When we talked to her nearly three years ago, StyleHaul CEO Stephanie Horbaczewski was banking on a big investment: her own shoppable video player.
StyleHaul, the digital fashion and beauty platform, got its start in 2011 on YouTube with style how-tos and beauty review videos starring and produced by a growing network of millennial influencers. By early 2013, StyleHaul was the No. 1 style and beauty channel on Google’s video giant, with a network of nearly 2,000 video bloggers across 41 countries.
“That Kool-Aid I drank with everyone else,” Horbaczewski tells Fast Company, looking back at her video platform plan. “With this many video players out there, it’s just not the direction I’m interested in.”
Shortly after her appearance in our June 2013 issue, Horbaczewski saw the writing on the wall: The network didn’t have a catalog of original video massive enough to warrant its own player. An explosive trend toward social storytelling on platforms like Snapchat forced her to halt the platform development in its tracks and reconsider her plans. Horbaczewski decided the network would continue publishing its multichannel content on native platforms like Instagram and YouTube.
In late 2014, European entertainment company RTL Group bought a controlling stake in StyleHaul for north of $100 million and has since invested $20 million in improving the platform and its tools for tracking social and video impact.
Now StyleHaul has 7,000 influencers creating videos in 86 countries (half of them outside the U.S.), a staff of more than 100, and more than 500 million social fans. This summer, the company launched its first foray into original scripted content on YouTube with Vanity–a drama starring Denise Richards and model Karrueche Tran, sponsored by Maybelline. An upcoming scripted series will even feature one of StyleHaul’s own influencers as a producer.
Here’s how Horbaczewski mastered social storytelling and made it a tentpole of her business:
The first step, Horbaczewski says, is to stop thinking of social publishing as a one-sided action.
“I’m so sick of hearing the word ‘follower’ or ‘fan.’ You’ve got to return to the word ‘community.’ I think that’s actually changing the entire trajectory of StyleHaul. The joke around the office is, ‘Every advertiser wants to replicate the Ice Bucket Challenge.’ And that was entirely based on a community activity,” Horbaczewski says. “How do we take the stone, drop it in the water, and make sure that each outstanding circle that comes out from it–that we continue to insert in whatever our objective is?”
To keep interactions authentic, Horbaczewski says publishers need to think of the network as a whole, including all creators and users. For StyleHaul, whose bread and butter is pairing its influencers with advertisers for branded videos like beauty samples, she says it’s not just the “top” influencers that perform well in converting views into transactions. StyleHaul data has shown that even the smaller-time influencers have an impact, so the platform focuses on supporting its network as a whole rather than putting its efforts behind a few influencers.
“Think about scrolling through your feed. I knew I liked a post this morning, but I don’t remember what it was. But if I saw something 15 times–the way you saw the Ice Bucket Challenge 15 times every single day–it has much more impact,” Horbaczewski says. “How do we marry that idea of influence, but with scale and individualizing that content? It means you have to activate more users.”
StyleHaul used to work to gather influencers–a crucial part of the social video model. But now the network has reached such a large scale that it’s no longer about one influencer. “It’s about using 50 or 100 in every campaign,” Horbaczewski says of branded content featuring StyleHaul influencers.
StyleHaul uses a mix of proprietary data gathering and data companies like Tubular to track user behavior.
But Horbaczewski remembers a time when the StyleHaul algorithm for matching influencers with brand partners was ultra personal, with the platform doing most of the lifting in the selection process. Then the pendulum swung in the opposite direction–the company used its data cocktail for just about every single decision it made. But now (even given StyleHaul’s enormous scale) the model is back to being a mix of high touch and data-based decisions.
The method comprises three steps. First, Horbaczewski’s team consults with the brand on what they’re looking for. Then StyleHaul uses its algorithm to weed out those who might not be a fit (if a brand sells only at Ulta, for example, StyleHaul removes all influencers who deal with Sephora). Then the StyleHaul team goes through the candidates with a “high-touch” lens, taking into account details like whether the influencer is going through something personally, or whether she’s trying to move away from style and into cosmetics.
“It was so high touch in the beginning, and then we tried to shift into everything being data. Again the life cycle returns to it being a mix,” Horbaczewski says.
“Trying to make someone adapt to something they don’t have a need for is an uphill battle,” says Horbaczewski of the dormant video player StyleHaul built in 2013. She also killed a website project for the platform that would have put StyleHaul in the editorial business with publishing on its site. Horbaczewski realized her brand was the conversation and content around products instead of reportage about them, so her strongest bet was to publish on existing social media platforms.
Horbaczewski has to meet her users where they are. As such, StyleHaul never publishes identical content on two platforms.
“Now we look at video and we think for a core video that’s 10 minutes on YouTube–there’s two minutes that are right for Amazon, there’s probably two or three minutes that are right for Facebook, 15 seconds that are right for Instagram, and seven seconds that are right for Twitter. You can look at it, and now this asset became six different stories,” Horbaczewski says. “One component of it is, How do you find the right story using the content you have for each platform? And the second is capturing the creation that they’re doing. How do we activate people that want to talk about the specific brands?”
While StyleHaul couldn’t make shoppable video work at the time, Horbaczewski knows her network does play a big part in fashion and beauty commerce through the process of authentic social discovery.
“We’ve got to start thinking more about how we use video aspects on social platforms and how we use social platforms, not about how to make people buy things. We do make people buy things, but it’s through storytelling,” she says. “It’s less about the actual transaction and more about the activity.”
Up next: Horbaczewski wants to make the StyleHaul tool less directed at traditional networks and advertisers, and more B2C to help its producers track their own performances and get paid to make the social content they’d already create.
“What I want is some type of tool where they can authenticate and follow up on opportunities. Because they’re still going to go to other platforms, too. We’ve seen that with aggregators of social platforms–it’s similar to shopping in a video. It’s just not a behavior people want to do. I like to go to Instagram to do my Instagram thing. Then I go to Twitter to do my Twitter thing. I don’t want to see them all in one page. It’s a journey for me,” Horbaczewski says. “Our tool is really more about how we connect the advertisers to all of these influencers, as part of what is already a very successful partnership we already have with these people, and the user journey we already have. But it’s extending into the further community–into the 500 million fans.”