Get ready to be rich: Rich media technology and techniques

Nov 01, 2008 9:30 PM  By

Rich Internet applications (RIAs) aren’t all about fun and games. They offer an effective and market-tested way to tackle the chief ongoing challenge of retailing, online or off: satisfying the customer.

When designed and developed correctly, rich media feeds the emotional and rational needs of a shopper. After all, shopping is not merely a functional means to an end. There are feelings of excitement and discovery associated with the act of browsing and buying.

Don’t believe it? Ask an audiophile how he feels as he walks the aisles of state-of-the-art hi-fi systems. Ask a fashion enthusiast how she feels strolling through the latest designer boutiques. This viscerally gratifying aspect of shopping provides a groundswell of opportunity for rich media.

On the other hand, shoppers want to make smart buying decisions. Whether they are being practical or indulging in a purchase, shoppers need to feed their rational minds before they complete the transaction.

For instance, shoppers want to try out the remote control on that hi-fi equipment. They want a good look at the stitching on that beautiful purse. Again, rich media can let shoppers revel in the details.

The role rich media can play

Rich media interfaces provide the responsive interactivity of a desktop application from within a Web browser. This means it’s no longer necessary for online shoppers to laboriously submit data — whether as keyword search terms, category requests, or a shopping cart checkout form — and then wait for the page to refresh before they receive answers to their question.

Instead, the customer can make a request to see more — more images of an item; more details about this product; more items in the same color or style — and the system can immediately satisfy the request with information that is relevant and meaningful.

Same-page responsiveness benefits the “work” required of an e-commerce transaction as well: Checkout forms can be validated as the customer enters data, rather than after the entire form is complete. The result is error checking that is much less frustrating and easier to resolve.

Increased customer control contributes to a more satisfying and engaging shopping experience. Early metrics indicate that these more satisfied customers are converting at higher rates.

Common technologies used to implement RIAs

AJAX, or Asynchronous JavaScript, can be incorporated into the core HTML to drive more responsive experiences that don’t require server calls. This means that page updates load with the same fluidity that users experience when using desktop applications.

Adobe Flash movies have long been a mainstay of rich media and are increasingly driving whole site flows. Adobe’s release of the Flex software development kit helped bring engineers into the Flash fold, and has enabled the increasing maturity of Flash as a development platform.

Microsoft Silverlight is a competitor to Flash and, like the vector-based application, requires a plug-in to be rendered in a Web browser. Compared to Adobe’s 97% Web browser penetration for its Flash application, Silverlight’s footprint in the Web browser is nominal. But given Microsoft’s development and distribution muscle, the platform is expected to make reasonable progress within a short period of time.

The benefits of rolling out an enriched site experience have been keenly felt by those retailers who have risked innovation. Forrester cites that 37% of businesses report their rich media implementations perform to expectations, and 32% perform beyond their projections.

Most retailers develop brand campaigns around special products to boost market differentiation and customer loyalty. Traditional e-commerce site templates tend to treat all products the same, which can make those crucial branding efforts fall flat or even get dropped completely.

Fashion retailer Express uses rich media to put compelling product information at shoppers’ fingertips and deliver a unique brand experience consistent with other channels. At Express.com, AJAX and Flash push useful rich media content to the typically mundane “browse” and “search results” pages. By using “Express View” fly-out windows accessible from each product thumbnail image, the shopper can change the color of a garment, zoom in to inspect the details, and purchase — all without leaving the browse page.

Eddie Bauer postponed the rollout of its site redesign until February 2008 to avoid testing its projections in high-volume holiday traffic. The decision was a wise one and its rich media expectations paid off: The site redesign provides customers with a more responsive site experience through AJAX-driven interfaces in conjunction with the release of a new and updated product offering; it resulted in generous lifts in conversion rate and engagement.

Eddie Bauer rolled out the redesign in successive beta releases to its customer list, asking for feedback and monitoring the impact of traffic, before taking the entire site live with confidence that the new architecture could support the load.

