September 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Laying the Groundwork

Rich media wows shoppers, boosts sales and builds brands—if e-retailers build it right.

By Mary Wagner

The doting mom of a budding karate enthusiast will make sure her aspiring Jackie Chan has the gear the sport requires, including a bag to get it all to the local dojo. But on Lillianvernon.com, she can take it one step farther-she can personalize a martial-arts-themed gymbag with the child’s name. And she doesn’t have to guess at how the personalized bag will look before she orders it: a preview feature, created and hosted on the site by ChannelAdvisor Corp.’s RichFx, allows her to type in the name and instantly see an image of the bag with the name stamped on it, exactly as it will appear on the finished product.

It’s just one example of the rich media features that e-retailers are launching on their sites-from simple zoom enlargements and rotating views to videos, product configurators and wardrobing features. On e-commerce sites, rich media most often means images that give site visitors more visual information about a product, or provides content that reinforces the brand.

With conversions up about 15% across all of the products to which it’s added the preview feature, staff time to implement the needed changes is the only thing that’s limiting the number of products accorded the preview treatment on Lillianvernon.com to only about 2% of personalizeable products so far, according to web merchandising manager Anthony Johns.

“We’re working on doing this for all of them,” Johns says.

Many retailers have reported that when they add rich media to their site, increased conversion follows. Yet a recent Internet Retailer survey shows only about a third-35.1%-of retailers responding have deployed rich media or videos on their sites. The rest, and thousands of other retailers operating e-commerce sites, remain on the fence, with questions about the technical challenge, the cost and whether the gain will balance the effort and the resource expenditure. What follows are nine tips on how to get the most out of rich media from e-retailers and vendors who have blazed the trail.

First, get ready. Putting rich media applications up on a retail site and ensuring that they run smoothly is a little like painting the kitchen-a lot of preparation may be needed to lay the groundwork for a good job.” Knowing any challenges up front will help an e-retailer manage the implementation smoothly,” says Scott Roth, CEO of Vendaria Media Inc., a technology firm specializing in rich media applications for e-commerce.

That means investigating what infrastructure is needed on the site and in its systems to support the implementation. For example, rich media embedded into a web page, as opposed to displayed in a pop-up, is more appealing and results in higher conversion, Roth says. That requires designing the page from the outset with rich media in mind.

Some other technical considerations include determining whether the e-retailer’s content management system, file structure and web host can handle rich media, Roth adds. And simply putting rich media up on a site to spin, rotate, enlarge or otherwise animate a product image isn’t as effective as also hooking the rich media presentation directly to a shopping cart, according to Roth. “This reduces drop-off and represents truly integrated rich media,” he says.

Get the whole team to the table. When Levolor Window Fashions decided to launch an online product configurator for visualizing custom blinds and shades, finding a technology vendor up to the task was half the battle. Levolor chose dynamic imaging from Adobe Scene7, which generates the image a consumer wants to see from a single master image-for instance, displaying a particular shade in the color selected. That makes it possible to present more than 100 billion possible combinations of products, colors and sizes.

But the challenges really started earlier in the planning process, according to Eric Long, senior manager for information systems application and development at Levolor. “Having the ability to deliver dynamic imaging is only a fraction of the equation to a successful configurator,” he says. “Assembling a team of product experts, web development experts, interactive experts and usability experts proved to be the most challenging. Each functional expert approaches a product configurator from his own point of view.” Though it made settling on the ideal user interface for the configurator a lengthy process, in the end, the broad perspective produced a better outcome, he believes.

Clean up the data. The technology that lets visitors manipulate a product image gives only as good as it gets from the retailer. That means retailers must provide accurate and properly categorized product data, Johns says.

“Let’s say that you had a particular SKU labeled B, which your data identified in one category as meaning black, but in another category as meaning blue,” he explains. “The tool could grab the wrong SKU and show the item personalized in black, when the customer wanted to see it in blue. This can be a huge issue.”

Check the pipe. The offerings at the online store of the British Broadcasting Corp. television network include digital downloads of video and audio programs ranging from its Jane Eyre TV drama series to recordings of common British garden birds. BBCshop.com provides sample downloads in both video and audio formats for certain products, using the rich media platform of technology vendor Venda. By being able to spread bandwidth demand required to support the dense files across multiple servers in the vendor’s network at peak times of demand, such as during the holiday shopping season, BBCshop.com ensures the clips load and play quickly. And that leverages the sample clips for a higher conversion rate on those products than on the digital products that don’t offer sample downloads, according to Alison Pennington, head of e-commerce and mail order.

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