May 27, 2010, 3:11 PM

Not a Stretch

Rich media is no longer just for the e-retailing rich, as vendors offer more affordable and flexible options.

Many visitors would get to the Fit Guide page of the e-commerce site of high-end denim manufacturer and apparel retailer 7 For All Mankind and leave. Then the retailer spiced up the page with a widget that lets shoppers scroll back and forth between styles without leaving the page.

"Since the launch of the widget, the Fit Guide has become one of our highest-visited sections," says Lisa Lee, e-commerce manager. The e-retailer repurposed the widget—a small application for enhancing the way data displays on a web site—for a holiday gift finder, and now is adding a shop-by-outfit widget.

At one time it might have been a big deal for an e-retailer to develop, test, integrate and support rich media applications like these. But 7 For All Mankind is just plugging in widgets from software technology firm Allurent, which offers a software-as-a-service widget subscription. Allurent hosts the 22 widgets currently available, and e-retailers access them via the web to display on their sites.

Adding widgets gets easier after the first implementation, Lee says. That's because the initial integration between Allurent and a retailer's product catalog, add-to-cart service and analytics system is re-used with each additional widget. The initial set-up takes about three weeks on average, Allurent says, and a widget can be tweaked with new merchandising and branding and relaunched in a few days.

Retailers can add as many widgets as they want. Fees are based on a site's average monthly visits, and typically range from $3,000 to $10,000 per month, Allurent says. Allurent has about 25 e-retailer customers.

High-end e-commerce platforms usually build in a range of widgets that retailers can deploy, but this service is valuable for smaller retailers that can't afford high-priced technology, says Igor Gorin, CEO of e-commerce technology firm SysIQ. Forrester Research Inc. analyst Brian Walker agrees. He says building widgets can be challenging, and expensive for retailers that rely on outside agencies. "Platform providers have been working to make this easier, as are firms like Allurent," Walker says.

And it's not just scrolling widgets that are more accessible. Vendors of the rich media technology that makes e-commerce sites come alive have lowered the bar to adding features like zoom, spin and video, bringing them within the reach of smaller web merchants, and easier for all retailers to tailor to their needs.

Must-have features
That's a good thing because consumers are getting used to seeing rich media on e-commerce sites. A poll early this year of 152 mostly midsized and larger merchants by research firm The E-tailing Group found 92% offer alternative views, up from 79% a year earlier, 80% offer video versus 71% in the earlier poll, and 60% had 3-D visualization, up from 49%. And those merchants give such features high marks. 74% said zoom was valuable, compared with 69% a year earlier, and 68% said the same for video, up from 58%.

Like 7 For All Mankind, other online retailers are finding rich media easier to add, and vendors more able to meet retailers' requirements.

Outdoor apparel and gear retailer Moosejaw Mountaineering, for instance, chose a video platform in large part because the vendor, Invodo, can host and deliver video in a way that boosts the retailer's natural search rankings. Invodo's delivery method makes the videos appear to search engines like Google as part of Moosejaw.com, rather than as coming from an outside site, says Eoin Comerford, vice president of marketing at Moosejaw.

Comerford notes that search engine spiders can't crawl inside video to examine its content and determine its relevance. Invodo addresses that by creating a video site map for clients that shows search engines where video content resides and what it's about. In addition, he says, Invodo delivers the video content so that it's addressed through the domain structure or domain name system servers of the retailer, giving the retail site credit for the content.

Adding the video to the Invodo system is straightforward, Comerford says. Moosejaw staffers upload video via file transfer protocol, or FTP, to Invodo's site and add metadata that tell search engine crawlers what a video is about. They also assign each video an ID number that corresponds with the product featured.

When a consumer visits a product page, a snippet of code added to the page initiates a call to the Invodo server to see if there is a video for the product being viewed. If so, the page automatically displays a play button consumers can click to launch the video.

"It's literally like saying, 'I have a customer looking at product 12345. Invodo, do we have a video for that?' If we do, it will launch," Comerford says. Moosejaw plans to add product videos for its 100 best-selling items in late summer, after re-launching its site in July. Invodo charges a monthly fee for hosting and serving videos that varies with the volume of video streamed each month.

Work with me
If search rankings were a priority for Moosejaw, for HSN Inc. it was ease of use as the TV and web retailer prepared to roll out its newest piece of rich flair, streaming high-definition TV programming delivered via Microsoft's Silverlight technology. Silverlight requires a consumer to download software to her computer, and Microsoft worked with HSN to make the process of delivering the free Silverlight plug-in as simple and inviting as possible.

Initially, users without Silverlight saw a generic pop-up window with Microsoft wording explaining that the computer needed to download a program to continue. Consumers who went ahead with the installation process were sent to a page with technical and intimidating language deep within the Microsoft site to get Silverlight, says John McDevitt, vice president of advanced services for HSN. HSN worked with Microsoft to make the language easier to understand, and added the HSN logo to the message to make consumers feel more comfortable.

The rich technology feature from Microsoft also is smart, McDevitt says, the Silverlight program can detect a viewer's Internet bandwidth and adjust the speed at which it streams data based on the web connection. That means consumers are less likely to stare at a spinning circle while their player catches up, McDevitt says.

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