“Clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right” is a catchy line from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” (don’t judge), but it also sums up how consumers feel today when looking for product information online.
The drumbeat of distrust is rising for online retail. It’s an unfortunate by-product of news media trends, social media failures and changing technology. Whereas shoppers have relied heavily on product reviews, they now lean on something new: pictures.
A majority of shoppers think visual information is more important than text when it comes to products, according to a new study from the Intent Lab, a partnership between digital marketing agency Performics and the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing. Increasingly, consumers are using visual search to find what they want.
Visual search takes a few different forms. At its simplest, it’s just a matter of entering a search query and clicking on the image tab for results in photos. Some platforms let consumers use their mobile device’s camera functions to snap pictures, while image recognition software delivers search results in the form of similar items. Others present images and let customers filter results in a visual way, by selecting icons or photos to deliver more precise results.
Younger shoppers are considered to be driving this, but the results really indicate differences that cross generational lines. Those looking for apparel and furniture cited visuals as preferable 85% of the time. Some categories ranked lower, with electronics coming in last, likely due to the importance of descriptive features. Overall, visual information is preferred over text by at least 50% of respondents in all categories except for electronics, household goods and wine and spirits.
Now pair this trend with one of the most popular social media platforms of the moment, Pinterest, and things really start to pick up steam. Pinterest introduced Pinterest Lens in early 2017, and two years later, the platform is seeing billions of visual queries a month, according to the company.
Instagram has been layering on options that make it easier to buy directly from posts. Snapchat is partnering with Amazon to test a new visual search product that lets user to hold up their camera, point at a physical product or barcode, and snap. This lets the app recognize the item and offer similar products for sale on Amazon.
Early iterations of visual search were seen in fashion shows, making some test events available to purchase live or allowing users to find similar items.
Visual search capabilities are now more available on search engines and social media platforms. According to the Intent Lab, 36% of respondents have performed or used visual search. Notably, this is roughly the same rate as those using voice search through smart assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant.
While voice has major implications for retailers and brands, it’s not quite there yet. Images are.
“We’re learning that visual cues provide a lot of quickly accessible information, and consumers find pictures easier to trust,” said Ashlee Humphreys, Medill associate professor and principal researcher for Intent Lab, in a press release. “However, they’re not immune to suspicion; consumers still think they can be manipulated, and they trust pictures from other consumers more than a company’s images.”
And here’s the twist: trust in pictures is already at risk of eroding, thanks to a steady rise in digital literacy. The more the average person understands about digital media, the harder it becomes for them to literally believe their eyes.
Some of this trust is being chipped away at by the placement of promotions and unrelated ads next to the images. The Intent Lab has been tracking consumers’ satisfaction with their digital experiences since 2016, and by October 2018, consumer trust in digital experiences was the lowest it has been since the Intent Lab began, according the study.
“Trust is the main turn off for visual search usage. Consumers believe visual search results are highly influenced by paid advertising, which they usually perceive as irrelevant to their intent,” said Esteban Ribero, senior vice president, planning and insights at Performics. “Most marketers wrongly assume visual search is only important early in the consumer journey. Our study proved that visual search is relevant throughout the consumer journey, especially in the evaluating stage in which consumers are comparing their options.”
For 24% of the respondents, this growing distrust in what they see online is due to the impression that promoted products show up first in visual search results, even when those products aren’t the best match for the search query. Roughly 16% of respondents believe visual search returns are created by paid social media influencers and 15% think they are created by brands and therefore biased.
Even videos are being gamed, and consumers know it. The political discourse and fabricated stories shared with increasing frequency risk driving yet another wedge between brands and consumers. The marketers job is getting more difficult and the retailers and brands now going direct to consumers with messaging will have to take steps to verify the truth behind their messages.
Date: February 28, 2019