Even in Blue Voda (using the Ad Banner Rotator tool), the ability to include images in what used to be limited to Flash enviornments has a dramatic impact on Customer Experience - and whether or not they became paying customers.
This is an article discussing the perspectives of "presentation" and available solutions (platforms/carts) that have been implemented to enhance both Customer Experience and profitability from Tiger Direct, one of the fastest-growing online merchants.
I have included a link for shopping carts resources at the end of the article - remember that VodaHost can support any of the mentioned technologies, and it is always up to you how far you wish to ascend to the top of online success!
Rich media applications take product display to a new level—but do they pay?
By Mary Wagner
TigerDirect Inc.’s vice president of creative Dan Brown cares about one thing: conversions. His team works hard at developing creative for TigerDirect.com, building on a base of specs and product information from manufacturers. But he’s betting that additional new content from some 40 manufacturers, enriched by technology provider WebCollage Inc. and delivered via the web to TigerDirect.com for customer viewing, will accelerate his progress.
At Anthropolgie.com, Ranjana Sharma, manager of e-commerce, already knew that the drop-off rate at some points along the check-out route was higher than she wanted. One hypothesis: sticker shock at checkout, given the price points of some of the merchandise.
“The total value of the order might be beyond the expectations of the customer. We have to make the whole process more seamless,” she says. The goal: a more user friendly experience that lets shoppers clearly see what’s going on in the cart as it happens while speeding them toward checkout. Sharma will test out a solution to that issue with a new, rich-media shopping cart from Allurent Inc. that provides just that experience soon after Anthropologie relaunches its web site this fall.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, e-retailers are hoping that moving pictures—rich media videos and interactive product demonstrations in 3-D—are worth dollars. They’re experimenting with a new generation of online renderings that look photorealistic but do something a photo can’t: allow the viewer to virtually disassemble the product or flip it upside down to see how it works. They’re trying out rendering that’s more advanced, which allows shoppers to fill an online room with virtual furniture, created in the color and style of their choosing and positioned according to their whims.
Resource-rich brand manufacturer sites lead the way in putting up advanced rich media product displays such as product configurators. For example, Ford Motor Co. launched a combination of rich media elements on its site, and realized a 467% increase in referrals to its individual brand sites, according to Jupiter Research Inc.
But such rich media applications are now trickling down to retail sites, for a couple of reasons. For one, web developers are always ahead of the mainstream e-commerce market, and innovations developed for games or used in computer-assisted design and in entertainment media are beginning to affect both consumers’ expectations of content on retail web sites and sites’ ability to deliver on those expectations.
Back from the edge
“For a time, it may have been new for retailers and a bit too on the edge for them to consider,” notes Mark Zohar, CEO of 3-D animation technology provider View22, who counts a number of game developers on his staff as the company expands its target market beyond manufacturers to retail. But much has changed over the past two years, Zohar adds, with the success of X-Box and multi-player online environments such as Second Life but one of those factors.
Another factor driving the appearance of advanced rich media features on more retailer sites is the fact that more manufacturers are now willing to provide the enriched content they’ve developed for their own sites to retail partners for free. WMH Tool Group, for example, is working on a project with technology provider Scene7 that will syndicate current product images to Lowes’ and other retailer partners through Scene7’s dynamic imaging platform. The syndication, expected to go live in the next few months, will provide end users with zooming and 360 rotation of product images supported by Scene7’s image servers. “This is something that is going to be requested by almost any major Internet retailer and eventually by all of them,” says WMH Tool Group IT director Rich Dase.
Yet another factor is that some forms of rich media are now easier for retailers to add to their sites themselves. Newer platforms have trimmed production costs and integration difficulties so as to allow retailers to offer visitors functions such as product enlargements and alternative views and image sizes. New technology from provider RichFX Inc., for example, compresses the rich media authoring process to a single window on the back end; essentially, one-click rich media creation.
