples.

1. Photography has gone centre stage in user experience

Perhaps the most noticeable macro-trend in the industry was that everyone I reviewed had moved to a white/black colour user experience and relied on large photos.

This isn’t too surprising given the wider trend to responsive layouts, but it was nonetheless quite interesting in an industry where it’s often difficult to offer a unique selling point. The product photography, particularly when curated in look-book style experience, was one of the most important positioning statements by a given website.

It’s also worth checking out Chris Lake’s post on this theme: Picture this: web design is no longer 95% typography.

2. Product video isn’t that common

This came as somewhat of a surprise, given the favour product video is regularly given at conference talks – a minority of websites (7/20) were consistently deploying video on their product pages.

It is widely agreed that ivideo is a very strong content option option for driving sale. Producing video, however, is an expensive logistics operation for companies with a wide range of products. Getting video onto your product pages is the icing of your content sales cake, it seems.

A product video still from 

3. There’s more editorial, but it’s generally not at the level of publishers

Some of the reviewed websites, such as Marks and Spencer, had undergone entire relaunches and moved much more towards a magazine based layout.

This intrigued me, for in the 15 months since I started the research it would have made sense that much more had been invested in the quantity and quality of online editorial within the industry – particularly given 74% of marketers had said they would be investing more in content marketing during 2014. 18/20 sites maintained some sort of editorial feed, such as a blog.

What was surprising was how few websites seemed to be using their content for anything other than pushing products and competitions. Beyond that, some blogs were used for brand positioning (such as Urban Outfitters), but many seemed confused about what they were really there for.

Amongst the observations I found:

  • Editorial poorly integrated into the site: some that regularly published content but were almost impossible to find without a Google search for ‘{brand} blog’.
  • Low publishing frequency: the majority of websites published under one story a day.
  • Advisory content was lacking: there were very few examples of how to / advisory content. When it was found it often didn’t have an individual home, but sat in the same feed as daily updates and it was difficult to find. An example of this working well is on The Idle Man’s blog, where lots of style advice content is easily accessible – this is a rarity.
  • Headlining was poor: a minority of websites applied good web standards to their headlines, most didn’t make sense out of context and didn’t tell the story.

See if you can decipher the full meaning of the content from just the headline – in most cases, it’s extremely difficult:

This all came as quite a surprise. Certainly there are people working at editorial throughout the fashion ecommerce industry, but they’re certainly facing an uphill battle against publishers and other ecommerce websites for attention minutes.

In short, a lot of editorial content just wasn’t frequent enough or optimised enough to become a destination and something that was regularly visited. Very few brands really met the mantra of ‘brands as publishers’ which so regularly appears in talks and books about the explosion of content marketing.

At least in fashion, B2C editorial marketing does not appear to be reaching its potential.

4. Social Media Explosion!

Noticeably, brands do have the gift of huge social media connections – and for top brands like ASOS, Topshop and H&M, followings are significantly higher than top media brands. British Vogue (the top UK fashion publishing brand) has 2.3m Facebook Likes, Topshop has close to 4.1m.

Many brands attempt to man the fort across almost every major social network. Google+, Pinterest and, to a lesser extent, Tumblr, were used by most brands.

The traditional big three of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were used by everyone – although in the case of YouTube some instances were as good as empty. The big riser from when I started the research to when I finished it was definitely Instagram.

In many cases, Instagram had usurped twitter in terms of brand connections, and after the issues we’ve seen with the Facebook newsfeed in 2014, was now well ahead of its big daddy for in feed engagement.

Below you can see a simple promo post from Topshop’s Instagram account with 32.5k likes:

Such engagement is completely unheard of on Facebook these days. However, Instagram can’t drive any direct traffic to websites, so many brands may be left slightly confused with the vast reach they’ve acquired and the lack of ability to drive directly to products.

That being said, brands aren’t also doing huge amounts with their enormous reach. They seem especially conservative when it comes to posting frequency: rarely do brands get above 4-5 Facebook posts a day, while they usually tweet less than once an hour.

Given the frequency that most publishers post content to social media and drive traffic back to their sites, it would seem logical that fashion ecommerce brands that posted more would gain similar benefits. It was not immediately clear to me why brands did not post more – having worked in a number of publishers with high volumes of content being distributed, I have yet to see an incident of posting more content having a negative effect on engagement or reach.

You can see a spreadsheet of Social Media Profiles of Major Fashion Ecommerce Brands containing URLs to the social profiles of over 20 leading fashion ecommerce brands.

Conclusion: brands aren’t really publishers

For more conclusions, it’s worth downloading the report in full, but my view is that the ‘brands as publishers’ mantra doesn’t fit in fashion ecommerce.

They publish some content, but they don’t operate at all like publishers with most of the stuff they produce.

While ASOS and Net-a-Porter were a long way in front of the rest of the research group, with H&M and Marks and Spencer commended, none could really be compared to digital publishers in their approach.

Certainly, brands often had much better user experiences than publishers, and their social reach was consistently much bigger, but in terms of really engaging an audience through their content, the vast majority fell short. This was surprising – there are few better B2C verticals that suit editorial publishing better than fashion ecommerce.

Generally speaking, the real investment and strategic direction in this vertical appears yet to arrive.