During my 6 years working in SEO, when faced with creating strategies for large ecommerce clients investing in a range of areas of digital – from social media to CRO – I have noticed that an SEO strategy must be especially holistic and data-driven if it’s going to make an impact.

By that I mean it would be naive and lead to misinformed strategies aiming for unachievable results if we didn’t integrate with all of the other contributing factors that affect the user’s behaviour on your site. If we aren’t integrating our work with all contributing factors affecting user on-site behaviour, the result is a misinformed campaign that may not yield the desired results.

This is why I want to write this post about visual merchandising. Visual merchandising isn’t digital in its traditional meaning, and it refers primarily to shopping in-store. However, as 2019 has been a year of conference talks, ongoing discussions and debates about how important integration is, maybe we should learn from the stores too?

What is visual merchandising?

My understanding of visual merchandising stems from an in-store point of view, and this is what visual merchandising traditionally is.

Definition from businessdictionary.com:

The use and manipulation of attractive sales displays and retail floor plans to engage customers and boost sales activity. In visual merchandising, the products being sold are typically displayed in such a way as to attract consumers from the intended market by drawing attention to the product’s best features and benefits.

From immediately reading descriptions about what visual merchandisers do, I noticed stark comparisons to the aims and goals that a digital marketer has and started unravelling what these comparisons are and, ultimately, what it actually means to us.

Similarities between digital marketers and visual merchandisers

In true marketing style, I’ve highlighted the objectives of a digital marketer and a visual merchandiser below and shown the clear similarities between the two roles.

Digital marketerVisual merchandiser
Drive more traffic to websites through relevant channels and beat the competitionAttract customers to the store over the competitors through attractive displays and a great shopping experience
Improve the conversion rate of the siteEncourage new customers to come into the shop and to keep returning
Create a good shopping experience for user’s so that they return and convertTurn potential ‘window shoppers’ into paying customers through attractive store displays
Give the user what they want on your website an appealing website design supporting relevant and topical contentGive the user a next-level experience through window display, store layout and provide a next-level experience
Get rid of stock by executing a digital marketing strategy that prioritises specific productsGet rid of stock – through the positioning of sales rails if the stock is discounted or by incorporating the products into a window display

Storytelling

A massive part of marketing as a whole is storytelling and this is incredibly important for digital marketers. We’ve written an informative blog around the importance of storytelling for digital marketers that outlines exactly how and why telling a story should be incorporated into a digital marketing strategy.

With that in mind, storytelling is a crucial part of visual merchandising. Understanding what message you want to get across to your customer is an important aspect of any larger marketing strategy. The process of how to convey that message and present it in the most appealing and conversion-focused way is where the art of storytelling comes into play.

This is an area digital marketing can stray a little too far away from at times. It’s easy to get lost in spreadsheets, crawls and datasets rather than taking a step back and putting yourself in your customer’s shoes. This is why, as SEOs and digital marketers, I believe that we should be optimising for both USPs and keywords – they are equally as important.

Visual merchandising tools

Of course, outlining that visual merchandising is important for ecommerce stores is not revolutionary. Ecommerce is bigger than ever and it’s only growing. There are a lot of different visual merchandising tools out there that can be installed on to your site.

Last year one of my clients, a fast-fashion ecommerce site, let me know that they were installing a visual merchandising tool. I was a little bit concerned at first, as it was such a big installation to the site and at this stage, I was not familiar about the impact that such an installation could have on the organic performance of the site.

So what did the tool do?

By installing the tool there was a change in the shopping experience on my client’s site to ensure that product relevancy is more accurate to each individual user. This is incredibly important in the fast-fashion industry as competition is rife and users are more likely to convert from a personalised experience. My client targeted two audiences on their site – 16 to 21 year olds who are interested in the fast fashion and also 25 – 35 year olds buying plus size fashion, this is where a visual merchandising tool could bring great benefits.

The aims of a visual merchandising tool, such as Smart Merchandiser or Attraqt, from my understanding, are listed below. They are definitely not limited to this, but this gives a brief overview of the purpose of the tools:

  • As a browser … it will remember your unique behaviour and where they’ve clicked and engaged with on the site
  • As a potential converting user … it will know exactly what you have bought and will ensure that any next visits to the site are reminding you of your amazing purchase and anything else you may be interested in
  • As a frequently converting user … it will remember your conversion journey and understand your preferences for products and browsing

I’ve reviewed the impact and outcomes of the tool on three key areas of digital marketing and listed some takeaways and points for each area below.

1. An SEO perspective

When my client installed a visual merchandising tool on their site, after the tool was installed I did a full crawl and audit and immediately realised that all of the internal links, that were linking to subcategory pages, had been removed.