It’s not only visual enhancement to content that’s extending the reach and marketing power of online stores beyond their earlier, more limited formats: some are experimenting with audio as well as video podcasts. Including those it originates and those it syndicates from other sources, Bodybuilding.com, for example, is now distributing eight audio podcasts and one video podcast, all launched within the past 12 months. Using the services of technology developer Outhink Media, Tower Records has launched a dedicated web site, Towerpod.com, that lets site visitors assemble their own podcasts from a music library containing thousands of selections already licensed for such distribution.
Retailers also are finding that Flash and similar technologies aren’t the only way to enrich content and grab customers’ attention. New web-based technology is letting manufacturers easily syndicate content they originate to describe their products—including extensive HTML content—to retailer sites, adding what can be hundreds of pages of expanded product information to a site.
For some applications, retailer investment in enriched content is minimal and the return isn’t measured directly in sales. Bodybuilding.com, for example, pays some of the outside podcasters whose podcasts it syndicates through RSS a few hundred dollars each. It spends a few hundred on production costs of the podcasts it originates, pays for extra bandwidth and keeps a dedicated web developer on staff to handle the podcasts. CEO Ryan DeLuca says the podcasts are another way to encourage repeat visits and lifelong customer loyalty, a strategy the company has pursued with the extensive informational content it posts on the site. “We get a more loyal user base coming back to the site, and some of them are going on to the store,” he says.
Elsewhere, investment in different types of rich media applications is higher, and ROI becomes an issue for whoever—retailer or manufacturer—is footing the bill. The prospective upside is that more compelling site content will directly or indirectly spur sales. But as with any other technology deployment, it can be a balancing act that weighs resources against potential gain.
An open question
As far as analysts such as Forrester Research’s Sucharita Mulpuru are concerned, the issue of retailer ROI on 3-D animation, for example—one rich media application now getting a try-out from some online retailers—is still an open question.
“The biggest challenge to incorporating something like this is the IT integration time it requires,” she says. “One has to feed quite a bit of data on the products that may or may not already exist and then plug it into a site’s architecture. And then after all that, the tool may or may not drive incremental revenue. Any sites incorporating such a feature are certainly ahead of the curve.”
In fact, they are far enough ahead of the curve that even many who are adopting rich media don’t yet know what they’re going to get out of it. TigerDirect, which had been producing a limited amount of Flash-based product content on its own, started receiving enhanced Flash as well as expanded HTML content from manufacturer partners through technology platform provider WebCollage only five months ago. It doesn’t yet have hard data demonstrating the effect of expanded rich media content on sales.
Anthropologie.com’s new Flash-built cart from Allurent streamlines checkout into a pageless application that eliminates the click-and-wait restrictions of the former cart, showing running totals of each item as added, continuously-running visuals of each item as added and a continuously-running window that shows visuals of selected cross-sells. Not yet live with the new cart, Anthropologie has expectations, but results are in the future.
Upping the add-to-cart ratio
With retailers pioneering advanced forms of rich media still gathering data on how it’s affected their sites, vendors are conducting tests at sites hosting rich media and making those aggregated results available to prospective customers. In an A/B test this summer across multiple retailers, manufacturers and products and across millions of consumers, for example, WebCollage found that shoppers served a product page offering a link to “see product information from manufacturer” featuring rich media and expanded HTML content, added products to their carts 6% to 15% more often than shoppers who weren’t served the link, depending on the product and the retailer.
Such data suggest the strategy at retail sites has evolved—or should evolve—from an earlier emphasis on how many clicks it takes to find and buy something, says Eli Singer, WebCollage CEO. “Today, the thinking of retailers is that their sites are there not only to serve people who already know what they want to buy. Most of the 95% of the people who come to a site and don’t convert are there because they are still choosing. They want advice.” If they don’t find it on the site, Singer says, they’ll have to go somewhere else to get it.
That perspective moves retailers’ use of rich media on a site beyond a question of cost versus direct ROI into the realm of the cost of doing business. And that’s where technology vendors believe it’s headed in retail, following an adoption curve similar to that of earlier enhanced content applications. “When retailers climbed on board with zoom, everybody had to do it as a cost of entry. And we believe 3-D will come to that stage fairly soon,” says View22’s Zohar, whose company, with clients such as Kohler Co. and Deere and Co., supplies 3-D technology to web sites on a hosted basis.
