The internet today looks nothing like what it did at inception 30 years ago; now, it’s a visually-fueled, mobile community of billions of people interacting with one another, sharing information about themselves and their opinions, and distributing content near and far.
Social media platforms represent an inflection point in the internet’s evolution. Between 2004 and 2011 the public was able to join Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter at a rapid pace. Each of these platforms created unique, easy ways for customers to share information about themselves, their brand affinities, and feedback. These platforms birthed numerous other markets from influencer marketing, to referral and affiliate networks, social listening, etc. – each of which were based on the power of recommendations and the aspirational impact of social voyeurism.
Retailers – facing a sea change at the same time with ecommerce’s rise – were some of the first to embrace this new reality. A reality in which social media was the first point of access for customer search, complaints, and comments. They’ve invested billions of dollars to engage these social audiences with new technologies at every turn – trying to influence buying behavior in creative new ways that legacy channels and owned data alone weren’t able to provide.
But the social web isn’t just about re-connecting and staying in touch anymore. It’s a highly visual, multi-platform venue for self-expression and discovery, and the text and tags commonly relied upon to identify advocates and opportunities are falling short of painting a holistic picture for brands seeking to engage their audiences at large and drive meaningful revenue for their business.
How did we get here? Well, it turns out that the opportunity isn’t just the content itself, it’s actually in the images and videos that are now the dominant form of media being shared – and consumed – online. Savvy online retailers quickly began finding ways of leveraging user-generated content on their sites. To enhance the shopping experience, they began exposing browsers to content from other shoppers “just like them” who wore the dress, bought the throw pillow, or booked the vacation. Sales grew – for some – on the back of this global cycle of consume, share, consume, share.
Yet, the opportunity held within visual content is far larger than most ever could have imagined. Large both in revenue opportunity as well as the sheer scale of the visual content itself. Years ago, marketers sought every morsel of content and data they could get their hands on. If a customer was willing to share it (for free) they were buying. But all the data quickly became overwhelming, and having UGC alone wasn’t actually driving the conversions it long promised.
Consider the disjointed process of a brand, for example, “re-gramming” a customer loving their new shoes only to have the follower double tap the picture, receive an email with the Instagram picture in it and a link to the product page where only then the customer can begin the transaction. That’s a messed up process with high attrition guaranteed. Creative UGC deployments can be cute, but today the question isn’t 2012’s “are we first with this idea” but rather “does it drive revenue to our bottom line?”
Don’t believe me – look at Burberry. The brand created The Art of The Trench to encourage customers to post images of themselves in the brand’s classic trench coat, resulting in a 50 percent rise in sales within a year of launch. The key was that they connected the UGC – that moment of visual inspiration – directly to the opportunity for a purchase to be made.
By integrating customer photos and videos directly into online shopping experiences, the connection to the sale is far more direct. This is what we consider true visual commerce. Not only does it make for a better shopping experience, but it actually makes the UGC truly about conversions and not just about brand engagement and reach. Artificial intelligence is emerging as a new way to enable innovative retailers to efficiently manage the assault of UGC coming at them each day and turn it from a burden to a boon, at scale. With the ability to process all images and video content, it’s easier to sort, select, and deploy relevant, timely UGC.
Even common visuals, suddenly made available each day, 24/7, when provided to customers not just as inspiration but as the first touchpoint in the payment process, reduce the volume of steps a customer must take to purchase the product they seek. Every step that can be removed through visual commerce – ensuring the visuals on your site are truly shoppable – is a material step towards improving the shopping experience and customer’s likelihood to make a purchase.
Oliver Tan is CEO and Co-Founder of ViSenze