September 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Laying the Groundwork

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The need for speed. It isn’t just pipe size that e-retailers should keep in mind when making sure that rich media applications won’t overload servers and will perform as expected on a site-there’s another way to reduce the load of heavy media files before they even get to the web page. The length of videos on the sites of Pets United LLC, for example, run from an average two minutes for a basic instructional video to as much as ten minutes for a horse-training video. But the retailer wants the videos-even the longest ones-to fully load prior to play so as to better integrate them into the shopping process. Speed was critical so as not to disrupt the customer experience.

For Pets United, the answer was to compress the video files. “Compression kept file size to a minimum without reducing quality,” says Donnamarie Mazzola, director of marketing. EMG Productions Inc., which produces the videos for Pets United, developed a custom formula for compressing the video files.

Know the risks. Rich media applications often are hosted by an outside company. And each remotely hosted application added to a site increases its vulnerability to hackers trying to get at confidential information, such as customers’ credit card numbers.

“Assume that the pathway-any sort of bi-directional communication, anything coming back to your web site-is suspect,” says Jeffrey Hammond, senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. Retailers should take precautions on the server side regardless of whatever applications they’re using, to examine everything that is coming back up the pipe, and make sure that they only accept what they expect, Hammond adds.

The question e-retailers need to ask, Hammond says, is, how aware are their developers of what they need to do to protect the site and its systems? That’s true whether the retailer’s I.T. team is writing its own code or having a third party assembling the e-commerce system, he adds. “How much are they thinking about the potential security implications of the code they are writing, or the components they are pulling in, while they are doing it?” he says. “Developers are incredibly busy and sometimes they don’t necessarily know what they have to do about it.”

As a fix, Hammond points retailers toward packaged software that runs security scans to look for common mistakes in code. He also advises e-retailers to build a regular step into their process in which they run such a scan before deploying any new packaged system or application, or new link to an outside vendor. The security scan software can run $10,000 to $20,000, he adds. But balanced against the potential losses from a security breach, Hammond says, “They’re an insurance policy. They make sense even if they only close five to ten loopholes.”

Measure the return. Analytics vendors have created new tools capable of measuring how site visitors interact with rich media features-even tracking this to calculate return on investment. This can take a new use of rich media on a site out of the realm of the experimental and earn it a dedicated place as a line item at budget time.

Pets United is adding to the more than 1,200 instructional, breed-specific and product videos already on its sites at the rate of about 100 new videos per month, according to Mazzola. With plans to spend as much as $1 million on online videos over time, the company needs an ongoing read on how the videos are contributing, to ensure that they justify the continued investment.

To get that read, it uses a recently developed module in Omniture’s Site Catalyst analytics suite that records which videos customers viewed, how much of each clip and the total time they spent. It also allows Pets United to associate revenue and orders with videos viewed, showing not only that a customer viewed a video but also whether they made a purchase.

On, for example, of 615,000 site visits in August, more than half-325,000-included the viewing of a video, indicating that the videos are getting customers’ attention. And since the videos launched, conversion rates are up “slightly” over historical conversion rates, according to Mazzola.

“The increased traffic and viewership that we attribute to our rich media capabilities is of tremendous value in terms of branding and visibility,” she says. “But every marketing initiative we undertake needs to be justifiable in terms of ROI. And for us, that means using the analytics to measure how video viewers engage, convert and return to our site to purchase.”

Sustain the commitment. With over 100 billion different ways its custom blinds and shades can be combined for visualization on its site, “The need for dynamic imaging was obvious,” says Levolor’s Long. But finding the right technology provider was only part of what it took to make the feature successful on the site, Long explains. Keeping the tool updated based on changing consumer insights and trends is an ongoing commitment if it’s to keep customers interested in it and satisfied with using it.

For example, Long says, as more customers used the configurator, Levolor observed repeat behaviors in how they would navigate it. This helps guide programmers to optimize the positioning and display of product options within the configuration process.

“If we know 80% of people always select a specific option, then we have data to support whether or not this option within the configurator should be defaulted,” he says. “This can dramatically improve the perceived speed with which a consumer can navigate our site because there are fewer clicks and decisions they are required to make. It’s important to monitor these trends in an effort to drive continuous improvement with the online product configurator experience.”

Too often, he adds, organizations invest in a product configurator but neglect to plan post-launch improvements.

For buying and branding

While the technical challenges of implementing rich media on e-commerce sites can be great, so can the rewards. Making product images and content interactive offers the prospect of a direct sale, by giving consumers more of the information and detail they need to made a confident buying decision online.

And with an increasing number of the Internet Retailer Top 500 now using some rich media format on their sites, online shoppers are coming to expect more than static images and text when considering a purchase. As that trend continues, this stands to make the presence of rich media on e-commerce sites a mark of brand cachet as well.

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