Rich media to help sway a decision on pricey faucets, bathtubs and even tractors is one thing, but is there a payoff in applying it to an inexpensive toy? Toy manufacturer Hasbro Toys and Games thinks so—it’s had interactive video product demos on its site for five years. It uses Exemplum Inc. to create video demonstrations of dozens of toys. Hasbro produces the videos and sends them to retail partners’ sites at no charge to the retailer.
Hasbro was looking for a way to approximate online the “try-me” packaging critical to its success in stores; that is, toy packaging open enough to allow access to a button that allows the toy to be tried out before it’s purchased. “‘Try me’ became very important to show feature benefits, because a lot of these decisions are made at the point of sale,” says director of Internet marketing services Jan Rimmel. “So I looked at demos as ‘try me’ packaging and our merchandising strategy for online.”
The toys for which videos have been produced range in price from $5.99 to $99—at the low end, well below the price of and margin on digital cameras, designer fixtures and other products accorded rich media treatment on retail sites. But Hasbro doesn’t use a toy’s price as the determining factor in deciding which products get demos.
According to Joe Chasse, Internet project manager, marketing services at Hasbro, “We look at the importance of supporting the product, and it’s not based on the minimum price. We compare the demos to other means of promoting the product online and offline, so the rich media demos are still cost effective when compared to other mediums.”
Hasbro also justifies the expense of creating the demos by broadly distributing them to retailer partner sites. “We have multiple distribution platforms for them,” says Rimmel. “If we just showed them on our site, it probably wouldn’t pay off as much because our margins are not as significant compared to something like the consumer electronics category. But by distributing them to every partner site we have seen a very positive ROI in general.”
Settling the question
Given the ability to measure consumer actions that’s a distinguishing feature of the online environment, it follows that the industry service providers who offer such measurement services are beginning to figure out how to measure the impact of rich media on retail sites and thus get closer to settling the question of direct ROI.
Omniture is deploying the new analytics functionality with a number of retailers. However, the experience of a media company already using the tool illustrates how it works. Scripps Network’s House and Garden Television channel used ActionSource on the Flash-based media player on HGTV.com to measure traffic and conversion off streaming video which ran on the site during a recent promotion. The event, the HGTV Dream Home Giveaway, was a live on-air special immediately followed by a live online broadband presentation.
On-air, HGTV encouraged visitors to go to HGTV.com for live continuation of the on-air event: site visitors could, via the live video, tour the home for the first time with the winner who’d just been announced on the TV program. In one hour, HGTV.com registered more than 500,000 requests to its server, including 120,000 first-time visitors to the site as determined by the identification of unique IDs. The analytics tool also determined that 55,000 site visitors logged on to the live video.
Listening for clicks
ActionSource is built so as to allow site operators to measure Flash activity without having to code individual elements of the Flash application. The supporting feature, called AutoTrack, “listens” for click action to determine if the click is related to a button or to movie clip activity. It can automatically capture and send that data for reporting, according to Omniture.
And as part of a new service that hosts and produces podcasts and optimizes them for search, OneUpWeb in August launched PodTractor, which tracks the podcasts. Among other metrics, the service measures for podcasting retailers when, where and by whom the podcasts are downloaded; data that can be applied across the retailer’s marketing program.
While representing varying levels of sophistication, retailers’ use of enriched content is on the rise. The longer-established and more basic forms of rich content such as zoom are approaching the standard of best practice for retailers of scale. Rich content such as podcasts, video demos and product configurators, are heading toward more widespread adoption.
Leading sites’ use of such features, whether complex or simple, reflects a truth that bears consideration for every online retailer in plotting the future: it takes a lot more in the way of product display today to get shoppers to push the Buy button at a site than it did yesterday. And given the pace of web development, it will take even more tomorrows.
:: Internet Retailer Magazine, September 2006