After Social Curation, Recommendation

Source: Business of Fashion, Apr 2011

as consumers become their own media outlets, producing staggering amounts of user-generated content every day, and savvy marketers reverse-engineer Google’s algorithm to game the search results, separating signal from noise is once again becoming difficult.

As a result, we’re seeing a shift back towards human filtering and hand-curation. But this time around, instead of professional editors — who could never hope to sift through the quantities of content the world currently creates — it’s consumers themselves who are doing the curating.

Over the last couple of years, popular consumer web services have added “crowd curation” features. “I’m a big fan of curation in these services,” wrote Fred Wilson of venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. “Twitter has lists. Etsy has favorites. Tumblr has tag pages.”

But now, a new generation of niche social curation services is on the rise, offering discerning consumers a way to discover quality content and product selections, handpicked by others and unpolluted by content farms and SEO spam.

Unlike task-oriented shopping on sites like Amazon, using Svpply feels more like online window shopping at a store full of products you like. Importantly, consumers can also click through to buy, as each product added to Svpply is automatically linked back to the page where it was found.

Part microblogs, part social bookmarking tools, Pinterest and Svpply (alongside similar sites like Fancy and Wanelo) have hit on a powerful formula: the hand-curated quality of a magazine plus the speed of a blog plus the personal relevance of a social network.

Interestingly, fashion has emerged as one of the most popular categories on these sites and even sparked specialist services. “Right now it’s hard to discover fashion online,” said Chris Morton, CEO of Lyst, a social curation site, soft-launched six months ago, that focuses specifically on fashion. “The space is becoming increasingly fragmented: every day there are new online retailers, designers and blogs, making it even harder to sift through all the noise.”

Like Pinterest and Svpply, Lyst, which recently raised seed-round investment from top-tier VC Accel Partners, is curated by hand. “Through sites like Last.fm and Pandora, we were discovering great new songs and bands,” said Morton. “We wanted to build a tool that let people discover amazing fashion products and designers, but we didn’t believe that discovery process could be done purely algorithmically.”

In part, Morton’s confidence that fashion consumers could be harnessed to voluntarily curate products for others to browse and shop was rooted in an interesting observation: “We kept coming across the act of ‘faux shopping’ …. This is when a user goes to a site like Net-a-Porter, puts together an amazing shopping cart, but instead of checking out, just sighs wistfully and closes the browser,” he said. “We were conscious that users were effectively creating rich content and expressing their style, but then destroying it afterwards. With Lyst, we wanted to build a service where users could keep those items for as long as they liked and share their style.”

As with other social media verticals, scale will ultimately determine the success of social curation sites like Pinterest, Svpply and Lyst — and sharing personal tastes in order to signal values, earn status and get feedback from a community of likeminded people is the primary incentive these sites are counting on to drive consumer engagement. “Lysting items is a form of self-expression,” said Morton. “It’s akin to writing a blog,” he continued. “The act of publishing their lysts also enables users to build their reputation within the online fashion world.”

But the rise of social curation is also part of a wider shift, from one-size-fits-all messaging to personalised information streams. “We believe the future of advertising is personal recommendation,” said Morton. “People are much more likely to act on a recommendation than a broadcast message, and Lyst is rapidly becoming the channel for people and brands to send and receive fashion recommendations.”

Alongside quality, personalised recommendations are at the heart of the social curation trend. “We want to make Pinterest feel like a completely personalised catalogue,” said Silbermann. And while algorithmic recommendation engines are getting better at delivering relevant content, what they currently lack is meaningful context and commentary on why a particular product or piece of content may be relevant.

In a sector like fashion, where taste is highly subjective, value is often socially defined, and the origin of a stylistic point of view is as crucial as the point of view itself, we think the role of virtual curators is set to become increasingly important.

But in the long run, hand-curation by your social network may not offer a complete answer to the personal relevance problem. At the recent Abu Dhabi Media Summit, Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner, whose company, Digital Sky Technologies (DST), has put money into Facebook, Zynga and Groupon, was quoted as saying: “The question is, ‘How do you select what’s relevant for you?’ And my guess is that it’s probably going to be 50% driven by your network and 50% driven by algorithms.”

Looking ahead, the question becomes, who in fashion will be the first to meld machine-based predictions with the power of social curation to help solve that timeless problem: what should I wear today?

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