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GUEST COMMENT Rise of the visual consumer

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In the beginning, there was text; now, the image rules. Since the birth of the web, a series of changes have seen the original text heavy, one-way websites built and published by brands replaced by the collaborative blogs and wikis of Web 2.0. Today, power has shifted dramatically towards the consumer. The line between social media and commerce is becoming increasingly blurred, user generated content has emerged as a viable means of generating revenue, and savvy brands are harnessing the power of the photograph to provide a more meaningful offering to their audiences. A new breed of visually driven consumer has arrived.

The global proliferation of mobile devices among consumers has arguably been a major driver for the increase in image-heavy content online – transactional mobile sites rely on the immediate impact of images to convey the look and feel of products quickly to customers, as long-winded text-based content is a chore to process on-the-go via a small screen. In addition to this, the rapid growth and increased popularity over the past few years of image and video-based social media and blogging platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram, Vine and Tumblr has resulted in an online world that is shaping the behaviour of people offline. One of the most important changes we have seen is the degree to which photo and video platforms are having an impact on the way consumers are choosing to shop.

Recent research shows just how deep this trend goes. A late 2013 retail industry study found that sales of that iconic fashion staple, the ‘Little Black Dress’ had been declining sharply, with consumers favouring brightly coloured and patterned items instead. Pureplay retailers including and ASOS reported that colourful items were selling over double the amount of black ones, which bucked the ongoing trend towards the classic LBD that had lasted for decades. Theories for the findings revolved around the idea that black clothes simply do not look as good in photos as their camera-friendly colourful counterparts – leading to the conclusion that, for the ‘Instagram Generation’, looking visually appealing online (and racking up extra followers in the process) is now seen as more important than how an outfit looks in the flesh.

There are various measures retailers can take to tackle issues like this directly. Investing in new and creative ways with product lighting and imagery techniques can bring out the best in black clothing to avoid it looking ‘flat’ or dull in photographs. Many brands are tapping in to more broad-reaching tactics to attract the legions of social media enthusiasts who are moving fast towards a customer life shaped, and dominated, by the visual.

Recent research from Adobe highlights the power that the image represents for online retail; the cost-per-click of Google’s Product Listing Ads (search ads that include richer product information beyond simple text, such as a photograph) spiked by 70% in the final quarter of 2013, while its standard text ads saw an increase of only 4%. Google has also introduced 360-degree imagery to some product photo sets on its shopping platform as a means to help products jump off the page and allow customers to find their desired products and reach a purchase decision more quickly. With 360 degree photography, a consumer can take control of a photograph and view the product from every angle.

Several retail platforms now borrow directly from the image-driven grid layouts of social media sites like Pinterest. Community-powered, curated shopping site Polyvore is a great example of this, with its users (young and female, in keeping with the vast majority of image-heavy social platforms’ demographics) creating collages of items they love and sharing them across the web. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of this visual user generated content is fashion-based. Self-described as ‘the world’s largest style community’, Polyvore now has over 150 million monthly users, and since becoming profitable in 2011 has become one of the most successful online social commerce destinations.

Pinterest, the original visual discovery tool, has long been harnessed by brands aware of its influence with shoppers via Pin It buttons on product pages, but has recently started to develop its own commercial strategy: Promoted Pins are now showing up on members’ personalised feeds to showcase paid content from brands working with Pinterest to draw attention to products that are likely to appeal to individual users. Newly introduced Rich Pins have taken this idea further with detailed product information, including real-time pricing and availability, as well as where to buy, appearing on the pins themselves.

In perhaps the most profound example of the degree to which online is leading offline shopping habits, several retailers are now experimenting with using social networks like Pinterest to boost sales in physical stores via the perceived validation of social media; US brands Nordstrom and Target recently introduced ‘Top Pinned on Pinterest’ retail displays in their bricks-and-mortar stores to reassure customers that the products in question are popular with their online peers. In effect, retailers are giving shoppers a social stamp of approval.

Of course, the image-dominated consumer movement is nothing without the millions of ordinary people fuelling it by creating, curating, uploading and sharing content every day: image-sharing has become so ingrained in our culture that ‘instagram’ and ‘pin’ are now verbs as well as nouns in common vocabulary. This is where mobile has played a huge part – consumers taking smartphones with them wherever they go means they are easily able to snap images and upload them immediately. What’s more, they are constantly uploading content about brands they interact with. Brands should be carefully monitoring user generated content featuring their products for data gathering purposes, but should also be actively using it as a key element of their marketing and product merchandising strategies. The draw of peer approval is strong, and even something as outwardly simple as aggregating organic user-submitted images of a product on Instagram and displaying them on the brand’s website can go a long way towards boosting customer confidence, as well as ultimately increasing sales.

While user generated images are incredibly easy to produce, it is equally important not to neglect the traditional product photography that consumers still rely on to make up their minds on a purchase – with increasingly varied and growing catalogues, high-quality images have the potential to become expensive and time-consuming to create. Workflow-management systems and studio automation techniques can assist in making the process as painless as possible.

As the trend towards less text and more visual content in ecommerce continues, it is clear that the relationship between brands and consumers has fundamentally changed: customer engagement via Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr and Flickr is growing fast, and retailers must sit up and take note by entering into a more symbiotic, reciprocal position with their audiences.

Retailers who are able to keep up with their consumer base by providing creative, immersive visual experiences will be positioning themselves for better sales, reduced return rates, increased loyalty and more meaningful interactions with the new breed of visual consumer.

David Brint is managing director at imagery software specialist SpinMe.

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