Shoppers expect visuals to cater not just to product search, but also to discovery. Columnist Steve Tutelman examines how this impacts holiday selling.
Retail marketers often use “visual search” and “visual discovery” interchangeably to refer to the use of images and videos to find products. But as the visual world evolves, these terms are diverging to encompass separate parts of the customer journey. Visual search implies intent. Visual discovery implies curiosity.
While platforms like Google are well-suited for capturing consumers who know what they’re seeking, Pinterest and Instagram also can excel in those moments when consumers roam online and stumble upon brands and products that excite them.
This distinction is important to understand as consumers develop new expectations around the purpose and capabilities of visuals in their online shopping experiences. Increasingly, consumers want media such as lifestyle images, shop-by-look features and photo-recognition tools to cater not to just search, but also to discovery.
As a result, retail marketers are rethinking what visual discovery means for their strategies, particularly with the holiday shopping season approaching. Visual discovery is an increasingly important marketing process that, when optimized well, can help drive stronger customer engagement and purchase during the critical holiday time and year-round.
How consumers discover products
Consumers have a bevy of choices for discovering products. According to a MarketingSherpa study, the top three ways US consumers discover new products are:
- in-store browsing (59 percent agreed).
- word-of-mouth from friends, family and colleagues (57 percent agreed).
- using a search engine (47 percent agreed).
Similar trends are found globally. A Nielsen study, which surveyed 30,000 consumers across 60 countries, found that friends and family, TV ads and stores are the top sources of information about new products.
It’s no surprise that stores are a leading referrer. In-store browsing is an immersive, contextual, visual experience — essential in a world where sight is the most powerful sense to engage in any marketing context, online or offline.
That’s why visually focused social channels can be so successful at fueling discovery. “Images on social channels are the modern-day equivalent of window displays. They exist to capture attention and draw people in,” Apu Gupta, CEO and co-founder of visual commerce platform Curalate (a partner of my organization, Sidecar), told me.
Innovations including shop-by-look tools and virtual fitting rooms can similarly evoke the real-world discovery experience by emulating the activities of browsing products, trying them on and getting help from a store associate. In this sense, the digital experience can feel more organic, authentic and personalized — qualities that especially attract millennials and Gen Zers who represent the future of retail.
Connecting visuals to purchase
Evidence shows that self-guided experiences are strongly tied to purchase. In a poll conducted by interactive video provider Rapt Media, 46 percent of US consumers said that the content they find on their own influences their purchase decisions.
And not just any content. Visuals.
Consider the role that image-heavy sites like Pinterest are now playing in the discovery-to-purchase journey. Some 44 percent of global internet users said Pinterest is a great place to browse for things they might want to buy, according to the Internet Trends 2017 Report. That’s up from 33 percent in 2015.
Visuals remain integral to the search phase as well. Some 72 percent of internet users always or regularly search for visual content before making a purchase, according to PowerReviews. And visuals continue to demonstrate their importance in the research and evaluation stage. According to a 2017 study by BigCommerce and Square, 78 percent of online shoppers said they want more images from e-commerce sites.
How far will visuals reach?
Visuals have always been vital to online shopping. What’s changing is how consumers expect to use visuals in their discovery process and subsequently throughout their customer journeys.
Marketers have new opportunities to interact with consumers earlier and more often — two elements that have always formed a critical advantage during holiday selling. Here are predictions on how visuals will play out in successful marketing strategies for the holiday season and beyond.
Marketers will get more granular with visuals. Visuals are a jack-of-all-trades. They can drive not only product discovery, but product education, purchase, sharing and evangelism. However, the visuals that are relevant in one stage might differ from those that are relevant in another.
In the discovery phase, a consumer could be open to viewing 2D images of many styles of ski jackets. (Let’s say the jacket is a gift to herself.) By the end of her product evaluation, she wants to view 360-degree views of red, down-filled, hip-length jackets.
And once she’s bought her selection and fallen in love with it, user-generated content becomes important. The shopper posts a picture of herself and the jacket on Instagram, which the retailer can heart to give the love right back. Retailers will increasingly strive to align visuals with all these phases of the holiday customer journey. Which leads me to the next prediction…
Visuals will help retailers organize around the customer, not the channel. Marketers typically think of their holiday strategies in terms of channels. But to always be relevant, marketers must plan around the customer.
To the consumer, shopping is shopping, no matter where and when it happens. Touch points are everywhere, and consumers expect a consistent experience throughout all those engagements.
Visuals have the potential to drive that consistency, because they thrive across channels — search, social, display, email and e-commerce sites. Marketers will increasingly think of visuals holistically and better understand how visuals can be a thread that unites messages and experiences across channels.
Lifestyle images will heavily influence the holiday shopper journey. A powerful way to sell products is to put them in consumers’ hands. While this isn’t possible in digital interactions, lifestyle images on social channels can provide the next best thing by letting consumers imagine products in their hands, and in the hands, homes and lives of their friends and family.
“Lifestyle content doesn’t just inspire — it sells,” said Curalate’s Apu Gupta. “We’ve seen brands grow revenue per visit by nearly 50 percent and increase return on ad spend by over 200 percent when they incorporate lifestyle content on site and in ads on social channels.”
This benefit is especially valuable during the intensely competitive holiday season. Images will help win sales when they demonstrate usage as well as connect with consumers emotionally. Moving into 2018, retailers will increasingly showcase products as part of an aspirational lifestyle and balance creativity with context.
Innovation in visuals will accelerate personalized marketing. Consumers see many of the same images today when exploring products and brands on social and search channels. But evolution in artificial intelligence (AI) and image recognition can bring marketers closer to personalization.
For instance, imagine being able to easily understand which image best resonates with a certain audience at a particular stage of their journey. If AI continues advancing at its current pace, retailers could start gaining much greater clarity around consumers’ lifetime shopping journeys as we move into the new year.
By the 2018 holiday season, retailers could be able to quickly and scalably serve products to their customers based on individual purchase paths.
“To truly connect inspiration to transactions, you’ll need to make the emotional rational. That’s where personalization can come in,” said Gupta. “Translating something thumb-stopping into practical recommendations is how social will sell in the future.”
First comes serendipity, then comes search
Consumers like to do more than search and find products they know. They also enjoy exploring products they didn’t realize existed, and that they weren’t sure they wanted.
Visuals are ideal mechanisms for driving discovery, because they can capture attention, convey trust and ease friction when engaging with products online.
As visuals continue to grow, marketers will influence a part of the customer experience that’s been traditionally challenging to control — serendipity. The visual-obsessed, discovery-driven shopper is now within reach.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.