11 virtual stores you should know about

Virtual stores are nothing new.  When you think about it any branded website which replicates the shop environment through interactive visuals or e-commerce functionality  could be classified as a virtual store. But what I find interesting is the emerging trend of extending this concept into other digital, mobile and social spaces.   In a lot of ways it makes perfect sense to take your shop to where your customers are rather than wait for them to find you.

But simply replicating e-commerce in different platforms doesn’t necessarily cut it.  In fact, the WSJ reviewed a report by Forrester recently which warns brands not to rush out and add ecommerce functionality onto their social platforms as the ROI is still questionable.  Their study suggests that  early adopters of shopping carts on Facebook had seen only modest results, and in most cases not until after they’d established a loyal-fan following. But there does seem to be an emerging opportunity here for brands to explore, whether that’s incorporating e-commerce or replicating the store experience in some other way.  So here’s my pick of the bunch which I feel work brilliantly.

#1 – Asos Facebook page

Asos claimed to be the first in Europe to open a virtual store on Facebook where fans could buy their merchandise without even leaving the site.  Whether that’s true or not I don’t know but it’s clearly paying dividends for Asos who now boast almost 1 million fans already.   The e-commerce app they developed has the same functionality as that used on their main website including add-to-basket, edit cart contents, check out and order-tracking features.  But now they can tap into all the benefits of building a fanbase on Asos at the same time.

#2 – Amazon mobile app

I have the Amazon app on my iPhone and have to say I absolutely love it. It’s so simple to use and brings all the benefits and convenience you’ve come to expect from Amazon directly into the palm of your hand – so you can effectively browse the whole Amazon store without even getting off the sofa (or the loo for that matter).  But for me the best function is the barcode scanner.  I used this the other day when I was buying a flat screen TV.  I popped into various stores on the high street to review the latest products.   I checked them all for picture and sound quality and prices.  I even spoke to the friendly salesmen for advice.  Once I’d decided on the one I liked the most, I simply scanned the barcode using the Amazon app and found the exact same model on Amazon.  Not only was it £100 cheaper but I could also check all the consumer reviews to give me the social validation to go ahead with the sale.  I completed the transaction with a couple of clicks on my mobile (whilst in the other store) and had the TV delivered the very next day.

I must admit I did feel slightly guilty about abusing the high street retail system but since they didn’t have the one I wanted in stock that was their look out.  Also at least I paid something for my TV, which is more can be said for the London looters!

#3 – O2 Guru TV

If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should check out O2 Guru TV – they’ve delivered a fabulously engaging virtual store experience by creating a custom channel on YouTube.  It’s not a virtual shop which uses ecommerce as such but rather a portal for handling customer service queries. So customers can go there to find videos on a range of topics from the latest handset reviews to how to reduce your mobile tariff when travelling abroad. It’s a a video rich resource which is not only social and interactive but also excellent for driving awareness through video search optimisation. I’ve heard it’s had a positive impact on reducing call centre volumes too.


#4 – BMW on eBay

It’s easy to think of virtual stores within the retail sector but what about other industries like automotive.  Well, if you’re a BMW owner, the prospect of driving to your BMW dealer to pick up a spare part or accessory could be a thing of the past.  Nowadays you can simply visit their virtual store on eBay – BMW Direct.

#5 – Ocado on the Go

The Ocado on the Go app is available on the iphone and android. As you’d expect you can browse and buy all your groceries, as well as book a delivery slot directly from your phone. Very impressive functionality.  I probably wouldn’t do a complete weekly shop on it as it’s quite a protracted process – not sure my iphone battery would last that long – but I do occasionally amend existing orders or do a mid-week top up shop when I’ve forgotten something. According to econsultancy, they have 10,000 users registering every month and 4,000 checkouts a day. In fact, mobile transactions now account for 12% of Ocado purchases.

