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The Industry Interview: Natalie Hughes, founder, The Fashion Digital

Lauretta Roberts
06 February 2019

Natalie Hughes is founder of fashion-specialist social media agency The Fashion Digital, where she fine tunes the social media strategy for some of the industry's most high profile names. She'll be delivering advice on how to supercharge your sales via social media at our next masterclass (book here) and here she gives us an insight into her work and how she helps brands make a success of their digital channels.

You have a reputation for being one of the foremost experts in social media in the fashion industry, please tell us a bit about how your career began.

Ah, thanks! I’ve always loved storytelling in all its forms. I studied English Literature at Warwick, always intending to work in fashion journalism (I just really liked reading). Each and every university holiday, I would intern at a different fashion publication, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Guardian Fashion… By the end of my degree, I had completed six internships! I ended up getting a job at a start-up online magazine called SheerLuxe.com – I was the third person on staff (they’re much, much bigger now!), which meant I got to edit, commission and write. At the same time, I started a – now defunct – fashion blog, which was an excellent education in social media and DIY digital publishing. I went on to be Social Media Editor at NET-A-PORTER.COM, a company spearheading the content-commerce movement.

When you started out social media marketing was in its infancy, when you look back on that period, what were things you learnt the most from?

I learned so much ‘on the job’ at NET-A-PORTER.COM. My role was newly created, so it was largely unchartered territory. Natalie Massenet saw the value of social content before anyone else did, which enabled us to jump on platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram before other brands. At fashion month I really learnt how to capture, self-edit and share written and visual content on the fly – and a large volume of content at that. Learning to be reactive as platforms come and go, develop and fade out, is all part and parcel of working in social media, too.

Having worked in-house and as a consultant, you established The Fashion Digital, please tell us a bit about the value proposition of the business.

The Fashion Digital is an ultra-specialised agency, focusing on social media, content and influencer marketing especially for (luxury) fashion brands. We combine editorial nouse and marketing geekiness in equal measure, and we understand the fashion space – a unique blend of skills, if I do say so myself.

You have an incredible client list, how did you go about achieving that?

Thanks! We’ve grown very organically on the whole, through word-of-mouth recommendations. I’d built a community over my fashion career prior to launching the agency, which helped tremendously. We’re also a unique agency, in that we’re digital and social media-first, and very specialised, which also helps. Also, we have really good SEO!

When brands come to you for help, what is it chiefly that they want to achieve? Greater sales, awareness, help with content or all of those things?

It’s a real mix. Depending on where the brand is in its lifespan, the objectives could include growth, engagement, awareness, conversions… or all of the above! We’re also often tasked with rehauling the look and feel of a brand’s social channels and on-site content, which is a challenge I love.

You will be talking at our Masterclass on Supercharging Your Sales Via Social Media; many brands achieve this through paid media, what do you think people should do before they commit any money?

Have a clear strategy. All too often, brands throw small budgets behind say, post boosts, and hope for the best – not the best strategy! It’s best to think about a range of objectives for every stage of the funnel; consider your brand-new customers who may never have heard of the brand, and then those who are engaged and more likely to convert, for example. Those two customers ought to be targeted differently. And of course, don’t be afraid to test and tweak – there’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, so a little experimentation is never a bad idea.

Are there particular channels that work for particular goals. For instance, is Facebook better for client conversion and Instagram for awareness or is it just not as simple as that?

It’s totally dependent on the brand and its demographic. A multi-pronged approach (with regards to both organic and paid activity) is best, really – ideally you’re targeting the same customer (at every stage of the funnel) across Facebook, Instagram and Instagram Stories. I’d say Pinterest is a better brand awareness tool than sales driver, but then again, there are case studies that prove otherwise.

What are the most common and costly errors brands make when it comes to paid social media promotion? Customer acquisition costs via social can get very costly…

A stab-in-the-dark approach is rarely successful, so a built-out strategy is a must. Paid social requires a sophisticated strategy that targets all sections of the funnel, and very small budgets should generally only be used to test, as they may not go very far when you’re trying to acquire a valuable customer (which most luxury brands are).

Is there a formula or a general approach to content that converts into sales?

Sadly not! Each and every brand is different. For example, some brands benefit from a DIY approach to content, whereas others need higher-spec visuals. If I were to give general guidance, I’d say report obsessively on what your audience engages with and develop more of that! Be authentic and talk to your customers; very few brands can get away with an enigmatic, elusive approach on social media (read: Vetements).

What about influencers. Some brands are doing little else by way of marketing. Is it effective and what should brands bear in mind before embarking on an influencer campaign?

Absolutely. A digital marketing strategy needs to be holistic and that includes influencer marketing, as well as organic and paid social, and performance marketing. Again, a highly tailored approach is paramount. Is your product at a lower price point, enabling you to gift abundantly to a large number of micro influencers? Or are your quantities small and is your product value high? In that case, a more targeted approach is key; it may be prudent to choose a handful of influencers (or even a single influencer) with whom you engage with on multiple levels, online and offline.

The rules around transparency when it comes to paid posts and gifting have just been tightened further still? Can you describe in a nutshell what it is influencers must declare these days?

Influencers are required to be as transparent as possible, whether they are embarking on a paid partnership or simply being gifted product. They are now obliged to label each and every product they feature with "gifted" or "ad" and further explanation if needed. Further still, they are being advised to disclose whether or not they have enjoyed a transactional relationship with a brand in the past, even if the product in question has been since purchased.

Do you think consumers are less likely to buy if an influencer has been paid or post has been sponsored, or do they not mind if they like the content?

Increasingly, audiences are accepting the need for sponsored content to sustain the influencer’s platform/s, but it would be a lie to say there hasn’t been some backlash. I’d argue that, bar a few, magazines have long required advertisers in order to exist, and that it’s a necessity with any form of publishing. For influencers, it’s about navigating this uncharted territory with discernment and authenticity, which is absolutely possible and can be a success for influencer and brand alike.

Of course, getting the social side right is only one part of it, once someone hits a brand’s site to buy, what tips do you have to make sure they go on to buy?

Absolutely. User experience is paramount; is there a relentless pop-up which does not disappear after a single click on ‘x’? Is it unclear whether or not the site is transactional, I.e. are there conventional elements, such as ‘new in’ or clear contact instructions missing? A bad user experience can easily result in a high bounce rate. Going deeper, there’s so much that can be done with on-site content to compel the customer to stick around. Think editorial-style features that encapsulate the spirit of the brand without being salesy; interviews with inspiring muses and travel reports, for example. Even informative, inspiring product descriptions can go far in converting a casual browse into a sale. Content and commerce make excellent bedfellows.

This is a new and complex sector of marketing and you are helping to equip people with the skills they need to succeed, please tell us a bit about your lecturing and the Social Media School?

So many emerging brands have come to us with an appetite for social media  knowledge but a shoestring budget. I wanted to be able to give them the tools they need to execute their own winning social media strategies at a start-up friendly price, and Fashion Social Media School was born. It is a week-long intensive course that gives everyone from brand founders to university graduates the tools they need to amplify their brand on social media or find a job in the digital marketing industry. As a graduate of a traditional bachelor’s degree, a course like this would have been so useful to me in the infancy of my career.

Book your seat at our next Masterclass: Supercharging Your Sales via Social Media at W London – Leicester Square on the morning of 12 February. Tickets costs £95+VAT but you can secure a 20% discount by using promotional code VIP20 at checkout. Book here.

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