Rich media made some waves back in the mid- to late '90s, when e-tailers first deployed the technology to boost conversion rates. It promised to provide customers with a clearer, more exciting way to view products and to help close the sale. But with the technology too advanced for most Internet connections, e-tailers saw customers leaving sites because the graphics took too long to load.
Rich media (also called dynamic imaging) has made a comeback among e-tailers as DSL and cable modem subscribers have grown. Many feature technologies that enable viewers to zoom in on images to see product details, spin product photos to view items from all sides, or render different colors. Consulting firm The E-tailing Group released a fourth-quarter 2003 "Mystery Shopping" survey, which points to rich media's rise in popularity: 13 percent of the sites surveyed had a color-rendering feature in 2003, up from 9 percent in 2002.
So which companies are doing the most experimenting? Those that consider visual elements critical to the sale: sites selling furniture, cars, accessories, jewelry, gifts and high-end apparel.
E-tailers are experimenting with rich media more frequently today because the technology has become easier to use. The dynamic imaging software programs and services offer out-of-the-box functionality, which they didn't initially. So growing e-tailers can easily offer accurate representations of their products online, just like big companies.
"When you don't have a brand on the Web, these tools may be even more important," says Doug Mack, CEO of Scene7, a Novato, California, provider of dynamic imaging software and services. "If you are a Pottery Barn or a Restoration Hardware, most people have had an offline experience or a trusting relationship with you. But if you are a small company, you might not have this kind of relationship with many people.
E-merchandising features, however, can have a dramatic impact on sales because customers can see that a [relatively unknown] site offers really high-quality products."
Businesses using rich media are experiencing ROI results. Design Within Reach(DWR) in Oakland, California, is one example. This online and offline retailer of new and classic modern-style furniture added product enhancement features, such as color rendering and targeted zoom capabilities, to its site in 2002.
"We sell high-end designs that are differentiated by design details critical to our customers," says Rob Forbes, 50, DWR's founder. "This technology allows us to articulate these details as if they were viewing the products in 3-D."
Before implementing the technology, however, DWR tested it by providing zoom and color rendering on select items. CIO Vince Barriero says the company is still adding zoom and color rendering to certain products--those that have more detail, are unusual and come in multiple colors. To date, the results have been very good. He says, "We are seeing sales increases of up to 10 percent for products showcased with this technology."
DWR uses software from Scene7to create its product enhancement features. The technology, however, isn't cheap; DWR pays an annual fee of $100,000 for an in-house license. But Mack says that some site licenses cost less, about $20,000 per server. Smaller companies can use Scene7's on-demand offering and pay a monthly fee of $250 to $1,000. Larger customers pay about $4,000 per month with this service. RichFXand Viewpointare two companies that offer similar software and services.
While DWR is getting great results by providing customers with a textured, rich media experience, the technology is not for everyone. Besides the cost when dealing with rich media, it's not just a matter of implementing the technology. There's production work to be done as well.
For some 3-D spin-and-view images, "You need a picture of your product from 16 different angles," says Matthew Berk, an analyst in New York City who follows Internet e-tailing. Berk says before adding rich media, try a simpler alternative: Purchase a digital camera, take several high-resolution pictures of your products, and put them on your Web site. Be sure you list accurate information and descriptive merchandising content beside the photos. These may be all the special effects you need for a successful site.
You can also experiment with vendors that sell low-cost zoom technology and have their roots in helping people sell products on eBay. AAASeller.comand Vendio Servicesoffer zoom technology that lets e-tailers easily upload pictures so users can download them and zoom in on rich detail. AAASeller.com charges $9.95 per month for 25MB of images. Vendio charges $1 per image for two weeks of usage and 50 cents per image for every two weeks after that.
Whatever type of technology you use, before adding rich media to your site, make sure there's a good business reason to do so. "You have to ask yourself, Are you going to sell more product because of rich media?" says Freeman. "If, at the end of the day, it doesn't sell stuff, who cares?"
Before setting your sights on rich media, be sure your site has the basics down: user-friendly navigation, attentive customer service and stellar marketing techniques. Otherwise, your site could end up in the Web wasteland.
Melissa Campanelli is a marketing and technology writer in New York City.