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GUEST COMMENT Making ecommerce more human with AI and UGC

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From McDonalds’ virtual reality Happy Goggles to Sony’s tiny in-ear personal assistant, 2016 is set to be a year where your futuristic fantasies may become a reality. But how can online retailers keep up with this fast-paced tech world reducing consumers’ attention spans? By embracing and deploying new technologies in the right way for their audiences.

But while consumers are being drawn into hi-tech, marketers mustn’t forget to remain human with their marketing strategies as it’s crucial for consumers to be able to relate to ads. Ultimately, being human is crucial to converting consumers into buyers. As illustrated in Nielsen’s recent report, personal recommendations remain the most trusted form of advertising, as 81% of UK respondents say.

Styled by artificial intelligence

When it comes to fashion, many consumers still like the ‘in-person’ experience – from trying items on, seeing what they look like, and ensuring they’re comfortable – and online must be able to match up. The in-store experience is also favourable for some due to the suggestions and help of sales assistants. With the arrival of AI, retail brands can harness technology to offer a more personalised shopping experience.

Let me explain how. Retailers have traditionally worked on the basis that consumers enjoy shopping, but many people simply don’t have the time to create a personal style, or hunt for new brands. A key element missing but needed to successfully convert consumers online is someone confidently assisting them at each stage. While introducing personal shoppers via live chat would be effective, it’s expensive to scale. Building an AI-powered personal shopper is a more scalable and ingenious way to lead the consumer to the point of purchase. Using an AI model means it can learn as it’s used, becoming more proficient and intelligent over time.

In fact, The North Face is now merging big data and AI to challenge this issue and bridge the gap between in-store and online shopping for consumers. The North Face has launched an AI-powered personal shopping assistant called XPS in collaboration with IBM Watson and Fluid. The tool works by guiding users through the online shopping experience, acting as a digital brand expert. Remarkably XPS relies on a natural language – one of the most successful applications of AI to date – which lets the user speak their computer as they would in store to another human being.

XPS also removes friction points associated with online shopping, such as the need to search for products you want to purchase which can often dissuade consumers from continuing to shop often referred to as The Paradox of Choice. When confronted with too many options consumers will opt most often to make no purchase at all. AI based ecommerce can actually help alleviate this human behaviour, exacerbated by online shopping, by curating an initial set of choices for the consumer, while still giving them the final decision.

To relate is human

Despite the explosion of ecommerce it’s important to remember that consumers still choose what they want to see as demonstrated by the rise of ad blocking. A fifth of UK adults now block ads according to the IAB, up 4% since November 2015. Add to this the huge revenues lost from shopping basket abandonment – up to £6 billion for UK retailers on mobile only – it becomes evident that strategies to retain consumers and encourage them to complete their purchase journey are vital.

Authenticity and user-generated content have a strong part to play in this. Injecting authenticity into the customer’s ecommerce journey is powerful: an Olapic consumer survey report reveals that up to 55% of consumers trust customer photos more than they trust brand or professional photos. What’s more, 63% of consumers have postponed or decided against a purchase due to unhelpful product photos. The brand Wool and the Gang have grasped this notion. To improve ecommerce conversions they adding visual content in the form of UGC to their marketing strategy which resulted in average order value that is 24% higher for visitors who interact with the user images. The power of UGC lies in genuine people, relatable environments and realistic imagery; where customers can imagine themselves owning a featured product more easily and encouraging purchase.

Whether it’s leveraging AI or UGC, brands need to embark on a journey to optimise the human experience, rather than embracing and implementing technology purely for its sake. Technology only changes things when it has a clear purpose and adds value, and as Wool and the Gang and The North Face have shown, when you think about what people need and what will give added value to their purchasing journey you will engage, earn and keep these customers.

Jose de Cabo is co-founder of Olapic.

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