#6 – First Direct iphone app

I guess First Direct’s whole raison d’etre is around the virtual store proposition – after all if it wasn’t for telephony or online banking they wouldn’t exist.  But their latest app is a natural extension of the virtual store. It only has limited functionality at this stage – so all you can do is check your balances and make payments/transfers directly from the app. But for checking things on the fly, it’s perfect.

#7 – M & S mobile site

M & S recognised the importance of virtual shopping or ‘mobile retailing’ a while ago and launched their mobile ecommerce site in May last year. Since then, their site has received nothing but praise due to its simple usability experience and seemless ecommerce integration.  In fact, according to eDigital Research which publishes the mCommerce Benchmarking Study 2011, the M & S mobile site came out on top.

#8 YouTique by French Connection

French Connection have created a well designed custom channel on YouTube called YouTique. It hosts a range of video including anything from fashion tips to more leftfield content to keep things interesting. They have incorporated video annotation too to  guide visitors through the channel.

#9 – Google shopping

If you can’t run to the cost of producing your own virtual store, there’s always Google Shopping.  A search on Google Shopping will collate all the products within your vicinity so you can see at a glance what’s the cheapest. You can then go on to buy online with just a few clicks.

#10 – Tesco Homeplus & John Lewis

Tesco in Korea came up with an innovative idea recently where they decided to bring the store to the people. By creating a virtual store on the underground platform, commuters could shop by scanning the QR code with their smartphone which would then add the item to their shopping basket. Neat.

Funnily enough, John Lewis have recently come up with a similar execution in Brighton where they’ve converted a window display from one of their Waitrose stores into an interactive shopping experience using QR codes.

#11 – Virtual Facebook

Perhaps saving the best till last. Here’s an exciting idea by Shaker who have created a virtual world within your social network. The video is a bit corny but if you jump towards the end of the clip you’ll get the idea. Who knows it might catch on.

This isn’t an exhaustive list so if you know any other virtual stores, whether that’s ecommerce based or simply replicating the store experience on other digital or social platforms, please share them below.

7 principles of persuasion (website usability)

I’m in the process of reviewing the web strategy for one of my clients with a particular focus on improving usability to increase conversion. Our Senior User Experience Architect, Lynda Elliot (@lelliott0505)  shared this video by Dr Susan Weinschenk which is worth posting as it contains a few useful nuggets. I particularly like her overarching point that we tend to focus on creating online functionality and a user experience so that visitors ‘can do’ a particular task.  But that’s not the same as ‘will do’ where they are made to feel more inclined to undertake the task, or ‘still do’ where repeat visitors come back again to complete different tasks. To influence ‘will do’ and ‘still do’ behaviour you need to work harder to inject persuasion, emotion and trust.

She proceeds to outline 7 principles to help improve engagement and encourage ‘will do’ and ‘still do’ behaviour. I particularly like Principle #1 around the danger of providing too much choice as it can be counter-productive; principle #2 around the importance of social validation; and principle #6 around storytelling to get your message across more convincingly. There’s a lot more documented around  weapons of persuasion than this but I like the way this is articulated (or should I say spelt out!)

Handy tool by Googlelabs to optimise webdesign

Here’s a nifty little tool from Google Labs to help you work out how much of your website design is actually visible to the end user, depending on the size of their browser window.  It’s dead easy to use – simply tap in your URL and your website appears overlayed with browser penetration figures so you can see at a glance the proportion of visitors who can view your content without scrolling. Or more to the point, the proportion of visitors who completely miss key elements of your design because it falls below the fold! Pretty important stuff, particularly if you find that your primary call to action is currently out of site for 30% of your visitors.

Turning the mundane into a positive brand experience

When it comes to website design we can get so preoccupied with website strategy, usability, IA, wire frames, copy and design that we sometimes forget to challenge some of the more functional, hygiene aspects of website development. However, with a little bit of effort one can turn the mundane into innovative brand experiences.

Pre-loaders

Everyone hates waiting for a website to load and yet many websites still default to a standard pre-loader.  Considering slow site speed is one of the biggest factors affecting bounce rates it’s probably money well spent investing in an engaging pre-loader to keep them entertained while they wait.

