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Visual centrality in e-commerce: trends impacting future success

Vladyslav Ioffe January 18, 2019

“If I’d have to pick one single thing that would sell products online, it’s images.”

This comes from Peep Laja, one of the world’s leading conversion rate optimization experts. Even though it may sound like a very ambitious statement, it is alarmingly valid.

Brands that do not have visual marketing on top of their priority list are overlooking a pivotal opportunity, which will become critical both in 2019 and years to come. In fact, not investing enough in creating compelling visual assets could entail inconsistent brand identity, poor digital experience, and inability to meet emerging shopper demands.

These implications stem from five trends in the e-commerce landscape.  

1. E-commerce’s upsurge brings changes 

E-commerce continues its exponential growth, which is forecasted to reach $4 trillion by 2020

The fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry is also gaining momentum with e-commerce. By 2022, global FMCG e-commerce sales are set to become a $400 billion opportunity. That’s an 8x increase from its current median value across 34 key FMCG markets. By contrast, brick-and-mortar FMCG sales grew by only a mere 3.6% between 2013 and 2018.

FMCG e-commerce sales are set to become a $400 billion opportunity.

Given this data, there is no denying e-commerce is deliberately determining the future success of many retail enterprises. It has shaped the way brands should build their online strategies.

Yet key success factors such as a seamless customer experience across all touch points, the level of a brand’s consistency across those touch points, and the use of visual content are fundamentally underrated – or worse yet – simply not considered.

2. Convergence of online and offline experiences 

The average customer journey to an FMCG product is comprised of up to 80 different touchpoints. And although there is plenty of evidence that digital permeates all purchase stages it’s still not uncommon to see off-brand product visuals online. This in turn adversely impacts shopper behavior online.  

It is therefore crucial to ensure a consistent brand identity across every interaction, which is not a trivial task.

90% of shoppers expect a seamless experience from a brand when engaging with and browsing for products. This even goes for groceries, whereby 80% of consumers have grocery shopped online.

Yet, it might be too early to pronounce brick-and-mortar dead. In the pursuit for increased brand loyalty and lifetime customer value, online retailers have been establishing their offline presence to target local markets and provide convenient in-store pick-ups.

Amazon now deploys its “Go” initiative by opening nine futuristic physical stores across the U.S., and other online-only merchants are planning to do the same to explore the benefits of an offline footprint.

amazon go retail e-commerce physical store
Example of an Amazon Go retail storefront.

It only further underscores the importance of brand unity, as it will also have to be maintained when shoppers transition from online brand perception to the actual offline product experience. This is true whether a product is purchased online and delivered or researched online and purchased offline.  

Uniform brand identity should be seen in all touch points. From adding an item to the online shopping cart to interacting with a click-and-collect employee or receiving the purchase via mail.

Achieving this integrity proves to be a struggle for many brands. Nearly half of shoppers report frustration with a mismatch between a product’s online image and the actual in-store experience. Even loyal customers might not be willing to stand this and can easily switch to brands that offer better consistency across the journey.

This raises an important question: How do brands ensure smooth transitions and convey rich product experiences online, while maintaining consistency at all exposures?

3. Visuals influencing shopping behavior 

The answer is through strong visual support. Truly successful brands prioritize creating compelling and consistent visual assets.  

Truly successful brands prioritize creating compelling and consistent visual assets.

Underestimating the way visuals influence shopping behavior in 2019 is to be myopic, which is reflected in the following stats: 

With that in mind, it is essential to rethink the role of visual content in brand strategy. Lack of rich product experiences and engagement was one of the key reasons limiting interest in e-commerce at its emergence. Now, when shoppers visit the product page and expect to see and feel the product in its smallest details, the number and quality of product images inevitably increases.  

4. Emerging experiential needs 

FMCG brands should be prepared to meet and exceed the experiential demands of their audiences. Less is not more for product images.  

Mere white-background pictures aren’t enough in many cases – they should be complemented by zoom-ins of product features, textural photos, and in-context shots from different angles. A combination of these improves online recognition and connection with products, as well as in-store recognition and overall higher levels of customer satisfaction.

However, even this is not where visual content hits its ceiling. Brands thinking farther ahead are creating product videos and rotatable 360° videos to integrate within their websites. A good example is Bellroy, a producer of wallets and phone cases that has enriched product pages with user-controlled interactive elements.

Bellroy’s interactive “Slim Your Wallet” tool.

Personalization is another trend sharply gaining traction in the FMCG industry that requires greater visual output. More than a third of customers are interested in products with personalized packaging, and seeing the desired bespoke item in advertising, when researching, and at the moment of purchase ensures better customer satisfaction and decreases the number of cart abandonments and returns.

5. Image scanning: the newest way to search 

Image scanning is not yet widely covered and thus far evaded “the next big thing” title, but the impact it will have on how many images FMCG brands need to produce is at least sizable.  

In 2018 users will be able to search for products on e-commerce sites not only by keywords, but also by pictures of a sought-after product. “Photo shopping” (not to be mistaken for Photoshopping) is forecasted to become the new standard together with voice search, potentially accounting for 50% of searches by 2020.

Amazon, eBay, Target, and other e-retailers have already introduced solutions to turn smartphone cameras into powerful search engines. Considering Amazon is the starting point for product search for 55% of Americans, there should be little doubt about the new tool’s viability.

google image search
Ability to search on Google using an image.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion – better diversified product photo collections on e-commerce sites will ultimately boast higher image search discoverability. 

How to meet the need?  

In the conditions of the overwhelming demand for visual content and limited resources, many creative teams turn to using retouched stock images for lifestyle and in-context shots. Yet, experience has shown that stock photography is the worst performing of all types of visuals in e-commerce and is not the shortcut to quickly building a visual brand.

So then how to meet the need for more images? 

Activate brand followers 

Engaging user-generated content (UGC) can be a way to meet the demand. Customer photos reduce the number of branded images that need to be created, spread credible voice about the brand, and even inspire new use cases. Not to mention the effect it has on customer loyalty when people see their content being used by a brand. 

Nevertheless, for many brands the disadvantages of UGC outweigh its merits and may not be suitable for replacing large quantities of visual content created in-house.  

The reasons are simple yet strong: the quality of user images is often insufficient, photos themselves are off-brand, and companies generally have a very low degree of control over how the brand is portrayed.  

Automate the tasks 

It all ultimately falls back on creating on-brand product visuals. However, producing compelling visuals in-house is very labor-intensive and time-consuming. Bringing in an automated solution is one way to alleviate the struggle. But quality must be ensured, and unfortunately is often lost when automation is paired with image production.  

When done well, automating image generation supports seamless omnichannel journeys, delivers immersive product experiences, and achieves high visibility in image search at the same time.

Emerging technology allows for doing this at scale – with no trade-offs between speed and quality. It is made possible by employing 3D modelling to generate multiple product images in real time. The process is not easy behind the curtains, but effortless for the user.

It starts with creating a base 3D shape of the product, which users can then modify the label, angle, and background of in a few clicks and export the result in seconds or minutes – not the days or weeks many companies wait to receive needed product images.

grip software image creation 3d shape
Creating an image with Grip’s software.

Automation has brought much value to brands like Heineken, Nivea, Arla, and more. Let’s talk about it and we can show you how they use Grip’s software

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