Lend us your ears
For brands that want to be more than mere online shops, maintaining a consistent editorial voice is paramount. The arch, worldly tone of the Bureau's editorial -- "more John Cleese than Gawker" -- is "the reason we were able to raise any money at all," Moskowitz says. (The Bureau raised $1.2 million in seed money in September 2012 from Foundation Capital and others.) "They want this voice. That's what people had a visceral reaction to."
As for how he arrived at the proper tone for the Bureau's emails and other editorial, says Moskowitz, "I wanted a buttoned-up sense of Fifties formality, because that's what helps jokes land." Case in point: a racy video, made in partnership with Esquire for the Bureau's Japan Rising collection, which explains shibori, the ancient Japanese art of dying fabric. In the video, a dominatrix stuffs a shibori cotton pocket square into a client's mouth to silence him. It's an image not soon forgotten.
Zady founders Maxine Bédat, 31, and Soraya Darabi, 30, say their editorial voice aims to be "an authentic voice for our generation." Zady launched with an eye toward rescuing people from the soullessness of fast fashion, and its founders' own sense of the zeitgeist is what determines the editorial content. The retailer produces two types of stories: brand stories, which Bédat says are fundamental to the company's mission, and standalone features. The former are based on interviews that Bédat and Darabi conduct with every brand they sell, dissecting what makes them special. The latter have no direct connection to the products Zady sells.
One feature is an interview with a New York Times photo editor who produced a Kickstarter-funded documentary about horse-rearing customs in Iceland. It seems a strange thing to find on a fashion retailer's website. "We think that the kind of customer who likes a story about denim made in North Carolina will also like a story about a beautiful documentary about wild horses in Iceland," Bédat says. She admits it's a hunch. "Time will tell us if that's true or not." For now, they can afford to experiment; Zady received $1.35 million in October 2012 from New Enterprise Associates and others.
Where Frank & Oak is building a dedicated editorial team, Zady is using serious freelance journalists to create its content. A feature on work-life integration -- as opposed to the impossible ideal of work-life balance -- carries the byline of Melissa Wall, the founding editor of Newsweek's iPad edition. "We're trying to define where we are culturally," Bédat says of the feature's subject matter. "So far, our intuition seems to be on point."
A shopping community
"You're essentially trying to build a community of like-minded individuals around your brand," Thoreson says of such efforts. Admittedly, the ROI picture is "murkier" with content that isn't tied to products, but such editorial is "no less powerful" as a branding tool, he says.
Since Frank & Oak's founding in February 2012, 800,000 people have signed up for its members-only site, with the majority of customers living in the U.S., Song says. And many who have downloaded the Frank & Oak mobile app access the app every day. As Song sees it, that represents a major shift in how brands are built and how consumers interact with products. "You'd never walk into a store every day," he points out.
Fashion and style magazines, as Moskowitz is quick to note, have always excelled at narrative -- and at the related art of cultivating desire. To hear him tell it, online retailers now have the chance to be like magazines, only better, because they can indulge the impulse to buy. "GQ isn't shoppable," he says. "Esquire isn't shoppable."
But producing editorial content that rivals the output of top magazines -- the standard to which Gilt aspires -- is no easy feat. "People forget that to do this well you need to have the right team and you need to carve out the right ecosystem within a business that isn't necessarily set up to do editorial," says Thoreson. "If you just treat it as some sort of commodity, you're likely not going to succeed here."
But with U.S. online retail sales expected to grow to $262 billion this year from $231 billion in 2012, it's worth doing what it takes to claim a bigger slice of the ecommerce pie. And already this kind of content is becoming expected for companies who want to stand out. Over the past three years, he says, a commitment to quality editorial "has gone from something that's a novelty [for ecommerce brands] to something that's an essential."
But however important content marketing is for online retailers now, it is as merchants, not publishers, that Bureau of Trade and other new-wave companies will ultimately succeed or fail. The women behind Zady understand this. "At the end of the day, Zady is a wonderful and beautiful ecommerce site," Darabi says.