The Science Behind Why Images Are the Keys to Ecommerce

The web is going visual, and ecommerce is following in its footsteps

Social media, shopping sites, and even digital-media outlets are embracing the use of more images and better visual designs to appeal to consumers online.

But observing trends doesn’t tell you why they’re happening or if they’re just the flavor of the month and nothing more. Are product videos all the rage today, soon to be replaced by product word clouds tomorrow?

The short answer is no, this trend toward visuals is here to stay (and flourish)—but you wouldn’t necessarily know that unless you looked at the science behind why it’s been so effective in the first place.

We’re going to show you—based on actual studies—how images and visuals affect consumers, and what that means for your ecommerce business.

This is your brain on visuals


The brain is built to process visuals, cruising through visual information up to 60,000 times faster than text. This means that a quick skim of any website, dashboard, or news article is going to have us picking up information from any visuals present before we get through chunks of text. How often have you tried to describe an article you read, only to forget the title but remember the picture in the header instead?

Images stick in our heads with surprising ferocity—it’s no anecdote. One study showed that consumers recalled 50 percent of video ads five days after watching, which was the same recall they had just 24 hours after seeing the ads. This isn’t surprising to those who are aware of the way that the brain has been proven to hold onto pictures over words, a widely studied phenomenon known as the picture superiority effect.

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I can’t remember the title of this article I read on the trolley problem, but it had this creepy picture on top that looked like it was from the turn of the century.

Our recall and our visual processing, which is an impressive process that allows us to categorize items in mere milliseconds, mean that we like engaging in content that includes visuals. Everything from photos to product videos has been proven more engaging and more likely to lead to customer conversion. In journalism, studies have shown that press releases with pictures or videos have 45 percent more views compared with press releases that don’t.

The fad of visuals, videos, and graphics is actually more like an evolution. Just as we developed our visual processing to dominate our environment, we’re evolving the web to appeal to us as it has come to dominate our lives.

Ecommerce visuals: ads


Because we’re hard wired to pay attention to images, it’s no surprise that advertising and branding are big areas that ecommerce companies are taking advantage of when it comes to their digital presence. Long gone are the half-pages full of ad copy. Now, highly visual social platforms like Instagram are major hubs for ads, and brands need to take advantage of the power of images alone to evoke a response from customers.

Visual advertising is proven to be effective when it plays into viewers’ emotions, whether that’s childhood nostalgia or political leaning. The key to unlocking images’ potential for advertising on these platforms right now is that consumers want brand images to look good to them and fit their feeds. What works as an image for a suburban dad of three isn’t going to work for an outdoorsy college student, even if they’re both interested in your organic vegan product.

Take this ad for posters of popular ski and snowboard areas. The ad below looks like it’s targeted at a city dweller who loves to get away for the weekend and might love a poster of Jackson Hole for their wall. But the die-hard skiers who live in the mountains might also want a poster of their favorite slopes but balk at the Brooklyn aesthetic of this ad.

image 2In order to get the right images on the right feeds, anyone advertising on social should use targeted image advertising. This means relying on technology that can recognize images, logos, and features of images to analyze what types of things users want to see, and then leveraging that to deliver relevant ads to those users.

Pinterest, for example, has a system that works in a similar manner that recognizes what images users are drawn to and uses similar images in ads for those users. “We are already seeing that using visual signals improves the relevancy of our ads, making advertising on Pinterest more effective for businesses and more additive and informative for our users,” said Tim Kendall, president at Pinterest. “The future of advertising is images, not keywords.”

Ecommerce visuals: websites


Ecommerce websites, like all websites, have to be designed with users in mind. How users are interacting with your website depends on what they’re there for and what you’re showing them. In this regard, visual elements can be particularly useful to shape user behavior.

When we deconstructed the myth of the F-shape scan, we talked about how our eyes are drawn to the visual elements of a page:

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This means that wherever you place a visual is where the eye will go. Smart ecommerce companies, like Macy’s, use this to draw home-page visitors to bold visual elements that are usually accompanied by minimal text and quickly tell a viewer what’s going on:

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While Macy’s gives details of their deals, a quick scroll through their webpage would tell you there is a sale on jewelry and shoes, and you’d know this just by breezing through without pausing to read anything but the title text. This pulls customers into shopping.

Another page that visual elements are integral for is the product page. Take 360 product videos—this additional visual element can boost a product’s sales anywhere from 10 to 40 percent. That’s because customers want to get a feel for products before they buy them, which is hard to do in a virtual interface. Showing a 360 video of a product helps a customer get the same product information that they might from handling the item in-store.

The popular cosmetics retailer does an excellent job of showing customers exactly how to use products, which is important, given that they sell unusual items, like solid shampoo and toothpaste tabs. It takes the guesswork out of the equation for customers who have never heard of these products and can’t get to the store for a demo.

If you don’t have a 360 video, you have to have high-quality pictures of the product from every angle. Fifty-nine percent of people in a study said that multiple images of a product were key in deciding to make a purchase, and 67 percent said that quality photos—even in the zoom-in feature—made up a very important part of their purchasing decisions. So if you, like 25 percent of studied top retailers, aren’t getting multiple product images for every product on every device, you’re missing sales.

The proof is in the pudding


Over and over again, we see that scientific studies, advertising studies, and conversion tracking prove that images are a cornerstone of ecommerce. Because they appeal to the way that humans naturally interact with the world, online shoppers are easily persuaded by the presence of photos, videos, and other visual elements. Only elements like product dimensions and ingredients are helpful for shoppers on product pages; on home pages, only categories and sale notifications need to be in text.

This reliance on and gravitation toward visuals isn’t a giant pivot to video that’s fueled by panicking advertisers. It’s how humans have been, and it’s how the web will grow to always be