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The power of visuals in e-commerce

Brain looking at various retail photos

An ad in the March 10, 1927 issue of the trade journal Printers Ink -- promoting the use of images in advertisements on the side of streetcars -- used the phrase "One Picture Worth Ten Thousand Words," and labelled it a Chinese proverb. The writer, Fred W. Barnard, is quoted as saying he "called it a Chinese proverb so that people would take it seriously."

While the origin of the phrase is open to question (earlier variations are attributed to the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev and to Napoleon Bonaparte), there is serious brain science behind the power visual images have to convey meaning without much explanation.

"There is brain science behind the power visual images have to convey meaning without explanation."

Primal and reptilian

The brain is a complex thing, and the way it reacts to stimuli is still debated.

But many researchers, including Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, say that your primal, reptilian brain is where decisions are actually made, and that the new brain, or neocortex, is where they are later justified.

One reason visuals have the power they do is that the optic nerve connects directly to the reptilian brain, and is 40 or 50 times faster than the auditory nerve.

It's a survival issue: the reptilian brain, operating on "fight or flee" instinct, will register that there is a snake in the grass long before other parts of the brain process that information.

Visual creatures, are we

We're not on the Serengeti, and survival is rarely at stake for today's consumers.

But retailers who don't see the value in using visuals to engage online shoppers may well be taken down and eaten alive by ravenous competitors.

"Communication in today’s society is more visual than ever before."

Communication in today's society is more visual than ever before, driven by the rapid rise of connected devices like smartphones and tablets.

According to Nielsen's 2014 Digital Consumer Report, 65 percent of today's consumers are equipped with smartphones, and have ready access to social network apps like Facebook, Instagram and the new kid on the block, Pinterest.

Seventy-one percent of U.S. adults online have a Facebook account. But according to data technology firm BloomReach, which researched the conversion rate of advertising into sales, domestically, Pinterest beat all other social media sites and accounted for 22 percent more sales than Facebook.

Facebook recently announced it intends to create a "buy" section, in an attempt to compete for the attention of shoppers and dollars of retail advertisers.

In addition, Facebook now limits text in ads to 20 percent or less of the total space -further emphasizing visuals.

Pinterest, now valued at $3.8 billion, accounts for 24 percent of all U.S. social networking shares, with Facebook maintaining a strong margin at 43 percent.

In the U.S. e-commerce space, Pinterest held a 1 percent lead over Facebook, at 40 percent.

According to a Shopify study of Pinterest users, they are 10 percent more likely to buy a product than those coming from other social media sites and generally spend more than double on their orders.

Last year, 70 percent of Pinterest's content was user-generated, and, assisted by its visual design, was credited with tripling online retailers' revenues during last year's Cyber Monday.

Images are everything

Some additional evidence supporting the value of visuals:

  • Online articles that include images get 94 percent more views, according to data from Skyword, and including a photo or video in a press release increases views more than 45 percent, according to a PR Newswire study that analyzed more than 10,000 press releases.
  • A recent National Retail Federation report indicated that 67 percent of online shoppers say the quality of a product image is "very important" in selecting and purchasing a product-outranking long descriptions (54 percent) and ratings or reviews (53 percent).
  • An analysis by Web Liquid, conducted prior to the addition of Facebook's photo-oriented Timeline, found that posts with photos have a 37 percent engagement rate, compared to videos at 31 percent and text-only posts at 27 percent.

The most recent UPS research, conducted by comScore and published in the 2015 UPS Pulse of the Online Shopper TM study reinforces the high value online shoppers place on visual images and video.

At every stage of the path to purchase, the role of information rises to the top in terms of what's important to consumers.

In our study, 73 percent of more than 5,100 online shoppers put detailed product information at the top of their list, and two out of three (59 percent) said multiple product images or the ability to zoom-in were an important factor in searching and selecting products.

More than half rate peer reviews as important factors, and 42 percent say photos submitted by consumers using products are influential as well.

Significantly, when asked why they shop on a smartphone instead of a desktop, laptop or tablet, nearly one-in-four (23 percent) shoppers said "I want to take or send a picture of a product to someone and it's easier via smartphone." Anecdotally, retailers tell us higher-quality images and videos reduce return rates.

Clicking the "buy" button

Clearly, retailers with an online presence need to use high-resolution images and video wherever possible, to drive higher engagement and boost sales revenue-and take full advantage of social media.

"At every stage of the path to purchase, consumers find visual images and video to be important."

On Facebook, videos get shared 12 times more often than text and links, and photos get twice as many "likes" as text updates.

Here are some ways even the smallest businesses are capitalizing, from a recent article in Inc magazine:

  • At Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, a Columbus, Ohio landmark, an employee snaps hi-res photos and shoots high-def video of a 2,000 pound delivery of fresh strawberries. Within days the content is edited and posted on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vimeo and the company blog.
  • A company called Grommet, which markets products from small companies and inventors, uses Pinterest to help it choose products to promote online. In an online gallery of photos taken by inventors, customers can pin them, tweet them or post to Facebook. If an item gets enough buzz, Grommet will sell it.
  • AirBnb, the vacation rental service, created a short film using six-second Vine videos crowdsourced on Twitter. Assembled from more than 750 submitted clips, the resulting 4.5 minute film features a paper airplane traveling the globe. It snagged 150,000 views when it debuted on YouTube last year.

Visuals stimulate, inspire, motivate and speak volumes to customers - without saying a word, much less 10,000 of them.

Good questions to ask now are "Are we maximizing our chances of connecting with customers visually?" "What else should we be doing on our website?" and "How can we leverage social media more effectively?"

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