We fixed this through implementing a new internal linking strategy which ensured there were no indexation issues and that all of the relevant subcategory pages were internally linked appropriately. We were also reviewing the keyword targeting map around this time and building an overview of what subcategory pages should be linked more prominently. We therefore had an understanding of what pages were already benefiting from the internal links and which should be linked more prominently, even before the visual merchandising tool removed these links.

2. A PPC perspective

There were no risks from a PPC perspective. In fact, through the granular data and split testing through search ads, it is possible to get a deeper insight into exactly what the impact of the visual merchandising tool has.

3. A CRO perspective

Personalisation is crucial in a user’s digital experience and shopping online is no different. Visual merchandising tools significantly improve the user experience of your site and are naturally inclined towards giving the user more of what they want.

Therefore when working with ecommerce websites, particularly those that don’t just have one specific target audience and have such a wide range of products, a visual merchandising tool, or a tool or plugin that filters products based on a user’s interest, is more than likely to have a positive impact on the conversion rate of the site.

Not only this, but visual merchandising is often led by experimentation and so this ties in well with the A/B testing side of CRO. By utilising data from visual merchandising tools and data from A/B testing, it would be possible to get a lot of useful data and insights into what is making a user convert on your website.

Visual merchandising tips for a digital marketer

After having a look into fashion and retail a lot more over the past couple of years, and reading up on what appears to work in the world of visual merchandising, I have compiled some tips that can be taken away and utilised. As an SEO it’s easy to get engrossed in the detail and ignore the obvious but effective methods, so these tips are designed to be actionable and direct.

Identify all the senses in your webwork

Senses are applicable to so many different angles of a digital marketer and web designer. Whether you are a web designer creating designs for a new site, an SEO or PPC making changes to a particular landing page, or a digital PR designing a content marketing campaign, utilising the senses has been proven to be a success in the visual merchandising world and should be transferred online.

One of my favourite examples of this was by Littlesmith who opened a pop-up shop in Topshop. They opened this pop-up store and clearly wanted to give it a fresh and airy feel, however, they chose one of the busiest shops in London to open in. They combatted this by using different textures to invite customers into the space. Not only did Littlesmith awaken the smell and touch sense through plants and textures, but their key USP is around sight. This is utilised through a ‘personalised’ experience where they make the jewellery live in front of the customer.

Senses can be enhanced in many ways on a website and through content marketing campaigns too. Some of the best content marketing campaigns use the senses as this is what draws a user into the present and makes them take note. One of my personal favourite examples is this ‘London under the microscope‘ campaign which showcases germs that are present on different methods of public transport. This campaign draws in on touch, sight and smell massively and by making the user think of the time they touched the seat on the tube or heard someone sneeze, you are leveraging their personal experiences for maximum impact.

Really get to know your user

No matter what the size of your or your client’s business, there is always more information that you can get about the customer that they are ultimately trying to attract.

No matter what your budget, you can easily review interest and demographic data in Google Analytics to get an insight into some of the interests of your customers. Although this data isn’t overly insightful, the way that Google splits the data up into different interest and age categories will at least allow you to start drawing some initial insights. The best way to make the most out of this data is (if you work agency-side) to review two contrasting clients. For example; I compared a fast-fashion website and a conveyor belt manufacturer – contrast in data is an understatement!

Depending on budget and resource allocation, investing further in branding and buying behaviour analysis will allow you to create a digital marketing strategy that really taps into what your user wants. We all want to drive conversions, but lasting impact will come from tapping into users at every part of the conversion funnel, especially the awareness and interest sections.

conversion funnel impression

A diagram of the conversion funnel which is a key part of SEO and content marketing strategies.

Create a unique online experience

Well, not completely unique; it is as crucial as ever to benchmark in your industry to ensure that you are appeasing to your customer’s needs. That being said, by completing thorough audience research and understanding your brand personas, you will be able to tap into inetrests and desires that direct competitors may not have even looked at before.

Although online is taking over retail in some industries and there have been some high-street names shut many and in some cases all of their stalls in recent years, there are some high-street stores that are leading the way and this is all because of the unique experience.

Primark are a key example of this when it comes to focusing on what the customer wants and transferring it well to the shop floor. We really like how Primark focus wholeheartedly on the customer experience in their stores. This is approach has clearly set them out from other high-street competitors so surely it’s not a coincidence that they have just announced that they are opening 19 more stores?

Conclusion

The high street is not what it used to be but there is definitely some value in understanding a visual merchandisers approach to getting sales in a store. Of course, visual merchandising tools are great to invest in if appropriate for your ecommerce site, providing your budget allows. However, by taking a step back from all the data and spreadsheets and thinking about a customer’s journey you don’t need to work on Argos or ASOS to incorporate some of the above takeaways into your strategies.

Chloe Fair

SEO Strategist

Chloe is an SEO Strategist in our SEO team, specialising in ecommerce SEO. She works with clients to ensure they are optimised to the highest standards both on- and off- page.

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