Roll rich media into your customer experience

You can experiment with rich media — even during the high season — in a contained environment that will allow you to measure the impact it will have on your business. Wet Seal’s use of YouTube in concert with its online Runway to support a back-to-school promotion is one example. Others include:

Rich interactive merchandising widgets

Supercenter Midwestern retailer Meijer recently released a rich interactive Mealbox widget that allows shoppers to budget, plan meals and print coupons. Developed by Qponix, the widget lives “elsewhere” — on the customer’s iGoogle or Facebook page, or as featured advertising on the sites they frequent — mitigating risk to the core Meijer.com architecture and driving traffic to both the Website and the stores.

Many freely available rich media tools are supported by larger social networks, which have added advantages for retailers who hope to share their stories by word of mouth and draft off of the link and search engine rank equity that social networks generate.

Social shopping

StyleHive.com lets retailers create communities where they can connect to the social shopping network’s vibrant community of influencers. A merchant can merchandise to the community, create portable widgets for remote publishing and promotion, and also blog entries elsewhere. Nordstrom, American Eagle Outfitters and Timbuk2 have joined the StyleHive community.

Customer reviews

Web 2.0 technology makes the process of creating reviews painless and engaging. Implementations with vendors such as Bazaarvoice and PowerReviews are relatively low risk for merchants while providing a high rate of return. Some merchants are reporting conversion rate increases of 30% and higher.

Google and Yahoo Maps

Retailers can provide a feed of their precise store locations free of charge to ensure that they’re properly indexed within Google and Yahoo maps. Mid-range budgets can support an onsite integration of either application. But keep in mind that ads may be served inline with third-party maps, and advertising on your site can damage credibility and affect conversion.

Photo slideshows

Slide.com and Flickr.com both offer toolsets that make it easy to create rich-media slide shows that can be published inline on landing pages to showcase merchandise. Some provisions apply regarding the use of these tools to sell directly — be sure to read the fine print of your user’s agreement.

Video

YouTube is a cost effective way to serve original content not only through embedded video on your site, but also through the larger YouTube social network. All videos will be stamped with the YouTube brand, which may dampen your own brand presentation. YouTube is a great, low-cost hosting solution that is ideal for those contexts that don’t necessarily require high production values.

Dynamic image hosting

For larger budgets, a Scene7 image hosting implementation provides the benefits of Akamai caching to speed site performance, and provides several rich media features that can provide your customers with finer control over their shopping experience. These include the ability to zoom and pan images and view an item in multiple colors through color swatching. Scene7 also supports rich media catalog browsing.

The nimble nature of rich media encourages engagement and collaboration, a characteristic that propelled teen apparel retailer Wet Seal’s rich media Boutique and Runway application to success in just a few short months. Since its introduction in April of this year, more than 100,000 outfits have been created by a community of 25,000-plus registered fashionistas who share, fave and rave over outfits they and others create themselves; more than 2 million detailed outfit page views have been generated by this content.

What’s more, visitors to the Wetseal.com fashion community purchase at twice the rate of shoppers who don’t visit the community, although the real value of the fashion community is the advice it generates for all visitors at the site, not just those who are registered.

The ability to provide better answers to customer questions is another resounding strength of rich media, as Shoeline.com discovered when it released videos showing its merchandise on models across 10 SKUs.

Items supported by video merchandising converted at a rate that was 44% higher than those without video. Given the success of the experiment, Shoeline.com will release video merchandising across an additional 90 items.

Whenever you introduce rich media, take precautions so that the container pages remain accessible and findable. The ability for a page to be read by assistive screen readers — as required for ADA compliance — and effectively spidered by search engines is of particular concern to retailers.

Adobe has taken steps to ensure that newer releases of Flash allow for each, and an insightful design and development team can take steps to ensure that video and audio content is backed by text transcripts, and that rich media features are supported by HTML descriptions and alternatives, as needed.

Rich media applications, when implemented correctly, can enhance the customer experience. Whether used for community and brand building or for improving conversion, the right application can mean the difference between a satisfied customer and an excited one, or an average conversion rate and an outstanding one.

Implementations can range from simple to complex, but the important thing to remember is that the tool must be useful. Customers expect a high level of functionality on the sites they shop, and these proven applications are not just a passing fad.

Dayna Bateman is senior strategic analyst and Kevin Messing is creative director of Fry Inc., an e-business systems and services provider based in Ann Arbor, MI.