The New Model: How Net-a-Porter Keeps the Fashion Industry on Its Heels

In 2012, when content marketing was starting to come into fashion, Tess Macleod Smith finished overseeing the launch of Harper’s Bazaar in the UK and quickly jumped to Net-a-Porter—just as the media industry was undergoing a tectonic shift. Thanks to the rapid proliferation of social platforms, marketers salivated over the thought of a world where content and commerce would align.

But as ad execs breathlessly pitched the idea of shoppable digital magazines, Net-a-Porter was entering its 13th year of perfecting it. The high-end fashion site was launched in the waning days of the first tech bubble by fashion journalist Natalie Massenet, who worked out of her flat in London’s Chelsea neighborhood. In the early days, 15 members packed into her living room, with the site’s now-signature black boxes stacked in the bath. The company’s early mission was to tell magazine-quality stories about the world of high fashion while simultaneously letting readers click to buy whatever piqued their interest.

“People always say to me, ‘You’ve really strived to redefine retail,'” Massanet told the Guardian in 2013. “But the reality is, I wanted to redefine magazines.”

With a site full of high-quality, shoppable content, Net-a-Porter had largely accomplished that goal by the time Macleod arrived in 2012 as the VP of publishing and media. Sitting so far ahead of the curve, the obvious question became: What next?

“One of the most exciting differences working here is the dialogue that exists with our consumers,” Macleod said. And so with a clear direction, her team set out to conduct a comprehensive study of 10,000 of their valuable customers to find out how they consumed fashion content. Eighty-eight percent said a fashion magazine was their preferred medium, and 80 percent said their most authoritative inspiration for fashion was print.

“So we thought about our consumer and how she digests fashion content today,” Macleod said, “and launched Porter—the first global, truly shoppable fashion magazine.”

Finding a fit for Porter would ultimately be a gradual process. First, in 2013, Net-a-Porter formalized its magazine-style content with the launch of The Edit, a weekly, shoppable digital magazine helmed by Lucy Yeomans, former editor of Harper’s Bazaar UK. The Edit’s stories, such as its profile of Julianne Moore, quickly took the publisher’s credibility to another level. Simultaneously, it continued to invest in The Journal, the shoppable magazine on its men’s site, Mr Porter. But in interviews, the company’s leadership repeatedly teased that their big play would be a flagship print magazine.

Though Porter was far from the first branded print magazine—that honor belongs to John Deere’s The Furrow, way back in 1895—it was perhaps the most ambitious one ever created when its 282-page debut issue hit the stands in February 2014. Yeomans topped the masthead as editor-in-chief, and Gisele Bündchen graced the cover; 400,000 issues were distributed across 60 countries for $9.99 each—four dollars more than Vogue.

Net-a-Porter distributed the magazine with the kind of precision usually associated with digital content. The company, as Macleod explained, was “targeting an international high-net-worth woman who is difficult to target because she is always on the move, traveling over 10 times a year.” To figure out how to do that in print, marketers turned to the treasure trove of data Net-a-Porter had compiled since it started.

“We were in a unique position prior to launch to be able to cross-reference Net-a-Porter’s audience data with global magazine market intelligence to create an infrared, very precise and targeted plan of where we wanted to sell Porter,” Macleod said.

The company settled on distributing 30 percent of its issues at travel points and top markets such as the U.S., UK, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, and Hong Kong. The first year, six issues were released, and the company stuck with that output for 2015.

Since then, the consistent quality of the content defied the expectations of many. “We had a lot of ‘it’s going to be a Net-a-Porter catalogue’,” Yeomans told the Guardian this year. But Porter has proven to be a success, settling in at a circulation of 152,000 that already puts it in the stratosphere of the British Vogue, which circulates 192,000 issues. Of late, ads for the magazine have even started popping up on cabs around Manhattan.

“In our top two markets of the U.S. and UK, we are out-selling well-established glossy magazines already, and there is evidence to show that we are attracting a high percentage of women back to buying magazines with our unique editorial proposition,” Macleod said.

Shopability is really what sets Porter apart from its competition. The app versions of the magazine let readers instantly shop as they read, and in many cities, purchases arrive the same day.

But just as crucial is how the print magazine appeals to the elite one percent of customers who make up 20 percent of the company’s revenue. Net-a-Porter calls these customers EIPs, or extremely important people, and treats them to personal shopping services as well as access to top collections before the general public. Macleod said that 85 percent of top customers were inspired to shop after reading an issue of Porter, and those who become subscribers increased their spend by 125 percent and their frequency on the site by 25 percent.

To integrate shopping and engagement as seamlessly as possible, the company even created a feature that lets readers scan a print issue with the Net-a-Porter app, which immediately redirects you to a purchase page. According to Macleod, 90,000 women have done so to date, and Yeomens cites this as one of the most significant ways Porter appeals to its target audience.

Earlier this year, Net-a-Porter took its devotion to technology one step further with the launch of The Net Set, a Facebook-style social network focused on trending fashion content that lets users organize into “tribes” based on style preferences. While the gorgeous app’s success remains to be seen, it demonstrates Net-a-Porter’s commitment to finding creative ways to build devoted audiences for their content.

As for Porter, Net-a-Porter’s goals include both hard and soft KPIs. One primary accomplishment is how the magazine has helped the brand define “who the Net-a-Porter women is,” as Macleod put it. There are traditional publishing KPIs as well: subscription sales, circulation growth, and advertising revenue benchmarks from the top 25 luxury groups.

With a commitment to pushing the boundaries between editorial and commerce, Net-a-Porter wants to compete with the best fashion publishers in the world. The only question now is if it can pass them down the runway.

(Editor’s note: For more on cutting-edge marketing trends from top luxury brands, see here.) 

Image by Jacquelyne Pierson

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