CEO at Bazaarvoice, the leading provider of product reviews and user-generated content (UGC) solutions.

It’s been a phenomenal year for e-commerce, with the pandemic-driven mass move to online shopping fueling growth of 44% in 2020. Yet, that 44% growth still only represented 21.3% of all retail. Why? Because while the internet is great for letting you buy, I believe it’s never really let you shop — until now.

I’ve been the CEO at Bazaarvoice, which provides user-generated content solutions, for more than a year and a half now. Since my arrival at the company, I’ve made it one of my main focuses to help recreate the in-store shopping experience online and to help my clients inspire their customers to shop, not just buy, while visiting their websites.

The Challenges Of Internet Shopping

The internet has been great for finding things when you know what you want. When you’re buying online, you’re in the product decision phase: You know what you want, go online, search, read ratings and reviews and you buy. That’s buying.

Physical retail is different: You can go to the mall to walk around and find the things you want, but you can also window shop and may even come home with additional purchases. What happened? You arrived in the product decision phase, but consciously or subconsciously, you went on a voyage of product discovery because walking around the mall kept you inspired and entertained. You saw things you weren’t expecting to see, and you ended up buying and spending more. That’s shopping.

From my perspective, moving online essentially killed the joy of discovery and spontaneous purchasing because the window shopping that we do in malls never really existed online. But today, that is now changing. Consumers can now go on an online voyage of discovery and inspiration, and I’m finding that social media platforms are becoming the new digital shopping malls.

How Social Media Is Changing The Way We Shop Online

During the pandemic, many people spent more time on social platforms, and platforms responded by making it possible to shop directly through their applications. This phenomenon is known as “social commerce,” a subset of e-commerce.

In my company’s Influential survey of 42,000 consumers, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they spend more time being influenced by social media shopping now than they did before the pandemic. And according to a recent consumer survey by NPD, “When asked what platforms converted advertising and other content into actual purchases, a little over half (51%) said Facebook and Instagram content resulted in buying products.”

I believe a big part of this shift to social commerce is the evolution of user-generated content, which can range from customer ratings and reviews to high-quality product imagery. This has been developed not by the brands themselves, but by the consumers who are producing visual content and posting it on social media for all to see.

And the importance of that visual content is increasing. In the age of social commerce, how do you inspire a consumer? I believe one answer is with photos of real people interacting with your brand, making it a more inspirational experience than simply looking at brand-generated images. As this UGC content becomes more visually inspiring and entertaining, it creates an emotional response that steers the consumer along the path to purchase.

The bottom line is that consumers trust one another more than they trust brands. In fact, the 2020 Retail Reputation Report found 92% of customers trust peer recommendations over traditional advertising. They want to see others interacting with the brand and wearing and using the product to get an authentic sense of whether they would like it, too.

Replicating The In-Store Experience

The rise of social commerce, and thus the increasing volume of UGC, is bridging the discovery gap, but there’s still some way to go. Although shoppers are browsing and shopping more online now, they’re not necessarily always buying. In fact, in a survey of more than 9,000 global consumers, my company found that 69% of shoppers are more likely to make a spur-of-the-moment purchase while shopping in-store, compared with 52% who said they were likely to do that online.

Ultimately, shoppers still want those in-person interactions with products and the ability to physically see and feel an item before buying. Retailers are starting to look at technologies such as augmented reality and video imagery that will increasingly allow you to experience product discovery as you would in the physical world. This will be the game changer in closing that discovery gap and helping customers make the move from buying to shopping. It is a seismic shift in the way that we shop, and I believe it is the future.

But, I think that the easiest way to replicate the in-store experience and motivate online consumers to consider more than what they originally came to you for is providing fresh, authentic UGC wherever your customers can be found online. You can begin by mining social media for content. Customers are proud of their purchases, and many already tag brands in their social posts and use brand-associated hashtags. If you don’t already have a branded hashtag, create one, use it on your social posts and encourage your customers to post about your brand and use it.

That being said, no matter how you get hold of UGC, there is one crucial rule you must follow: Make sure it is authentic. Never ask your customers for anything except completely honest feedback, no matter how low their star rating might be. Negative reviews are not the death sentence for your brand that many think they are. In fact, they can help you uncover issues in your products or marketing, and their presence among positive reviews can help shoppers know that your UGC is real and can be trusted.

From social media to e-mail marketing, putting a piece of UGC in front of a shopper helps pique their interest, creates an emotive connection, and quickly takes them from just scrolling to shopping.


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