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Man vs. Machine

  |  April 24, 2012   |  Comments

Increasing online engagement through curated experiences.

Admit it. Some of the best experiences you've ever had have been curated. The different wild animals that amazed you at the zoo as a kid? That was a curated experience. Your favorite small, independent bookstore? That's a curated experience. The set your favorite DJ played the other night? Another curated experience.

The idea of people-powered curation, which was for so long the domain of museum staff, is driving some of today's most compelling online experiences. Compared to the efficient impersonality of complex algorithms designed to categorize content based on user preferences, curation is a more deliberately personal approach to presenting content that is inherently social.

The knowledge that someone has carefully prepared an experience to be discovered and appreciated by a specific audience makes it naturally more compelling than a mechanical process designed to reduce personal tastes to bits and bytes. Increasingly, brands that rely on curation to deliver experiences and offer opportunities for people to engage with their content as curators themselves will benefit from more involved, loyal audiences.

The word curate is defined as "to pull together, sift through and select for presentation" and it's at the heart of one of the hottest web properties around today: Pinterest. As a collection of consumers' favorite products and services, Pinterest provides a curated interface for users' personal interests. The social aspect of the site creates a more engaging discovery experience.

It's no wonder that brands have flocked to the site. There is an opportunity to build more consumer awareness and relevance for products and get a richer understanding of what users like and why (a self-motivated user community telling us exactly which bundles of products they use and love? Sign me up!). The nuanced combinations of products, preferences, and tastes in Pinterest users' digital "look books" create a perfect window into how they use brands to reflect their unique identities and lifestyle choices.

Compare that with the highly algorithmic discovery experience provided by Amazon. Of course, the two experiences are fundamentally different, but the Amazon model is a great example of a finely tuned machine designed to highlight the related interests of its community of users. Although Amazon's recommendation engine has been a best practice in online retail for years, its purpose is to cross-sell and up-sell products based on the purchase histories of all the site's users. The actual community of users is secondary to the products and ratings in Amazon's experience. Rather than supporting active product curation among its user community, Amazon's user ratings system for products makes it feel much more functional than a curated browse-for-inspiration experience.

The ultimate outcome of curation is to present content in a way that encourages discovery and exposes connections that might not otherwise be apparent. It suggests an "invisible hand" at work that has assembled, culled, and organized content so that it can tell a compelling story or evoke strong feelings. A curated online experience isn't complete without some social tools to enable sharing the experience with others. Imagine how compelling an online experience would be if it combined the power of community curation, algorithmic recommendations, and social media integration to drive content discovery.

Actually, don't bother. The team of audiophiles and engineers at Pandora has already done it for you. As an experience that blends the personalized nuance of curation with the efficient processing of algorithms, Pandora offers a highly engaging music discovery experience. It's possible that an algorithm alone could deliver music recommendations based on genres, vocal styles, or instrumentation, but Pandora's team of curators adds a level of depth and sophistication that's nearly impossible to accomplish with technology alone. For Pandora, curation is not just a way to manage thousands of songs, but also a way for its listeners to explore new music and share their personal tastes with the rest of the online community.

Brands should be using examples like Pinterest and Pandora to create more engagement in their own online experiences. Instead of presenting a catalog of content for users to sort and filter themselves, content could be used more strategically to tell a bigger story and involve users as co-creators of the experience to increase their engagement. As stories are repeated and gain traction in social channels, brands should provide enough depth for would-be curators to compile and highlight personally relevant content in their own networks (Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.). Algorithms can improve the functional aspects of content presentation and categorization. But adding a curated human touch to an experience - whether through a group of expert curators or a community of empowered fans - is the only way to create a personal connection between branded content and the audiences that value it as much as you do.

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McNeal Maddox

McNeal Maddox is the strategy director at Siegel+Gale, based in Los Angeles. His first experience with brand development came in junior high, when, not content to remain mere consumers of comic books, he and his brother formed their own comic book company. The brand name, logo, and signature style they created were so strong that one of their books is a permanent part of the Lynn R. Hansen Underground Comics Collection of Washington State University Library's special collections archive - and they even sold a few.

Since joining Siegel+Gale, McNeal has worked for several clients including Microsoft, Dow AgroSciences, McAfee, Genworth Financial, Yahoo, United Talent Agency, Activision, and PayPal. McNeal previously served as a project manager at FoxSports.com, where he managed the design, development, and implementation of customized promotional campaigns for major advertisers. He also worked as a web developer at ING Advisors Network.

McNeal graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a BFA in graphic design, and received his MBA from the University of Southern California.

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