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The next revolution in online retailing

What if you could replicate the physical in-store experience on the web? The concept sounds incredibly powerful. Retailers could connect product experts with key audiences to demonstrate and sell physical products, just like in-store. The ubiquitous “Can I help you?” chat windows are a pale reflection, at best, of a truly interactive customer experience. It’s impossible to convey the intricate details that make a brand and its products unique in a text-only window.

What are the core components of the in-store brand experience? Certainly live interaction with knowledgeable staff is key. Social interaction plays into it too: There is energy and insight people draw from each other. Finally there’s a visual element: Customers can actually see a product in action.

Surprisingly, creating just such a live interactive product experience via the web is starting to happen. Some retailers and brands are building their own microsites for this; others are tapping vendors that offer these features as part of a branded platform. Pottery Barn, for example, recently used the latter approach to host its first summer cocktail event using a real-time video+social platform called Brandlive. Hundreds of participating consumers had a chance to learn about and purchase products as well as submit questions answered on the spot by product experts. The retailer is already planning more events.

Other retailers and brands are using these live web-based events to sell products ranging from high-end boats and outdoor cameras to slow cookers and canning jars. But they’re not just selling the product, they’re selling the experience — the chance to examine products, interact with product experts, and even socialize with like-minded folks in real-time. And the more that experience is a reflection of the brand’s spirit, the stronger the customer connection.

The secret to that connection is live, interactive video with social integration built-in. These events are a natural evolution of Omni-Channel retailing, and it’s time to prepare for this next wave of real-time authentic engagement.

When online shopping began, it was basically an evolution of the paper catalog. Consumers were trained to expect product images and short descriptions, and now the web gave them even more information and selection. Awesome! Yet that was more than a decade ago. And while online retail technology has improved, the consumer experience hasn’t changed drastically in that time.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the next revolution in online retail involves the next generation of online video. The numbers tell the story. According to comScore, in December 2013 188.2 million Americans watched 52.4 billion online content videos.  A recent study from video marketing firm Invodo found that about 90% of consumers watch online videos, and online shoppers are nearly twice as likely to make a purchase than consumers who do not view video.

But simple video, like a YouTube clip, isn’t enough to sell an experience. Experience shoppers are very particular about what matters to them. They want an interactive experience, and retailers need to scale their best product experts to demonstrate how products meet customer’s needs.

What retailers need are product demonstrations for the digital generation. It’s likely that your online customers are already interacting via video; applications like Skype, FaceTime, Snapchat and Google Hangouts have become popular methods for online communication. These interactive video+social microsites, on the other hand, extend that experience considerably, giving customer’s quality content and live access to the experts who know the products inside and out. And the results matter: companies are getting two to three times traditional ecommerce conversion rates, quickly capturing the attention of industry leaders such as eBay, which is also experimenting with the approach.

Recently, retailer Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI) joined forces with adventure camera company GoPro to pre-launch an anniversary sale camera bundle. During this event, consumers received VIP treatment and special pricing. All it took was a branded webpage, affordable video equipment and the product experts. Both companies promoted the events through social media and email marketing. Once completed, the archived video was available for future sales promotions.
    
While we will always have static catalog-like e-commerce pages, there is a growing swath of retailers, brands and consumers who seek something more: more interactive, more engaged, more authentic.


Fritz Brumder is CEO of Brandlive.