If you need some inspiration, there’s a fantastic site called Pretty Loaded which is dedicated to the wild and wonderful art of pre-loaders. I should warn you now it’s strangely hypnotic and addictive!

404 Not Found

When you think about it, the standard ‘404 Not Found’ message is such an anachronism – it’s not only out of sync with the rest of your carefully crafted, consumer friendly website but it also looks like it’s been written by some random technogeek. I came across this great list by Mashable recently which gives loads of examples of how some brands have tried to add their own personal twist to the standard 404 message. This one below happens to be one of my favourites:

Error prompts

Just because someone types in the incorrect email address doesn’t mean you have to chastise them for inputting incorrect data!  Why not inject your brand personality into the copy to turn their mistake into a slightly more positive experience?

Registration forms

Everyone hates filling in forms so it really makes sense to make it as inviting and effortless as possible.  When Unilever asked  TMW to drive handraiser traffic to their Lynx Lounge login area we decided to ‘sex up’ the registration form by including a rather attractive virtual assistant.  When you enter your details you’ll find the virtual assistant delivers a personalised response which was a nice touch I thought.

CAPTCHA advertising

Even if you’re not familiar with the phrase Captcha you would have come across it by now. It’s an acronym for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”  ie it invites the user to submit a code to determine whether they are human or a bot. But who would think to turn a Captcha into an ad? Solve Media, for one. The company have worked with the likes of Toyota, Microsoft and Dr. Pepper to create an ad message out of the text. For Dr Pepper, for instance, instead of typing in the usual gobbledegook, users were prompted to type in “There’s nothing like a Pepper”. 

Search box

So you want to help people find stuff quickly on your site?  Well, you can do the easy thing and plonk a standard search box in the top right hand corner of the website.  Or you can tinker with it a bit to add a bit of charm which might present the brand in a more favourable light.  



Tag clouds

I’m seeing more and more fancy tag clouds these days – it’s almost becoming an art form in itself. There are some rather cool 3D animated tag clouds like the example below or if you understand jQuery (which i don’t!)  there’s a plug in you can use here. Or why not follow the example of Nowness and give your audience a selection of interactive ways to navigate tagged content?

Navigation bar

The navbar has obviously been around for years and is a vital way of signposting content on the site.  But for that very reason it’s easy to opt for the status quo and use a standard format. However by changing the aesthetics or functionality of the navbar can help to convey the brand personality as well as enhance general usability of the site.   

Domain name

Now I’m not suggesting you ditch your existing domain name starting from tomorrow but there are times when it pays to come up with something more inventive. I love the way Converse have done it where every page is literally hosted on a different domain. My particular favourite is this one http://www.icantbelievethisdomainwasntalreadytaken.com/

Summary

It’s all too easy to overlook these hygiene factors and either take them for granted or neglect them due to other priorities, especially when we’re all working at 100 miles an hour or to tight budgets. But as the above examples hopefully demonstrate, it’s possible to deliver a very positive brand experience from even the most mundane aspects of website design. I’m sure there are other examples I’ve missed so feel free to add them to the mix below.

Audi A1 Augmented Reality

The automotive industry were one of the first industries to embrace AR within marketing communications so it’s probably not surprising to see Audi now taking full advantage of this technology to promote the A1.


What’s interesting for me, however, is that they’ve integrated AR within their main website so that it will remain a permanent feature for that model. In this example, you can add a panoramic sunroof, open doors and explore the interior or even take it for a virtual spin. Admittedly AR can be a bit gimmicky for some tastes but I like the fact that people have the option to interact with this if they choose to do so, in much the same way that some prospects prefer video content whilst others devour technical specs.   Also, now that it’s a permanent fixture on the site they should be able to include the AR code on other marketing collateral to help drive offline prospects online.

If Audi can demonstrate that AR is well received with some online personas and improves their conversion rates, I wouldn’t be surprised if they roll this out for all future product launches.

If you want to read my other posts on Augmented Reality click here.