Adam Weiss, Senior Vice President, Rakuten Marketing

When I think about the holiday shopping season, New York City’s Fifth Avenue comes to mind. I picture families and couples walking along the snow-packed sidewalks and evenings illuminated with festive decorations and holiday lights painted across buildings. Occasionally, people will slow their stroll and linger in front of store displays, silently window-shopping for gift ideas for their loved ones.

Everyone loves window-shopping – and there’s a reason: it allows us to see how a product looks and imagine, for example, whether that sweater might suit me or that purse might suit my wife. Of course, like many aspects of our lives, window-shopping is going digital. Nowadays, customers can achieve all of their holiday shopping from home, and yet, despite that option, evidence suggests many still want the window-shopping experience – or something that replicates it.

Can online product images be the new window-shopping?

The phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” has never rung as true as it does in marketing strategy today. Great visuals allow shoppers to connect deeply with a product and the story behind it. That’s why they’re crucial to marketers who want to provide digital experiences that rival real-world window-shopping for satisfaction.

Well-designed product images accomplish three goals:

1. Create authenticity

We live in an age of marketing authenticity. Consider how influencer marketing has risen to become an effective marketing channel. Influencers – content creators, bloggers and social media personalities –are critical to both shoppers and advertisers alike. Customers love feeling that someone values their interests and can highlight key aspects of particular products. On the flip side, brands love that influencers are able to reach key audiences and be ambassadors for their company. An eMarketer study found that 71.2% of followers (and potential customers) are most engaged with influencers when the influencer is being themselves, honest, open, and “willing to call it like [they] see it.” Influencers utilize this in marketing by showing off specific products and their use. For example, a blogger may show pictures of camping gear they’re promoting for an advertiser by capturing images of how they used the product, demonstrating key features and useful qualities to their followers. In comparison to reading a product description, a lifestyle blog post showing a product in action is much more evocative. There’s no contest for shoppers – they’d much rather see the latter.

2. Establish an emotional connection

It is no secret that emotionally fueled advertisements are more effective than those grounded in logic. While both have their place in advertising, time and time again it’s been shown that making that emotional connection between purchaser and product is key to converting customers. Returning to the camping example, the difference between seeing a product and seeing it in action is also the difference between a shopper saying, “that might be a good purchase for me” and “I see myself using this product.” The second scenario will have the consumer visualizing themselves out camping, with the new products inserted in their daydream. That’s incredibly powerful. Fact and reason causes inhibitions, but emotion does the opposite – it alleviates uncertainty and helps drive customers to purchase.

There’s a second layer to this emotional connection that needs to be highlighted, and that’s the idea that images can create both an emotional connection and context. Following the example, the emotional connection (“I see myself using this product”) also creates a story: the shopper isn’t just using the equipment for camping, he or she is also visualizing friends having a great time and being impressed with their new tools. What’s more, these stories can be reinforced visually – there doesn’t need to be a ton of text to have customers create their own story if the image is authentic.

3. Compel the customer to convert

This is all great for getting a shopper interested, but do they buy? Absolutely. Using product images to persuade people to purchase a product is not a new practice. A 2012 study from Internet Retailer found that 75% of online shoppers said the most important aspect of their shopping experience was the quality of the product images. What’s more, a 2013 A/B test conducted by VWO Blog found that larger product images had a 9.46% higher conversion rate than smaller sized images. This success is built on the foundation that authenticity and an emotional connection creates.

The challenge of showcasing beautiful images

The above information is a fantastic strategy for publishers, but there’s a challenge – how to put it into practice.

Piecing together high-quality images that demonstrate authenticity, establish an emotional connection and illustrate a story is hard work, and it’s even harder for affiliate content publishers, who also need followers to actually click the “purchase” button. This difficulty can extend from layout complexities across multiple devices to placing links and images in click-inducing ways. It’s a disconnect in the digital window display for content publishers, but there are solutions.

Creating a digital showcase of products mentioned in a particular post is one of the most viable solutions, but creating code that formats correctly, looks clean and works across multiple devices is difficult and time consuming. In an era that rewards immediacy and speed, it can be difficult to get this work done fast enough.

But there are efforts being made to meet this need for speed. In September, Rakuten Marketing launched a new product designed to help publishers quickly and easily create digital showcases of the products appearing in their posts. Curate, as the tool is known, was designed essentially to help publishers create their own window displays – without the need for fiddly coding or Fifth Avenue real estate!

In building Curate, Rakuten Marketing carefully considered what was important for followers and publishers. Its showcases are fully customizable – from the images the publisher uses for branding and colors that match the publisher’s site and content.

Recognizing the importance that Pinterest has for both publishers and affiliate marketing, Curate also has the ability to work with a publisher’s Pinterest page so that followers can find products in multiple places and save them on their own Pinterest boards. Additionally, publishers are able to leverage this tool for both mobile and desktop platforms, mitigating platform concerns on the publisher’s end while making the experience seamless for followers regardless of their preferred device. In an effort to help the publisher convert followers, Curate was also designed with search functionality and filters so that followers can search for products in a number of ways including description and price.

There may never be a replacement for taking a winter stroll through shopping districts, admiring the products in window displays, but this experience certainly has evolved. Window shopping has gone digital, and publishers are looking for ways to have an edge in providing similar experiences to customers. Images that are authentic, tell a story, and create a connection do that, and Rakuten Marketing  is there to help publishers take it one step even further.