How do consumers discover the products they’ll eventually purchase? In the old days, they’d walk through a retail store, grab the items on their shopping list, then buy a few other things that caught their eye. Or maybe a TV commercial would spark their interest in buying a new pair of sneakers or eating at a certain restaurant.

But online shopping has changed discovery in a major way. It started with consumers searching for products they wanted to buy, but that limited the chance of whimsical, organic discovery. Then social media began to dominate, helping people discover products and ideas that family, friends and influencers think are important.

As the future of ecommerce changes, how can brands shorten the distance between discovery and purchase? Today, it’s all about monetizing visual content, said Curalate Co-Founder and CEO Apu Gupta, speaking on June 10 at the Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition in Chicago.

Brands need to realize that their consumers live on a tremendous number of channels like TV, print, the web, apps, search and social — and can discover products and form opinions in more places than ever.

And there’s perhaps no better place to discover products than Instagram. With more than 400 million monthly active users, Instagram is one of the most powerful discovery platforms today. In fact, 60% of people use Instagram to learn about products and services. Meanwhile, 75% take action after being inspired, whether visiting a website, searching for a product, shopping, buying or simply telling a friend.

“Increasingly, these consumer touch points are dominated by imagery, leading to an explosion in visual content created by you and for you,” said Gupta.

Take for instance this example of an editorial image that Z Gallerie posted on Instagram. Notice how beautiful and compelling it is, and that it’s completely different than the traditional images you see on ecommerce sites today that were built for accuracy not aspiration:

Consumers are also sharing your content. When the consumer leaves the store, they take photos of the products they’re wearing and share it with friends on Instagram, leading some to discover and get inspired.

Meanwhile brands like Z Gallerie also work with bloggers and influencers to help build and engage with its audience. Here’s a post that stemmed from its collaboration with WeWoreWhat:

#HomeWoreWhat has officially launched in collaboration with @zgallerie for their Small Spaces collection 🏠

A post shared by Danielle Bernstein (@weworewhat) on

But it doesn’t stop there. If you’re a retailer, your vendors are creating great visual content to showcase their products and lifestyle to inspire consumers. Check out these examples from Fossil, Levi’s and Guess:

IRCE Fossil, Guess Levi's

“The power of Instagram comes not just from it’s reach and engagement, but from how the content can be used to drive discovery and conversion anywhere,” said Gupta.

Take for example Forever 21. The brand creates a gateway to products by creating shoppable content on Instagram, driving consumers down a direct path from pictures or videos to product pages. Now the user can interact with the photo, discover all the products in the photo and actually click right through to the mobile product detail page and buy as they so desire.

The brand is also tapping into a highly qualified audience, leading to 24% more time-on-site and 19% more pageviews.

IRCE Forever 21

Most beauty brands rely on in-store trial as a means to help consumers understand what they’re buying. What’s an online-only retailer to do? How does somebody know how a certain nail polish or mascara will look with their skin tone when all they can see online is an image of the product?

That was the problem Sigma Beauty was facing not too long ago. So the brand turned to its fans. It utilized Instagram to improve its e-commerce experience by complementing stock photos with Instagram images. To do so, it implemented Curalate’s Fanreel feature that collects and displays the best user-generated content. Now Sigma Beauty has photos on Instagram that link directly to ways to purchase products through the Sigma site — featuring lots of varieties of skin tones and makeup combinations.

It’s led to a 4x increase in time-on-site and a 16x return on user-generated content implementation investment.

ApuIRCE_blog_image03

Guess, like many brands with an ecommerce offering, wanted to figure out how to improve discovery in its app.

“Guess realized that they have great imagery on Instagram, but if they simply dropped that into their app, it wouldn’t have led consumers to products, it would have led to frustration. But by associating the pictures to products, these photos have now found a new and productive life in the Guess app,” said Gupta.

“Now when these photos appear in their app, you can actually click on the photos, interact with the photos and drive into the product pages — which ultimately drives purchases. So you can go from a moment of discovery to a place of conversion.”

Guess

You don’t have to be limited to where you use images found on Instagram — brands are repurposing images that drive discovery to improve their blogs, product detail pages, emails and even ads. For example, the influencer posted image that we saw earlier in Z Gallerie’s Instagram feed can also be seen here on its blog (on the upper-right-hand corner).

Z Gallerie

Paid media and retargeting campaigns can be extremely effective as well. The following ads are from Facebook’s retargeting product, a dynamic product ad (DPA). On the left, you’ve got an ad for Philosophy moisturizer as run by QVC. As you can see, it’s not a great ad — the product is poorly cropped, and it’s a jarring photo to see amidst photos of your friends in your newsfeed. The image was clearly optimized for accuracy, so a consumer could zoom in and see every last detail of the product. That’s not always the most compelling content to put in front of people. But QVC also created the image on the right for Instagram and were able to programmatically insert this photo into its targeting system — and now it appears in the ad instead of the original image.

“By simply swapping these images, brands like QVC saw return on ad spend that went up 30 percent — just from changing out the image to another image they had in their inventory from social,” said Gupta.

QVC At most organizations today, the content that’s in social is completely disconnected from the rest of the organization. But really smart businesses are starting to realize that the content they’re creating for social and the content they’re sourcing in social is really valuable.

“We don’t need to think of it as social content, we need to think about it as assets and how we can get greater leverage of those assets at every single consumer touchpoint,” said Gupta.

The future of ecommerce is being defined as we speak, and it’s crucial that brands understand the power of images in shaping that future. The Internet is a visual place and monetizing visual content — whether created in house or by your fans — will separate the most successful brands going forward.

Want to learn more? Check out our Complete Guide to Visual Commerce.