Curtis Hougland At Attention: A Social Media Thought Leader

Photo Credit: Curtis Hougland
Curtis Hougland is founder and CEO of Attention, a social communications and marketing agency that specializes in luxury, beauty and fashion. Founded in 1992, Attention was one of the first new media agencies to help AOL,, Time and Microsoft to market through the new, burgeoning internet service providers.

Since then, Attention has guided DVF, David Yurman, Neiman Marcus, Herman Miller, Hilton Worldwide, Estee Lauder Companies, and many others to greater brand recognition on the social media frontier. Curtis was chosen to present a Social Media Strategic Boot Camp at the American Express Publishing Luxury Summit, where he discussed his 30,000-foot views of the functions, strategies and future processes of social media.

The subject of his presentation was "The Myths of Social Media" where he dealt with numerous ideas involving social media that have proven to be problemmatic, both in the short and long term. I interviewed Curtis last week, after the American Express Publishing Luxury Summit.

JustLuxe: When you say all media is self-organizing by sensibility and affinity, what do you mean? Can you give some examples of both?

Curtis Hougland: The Seattle Times did not fold because of direct competition. Social media emerged to cover local school districts, concerts, politics, sports teams - affinity by affinity. Eventually, the publication died a death by a thousand cuts, because experts covered each affinity more intimately, and often more expertly. This is how media fragmented.

Within each affinity, influencers emerged, because their readers subscribed to their greater sensibility rather than a general, neutral voice. There is a reason that the right and the left in American politics are becoming more extreme. With the proliferation of social media, an individual can more readily choose to join a community or read the opinions of people just like him/her. This is the new media landscape.

JL: When you have said that re-ascendency of brand popularity relies most generally by word-of-mouth, how was that idea conceived?

CH: The idea was conceived through experience, both as a passionate consumer of luxury goods, and a marketer for luxury brands. When you analyze how word-of-mouth flows (which we can achieve through social analytics around the distribution of links and the theme analysis), it flows by one person sharing a link. So, word-of-mouth today travels through RSS, Facebook, Twitter, email. Social media is simply the plumbing for word-of-mouth through the simple act of sharing.

Also, I realized recently that I do not go to websites, they come to me. It had profound implications for how we view the creation and distribution of content, and how we must filter every idea through its potential for word-of-mouth at the point of conception.

JL: How do you think social media has changed the context, content and the success trajectory of the luxury brand?

CH: In terms of success, luxury marketers are increasingly dependent on social media for sales and website traffic. Search, the starting point for shopping, elevates the value of social media through its algorithm. E-commerce and now social commerce are growing rapidly. By our research, luxury consumers also over-index for use of social media, although they are not always aware that they are using social media.

In terms of content, luxury marketers came to believe that they owned their brands. But, brands have always shared this control with their customers. Social media is a stark reminder of the need to balance a brand's curatorial role and history with the need to engage their customers. Social media gives vent to the tremendous passion in luxury. It is a new canvas to tell a story and hold a conversation.

In terms of content, every luxury brand is a publisher and curator. Since every piece of creative is turned into a link, luxury brands must understand the distribution of content at the inception of the creative process. Distribution must inform production. Traditional silos within luxury brands, often between in-store and online, regions, and marketing and digital, and a belief that great content alone attracts audience, prevents success at too many fashion brands.

JL: In three years, how do you think the social media conversation will be changed, or at least modified?

CH: Social Media is not a vertical. It is horizontal, because it affects every aspect of an organization from product development to marketing. Within marketing, social now plays out across the marketing funnel. Ultimately, all content, unless it is private communication, strives to be social. As a result, social media will be part of every business unit.

We will lose the distinction of social versus non-social media and the bond between brand and consumers will grow as a result. And luxury marketers will sell more products if they embrace this change.

JL: What would be your take away value from your visceral knowledge of social media as it is right now?

CH: Social media is a financial bubble marked by inflation in the cost of talent, high financial valuations, and volume of new entrants. However, real value is being built and consumer attention is quickening.

Similar to the dot-com bubble in 1999, media will sort itself within 12-18 months; growth of social media is plateauing domestically. This sorting will mark the end of the beginning of the socialization of all media.

JL: What do you think the most valuable commodity is in identification and visceral associations with luxury brands?

CH: Attention is the most precious commodity for marketers, especially in luxury. In fact, we live in the Attention Economy. If you think of Attention as a commodity, the supply is fixed and the demand is escalating exponentially.

The byproduct of this imbalance of supply and demand is the increase in the value of word-of-mouth, a more crystalline form of online attention thank click-throughs or time-spent on site. By paying attention to all of the attention data being created on your site and off-domain across the customer journey, luxury marketers have the information for better marketing.

JL: You said many people ask the wrong social media questions. If I am asking the wrong social media questions, what are the right ones, in your opinion?

CH: Here is one! Is luxury marketing still all about brand? And here's my answer: yes and no. Sixty-five percent of consumers no longer have a favorite news source. Social media is ultimately dilutive of brand, because brand content is expressed as a link in the majority of interactions.

When a user shares information, a link, their personal brand is more important than the brand of the publisher, the luxury brand. This fractured distribution results in increasingly "shared" brand equity. Most importantly, search rinses off brand in the great archive, because I select a link based on Google's choice rather than mine.

The salvation is brands recognizing this phenomenon and creating content in the context of this shift. Social has a prominent role in enriching even the in-store shopping experience.

JL: Are high-end brands doing a good job using social media? Which ones?

CH: Success depends on the objective. So, for a company such as MAC Cosmetics, which set out to build loyalty through their social channels, they have been masterful. This singularity of objective has allowed them to benefit across the funnel including acquisition. Certainly, Burberry, through Musa Smith's direction in London, has been wildly successful in using social media to dimensionalize the brand and drive engagement.

Success for luxury brands arrives by aligning objective, data and audience against channel behavior, since different channels simply yield different actions. This all then needs to be filtered through brand sensibility, to an extent.

Susan Kime

Susan Kime's career combines publishing, journalism and editing. She was the Destination Club/Fractional Update Editor for Elite Traveler, and senior club news correspondent for The Robb Report's Vacation Homes. Her work has been published in Stratos, Luxury Living, European CEO, The London Telegraph, Caviar Affair, ARDA Developments, and Luxist/AOL. She was the Editor-in-Chief of Travel Conno...(Read More)

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