September 1, 2006, 12:00 AM

Beyond Zoom

Rich media applications take product display to a new level—but do they pay?

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.

Seamless process

“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.

Podcasts

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.

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