As the internet continues to develop at great pace, it’s easy to forget that it’s only relatively recently that imagery has started to drive the way we view the web; in short, the internet just got more beautiful. Sites like Facebook, Flickr and Tumblr have led the charge and Facebook’s billion dollar purchase of relatively-niche-at-the-time Instagram was smart. They could see that the future of social networking was visual and Instagram – an always-with-you, easy route to making and sharing stylised, emotive imagery – was a big threat to the social giant.
Today a new breed of platforms is taking this aesthetically pleasing internet further and capitalising on the fact that social-savvy consumers are tiring of traditional advertising that tells them what they should be buying. Instead they are inviting the consumer to take visual presentation into their own hands. While Pinterest is a social network for visual imagery – a platform for self-expression – Nuji.com makes no bones about being a social shopping tool. Nuji’s users create their own channel, or ‘brand’, by tagging images from other retail websites in return for discounts from participating online boutiques. The boutiques in turn benefit from extended reach and the prospect of creating brand advocates. The editor of Nuji spurs on users by selecting and promoting their finds, sending emails announcing ‘You’ve got good taste’. According to trend and research site Stylus, Nuji has reported a staggering 730% growth in click-throughs to retail sites, and a 167% increase in attributed sales since it began in 2011, proving that when it comes to online user experience an image really does speak a thousand words.
One of the most beautiful social shopping sites is TheFancy.com, a photo sharing web store and mobile app. Blurring the lines between social media and e-commerce, Fancy invites professional and amateur photographers alike to shoot editorial style images of their favourite products, creating an online global style magazine. Fancy’s strength lies in romanticising products that wouldn’t otherwise warrant expensive brand photography and then selling them directly through the site. In this sense it is a great leveller, giving products by unknown brands the same credibility as one-of-a-kind vintage finds and luxury items. This has a strange effect: bestsellers are quickly born out of quirky products from start-up companies who never expected to reach such a global audience. Once given the seal of approval by Fancy, what’s hot is only set to get hotter, with consumers seeking to be part of the crowd.
As the power of presentation is increasingly taken out of retailers’ hands and shifted to third party social platforms, the question is, ‘How do you stand out in a connected marketplace?’ MrPorter.com, which describes itself as ‘The global online retail destination for men's style’, is making some headway. The online men’s style bible has taken the idea of curation and taste-making to the next level with The Journal – an online weekly lifestyle magazine that offers the inside track on hot brands, key looks and interviews with style icons. As you might expect, the clothes and accessories featured in Mr Porter’s fashion editorials are all for sale directly through the site, making it both the authority and supplier of style. This is a powerful combination. A soft approach to selling, dressed up as objective recommendations from a stylist, is more trusted than the traditional top-down advertising model, which is fast losing touch with consumers immersed in a socially connected world.
So where does that place retailers going forward? There’s no doubt that shopping journeys have changed forever and there is no going back; there’s a lot to gain if brands can capitalise on this phenomenon. As online and offline shopping merges, social will play a more and more important role in driving brand experience and customer connection forward.