What immersive web design can do for your brand

New technology is enabling brands to make their online content more immersive, even the hard-to-pin-down emotional qualities of customer service.

Good things come to those who wait. But in today’s fast-paced world it seems consumers do not have time. Whether it is reading a news story, buying a pair of shoes or booking a weekend away, people want things fast. Or do they?

In an attempt to slow down the pace, improve the experience and let content take centre stage online, some brands are embracing more interactive web platforms.

Online domestic appliance retailer AO.com has used video to showcase 50 per cent of its product range, including one in which the build quality of a washing machine is demonstrated by a member of staff performing press ups on the open door.

Quality is also central to a new digital-first series by The Economist. The publisher is using an immersive storytelling style that uses online technology to enhance the content rather than distract from it. Made.com, meanwhile, has recently launched a platform that will connect new customers with 100 ‘brand advocates’ to organise virtual or home visits so that they can see the desk or sofa they want to purchase in situ.

“We don’t all live in crumbling Venetian Palazzos or huge open plan loft conversions and, as beautiful as those promotional shots might be, sometimes it’s good to have an idea of what a particular sofa might look like in your own sitting room by looking at other people’s real homes,” says one of the brand advocates opening their home to the Made.com masses.

Online will never be the same as real life but brands are finding innovative ways to replicate the brand experience online and, critically, in a way that enhances reputation and drives sales.

AO.com’s product videos have helped sales to leap

“We are seeing three to four times the average conversion rates when there is video content available, and that is the ultimate test of whether this [approach] works,” says Andrew Kirkcaldy, marketing director at AO.com. “But more than that, the videos allow us to see how long people are viewing for and when they switch off.”

So which brands are switching on to more immersive sites and why? Are some categories better placed than others to use the technology and how are consumers responding?

Luxury brands such as shoe designer Jimmy Choo are among the early adopters of the technology. Earlier this month the brand launched a virtual showroom that lets customers view and pre-order from its new collection before products are available in stores.

Avenue Imperial provided the technology, which uses special cameras that can detail the inside of stores to an accuracy of 1cm. The company says its concept is a breakthrough in virtual shopping given that it takes hours rather than weeks to map a store. New layouts can be updated within 24 hours.

Jimmy Choo showroom
Jimmy Choo has launched a virtual showroom

Jimmy Choo chief executive Pierre Denis says the physical experience of visiting a store or showroom, which is important to the luxury market, is not easy to replicate. However, the brand’s new virtual store is “the shape of things to come”. Chinese shoppers already outspend Brits by 10 to one when visiting London’s Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street, so enabling them to shop all year round via online video offers a major new source of revenue.

Studies, such as that by Bain & Company in 2013, have shown that moving from basic catalogues to a fully-immersive 3D experience can help brands turn more clicks into sales.

“This is a game-changer in ecommerce marketing for brands,” Denis adds. “It will transform ecommerce from a two-dimensional product catalogue to a much more engaging and immersive experience.”

Although the experience of a luxury product might be difficult to replicate online, a luxury service is even trickier. Take travel, where customers buy a holiday weeks or months in advance. The average family of four heading to the Costa del Sol might be happy to book a week online, but how about those spending £15,000 for a break on their own private island?

Jenny Graham, business development director at high-end concierge service Quintessentially Travel, says: “For us, the struggle is that we are offering a service rather than a product. We have also built a brand that is about exclusivity and the one-to-one service we provide. People sometimes come to us with no idea of their budget or where they want to go so our team is experienced in questioning customers to understand the emotional side of their holiday.”

Quintessentially Travel infinity pool
Quintessentially Travel brings customer service to its website through the use of new technology

However, the website previously offered an experience that was far from the brand’s values. “It was rather dull and didn’t showcase our service offering,” Graham admits. Now it has a ‘mood board’ where customers choose one of two images before another two appear. As they navigate through the images, the website builds an increasingly detailed picture of the types of holidays that might appeal – it is akin to how many brands are using big data to develop a picture of a customer’s needs and priorities, albeit on a simplistic scale. But it works, she claims.

“Many travel sites are one dimensional, taking a transactional approach to their website designs,” Graham explains, “but buying a holiday is a very emotional experience. Our sector lends itself really well to more interactive online activity, but I don’t think many other sites are there yet.”

Research by Graham’s team found that sites were heavy on text and light on inspiration. A picture speaks a thousands words but how about a video? A report this year by Brightcove and the Aberdeen Group showed that video content users enjoy an average of 4.8 per cent website conversion, compared to 2.9 per cent for non-users.

AO.com, which has been working with Brightcove, is not far off those kinds of figures, having moved from what Kirkcaldy calls a “Heath Robinson approach” to one where video delivers added-value content that customers want and, critically, encourages them to buy.

“The key thing is to get more people watching, because when they watch it drives feedback. We are trying to put the user in control of the video and allowing them to share it.”

Viral videos are one marketing tactic but it is not the approach that AO.com and others are taking. With brands built on trust and service, interactive content can become a powerful brand ambassador when it is shared and reviewed. Furniture retailer Made.com is taking that to the next level with the launch of its ‘Made unboxed’, mentioned earlier, which enables consumers to connect with a network of 100 existing customers and take a virtual tour of their homes (see Nosy Neighbours).

Creative director Chloe Macintosh admits the initiative is “risky” but it does play into the current willingness for people to share experiences and recommendations, notably through social media. “This is not just about interacting with the website or our brand but people interacting with each other,” she says. It also plays into people’s inherent nosiness. A survey by Made.com found that 5 per cent of Brits have used binoculars or a camera to look inside a neighbour’s home.

Whether it is the appeal of a neighbour’s home, or exclusivity in the inner sanctum of a buyer’s showroom, brands are working hard to create more innovative online experiences. Sometimes the same website can even offer two very different approaches.

The Economist has recently launched a series of essays that are far removed from the news website experience. Gone are all the distractions and in comes a single column design that suggests anything but fast-paced, 24/7 news. There are infographics and interviews, with the publisher using the new format as a “petri dish” for design experimentation.

The Economist
The Economist’s essay series is a ‘petri dish’ of design experimentation

However, the team have been careful not to get carried away: content must remain king. “We’re quite a restrained brand,” says art director for digital and online Sue Vágó, “so we try to let the content dictate what’s appropriate.” Angelo Repole, head of front end for editorial and graphics, adds: “The technology shouldn’t lead the content; it should be the other way round.”

This is not an easy balance to achieve, with the essays taking eight weeks from start to finish. Key to success is the involvement of different teams from the start: multimedia, editorial, designers and journalists are all feeding in ideas, allowing the piece to develop organically. Those involved say it is more akin to developing an app than editing an article. Vago adds: “What I also find interesting is that it’s almost a return to magazine aesthetics.”

The first of the essays was available for free, but other essays will be behind the paywall. The first essay was also sponsored, with a sponsor’s widget in the top corner of each page and an ad halfway down.

Indeed, with any such project there needs to be return on investment and sponsorship is a route that has opened up for others (see Top Three Challenges). Quintessentially Travel, for instance, has had brands asking for help to bring their products to life says Graham: think premium bikini brands on deserted island getaways.

The travel site has been working with Global Blue, which offers tax-free shopping services to a customer base that includes 50 million Chinese and Russian consumers. “If someone buys three Hermès bags, then we want to be the ones booking their hotel or private jet,” says Graham.

Whether it is a private jet, a domestic freezer or a feature-length article, brands are realising the power of their websites. And thanks to new technology, this means that consumers keep coming back and staying around for longer. In today’s fast-paced, time-poor world, this is a big win for those in marketing.

Case study: Made.com and nosy neighbours

More than half of Brits admit to looking through neighbours’ windows when walking past and 2 per cent deliberately go out in the early evening to do so. However, 45 per cent are also happy to welcome people into their homes to have a look around.

With this in mind, furniture retailer Made.com has launched a website that lets customers look around other people’s homes virtually, and eventually in reality. Through ‘Made unboxed’, people can connect with existing Made.com customers in their neighbourhood, take a virtual house tour and even meet to see how they have styled their products.

Creative director Chloe Macintosh admits it is a risky concept but sees no reason why it cannot work. “People who buy a product from us want to know the ‘who’ and ‘why’ as much as the ‘what’. This extends the levels of transparency that our brand is known for. Reassurance is a powerful tool for brands.”

She says consumers talking to each other is “the way things are going”, with sites such as TripAdvisor testament to this. But are people really that willing to have their homes invaded? “People have been keen to take part,” says Macintosh, noting Brits’ addiction to “property porn”. “We think this will become a movement; the focus will change from the demise of the high street to the rise of your own street.”

The website chooses regular customers and vocal advocates to showcase their rooms, sometimes giving them extra furniture to keep. Eventually there could be a more commercial relationship, similar to ‘refer a friend’ schemes, but Made.com wants to see what the appetite is like first.

Top three challenges

1. Commercial viability

Technology is becoming cheaper but with marketing budgets strictly monitored, investments need to deliver a return. Some brands have been able to garner support for their new interactive websites thanks to sponsorship and relationships with complementary brands.

For example, publisher Mills & Boon is working with Glossybox, Taj Hotel and Cupid.com through its digital series The Chatsfield. The online story stitches together 800 pieces of digital content in multiple formats, allowing plenty of opportunities for collaboration.

Marketing manager Joanna Kite says: “One of the main characters is trying to avoid dating for three months, so Cupid.com is trying to tempt her back. And when readers check in to the luxury hotel [that provides the backdrop to the whole story], they are provided with offers from exclusive partners, just as you might be in a real hotel.”

2. Collaboration

Whether it is brand advocates sharing their homes for Made.com or different teams ‘cross-pollinating’ ideas for The Economist’s new essay series, collaboration, both internal and external, is key to the interactive web experience. If it is useful or unique, people are likely to share it.

A constant feed of new material and content can also help, as Mills & Boon is showing with its drip-feed approach across a number of channels. Pulling together that kind of content also takes time, as Jenny Graham, business development director at Quintessentially Travel, discovered.

There are a million words and 8,000 images on its new site and she says the lesson learned was to get the SEO team involved much earlier. “What the developer might see may not be SEO-friendly,” she says.

3. Measure of success

Many brands are in the early stages of the new website concepts, but some are already seeing an uplift in conversion rates. AO.com, for example, says the rate is three or four times higher for products that have video content. Understanding how your customers are engaging with the new material can also be a rich source of data, says the company’s marketing director Andrew Kirkcaldy.

“We found people were often skipping the first 10 seconds and wanted to get straight to the product,” he says. “Rather than know about the features first, they wanted that in-store experience, the ‘kicking the tyres’ stage.”

Now the content cuts straight to the chase. “With washing machines it’s all about the door hinges, and whether they will last,” he says. “Miele’s brand values are focused on the build quality, so we open the doors and have people doing press ups on them. Of course, if things don’t work how we would expect, then we have to show that too. We need to build that trust.”



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