Return to: GROK Dot Com 10/15/2001

Picture This

My loyal readers are going to think my brain has back-fired. I'm usually going on about how ponderous downloads are death to your web efforts and how, if you have to make a choice between strong text versus snappy graphics, you should opt in favor of quality text every time. Well, that’s all true, but sometimes a picture literally is worth a thousand words.

I've been spending time lately comparing hard-copy catalog product presentations to their online equivalents. At the speeds most of your customers access the web, there’s no way lush, multi-meg pictures are a viable option these days. But for lots of products, the visual aspect helps convert your prospect into a customer. So what's an e-tailer to do?

There are times when your visitors are willing to be more patient when it comes to download times. That’s usually when you've already captured their attention and brilliantly demonstrated the value in sticking around to do business with you. But let me say this up front: don't even think of abusing their gifts of patience. Understand they are only going to be patient for so long. Layer upon layer of slow-loading graphics eventually will wear them out. Online shopping is not catalog shopping. Your visitors might browse catalogs in the privacy of their bathrooms, but they are not going to while away the hours browsing your site.

And one more thing: using pictures doesn't mean you can ignore your text. Pair great pictures with great text. Your customers may have to wait a few seconds more for the image, but they can at least start in on the description, which helps them feel the wait isn't a waste of their time. Actually, engaging them with great copy reduces their awareness that the graphic is taking a while to load, so they think your site is loading faster than it really does!

Before you think about a single image, though, make sure you have been vigilant about employing the 5-step professional sales process (see Do the 5-Step...And Dance Your Way To Higher Sales!). Pay attention to the critical elements of AIDAS (see Hey, Its Music to MY Ears!), and be certain your site offers a conversion process that sings with ease and efficiency. Gorgeous images will never salvage an inferior site or make up for weak or sloppy text.

(Almost) always present the product image first as a thumbnail -a small version of the image that loads quickly and that your prospect can click on to bring up a larger version. The larger version then either reconfigures their entire screen or, even better, appears in a pop-up. Here's where pop-ups do have an advantage: your visitors can view the image while at the same time staying visually in touch with the source page, which helps them remember where they are in the navigation scheme. Thumbnails are especially useful if you are presenting a series of product pages that include multiple images (possible exception: thumbnails are not necessarily a good thing to include on search results pages - it depends on your product). In general, thumbnails allow you to get product images to your visitors much faster. They allow your visitors to scan your offerings quickly and bypass slow downloads of images for products that don’t interest them. Your visitors can decide for themselves what they want to look at more closely, and having done that, are naturally going to be more patient as a larger image loads.

To get a feel for who’s doing a good job using images on the web, I shopped REI for "footwear." REI has small product images that load up super fast - actually, all their images load up super fast - and give you a great idea of what a particular shoe looks like from all angles. Okay, it took me 4 clicks from the home page to get up close and personal with a big product image, which is on the high side, but I really wanted to see what the tread looked like (humans tell me tread is a big deal when it comes to sporting shoes), and REI made that possible for me, at my option.

I was also shopping for luggage not so long ago (you guys need to learn about teleportation!) and encountered sites offering pop-up windows that showed me all views of the item. Cool, 'cause if I'm going to buy luggage on the Internet, I want to get a feel for the size (just knowing the dimensions usually doesn't help me), and I want to see where ALL the pockets and zippers are. A few sites gave me this information in pop-up animations, which were much slower to download than pop-up static images. These far exceeded my patience threshold without giving me any appreciable added value. Seller beware: just 'cause technology makes it possible doesn't mean you should do it!

Print catalogs are very good at also offering pictures of small details. But lots of e-tailers don't bother with this. Pity. How many times have you wanted to know the texture of a fabric, or see a close-up of a button or clasp? So many times product details can influence a buying decision: grain, shine, stitching, hardware, controls, relative size, and so forth. They deserve some consideration. As in all things, think like your prospect - and test with your prospects - to find out what you should add and what you can ignore.

Sometimes a big image on a product page does work wonders - but only if you do it correctly. Choose a robust, powerful picture that evokes lots of emotion. Lands End and The Sharper Image prominently display a big image of a top-selling product on their home page and other landing pages, mate it with appealing text and also change the picture often, so returning visitors experience the delight of variety. This really helps their conversion rates! The technique works best when you have a strong brand identity and/or really motivated traffic.

When not to bother with graphic gusto? Beyond wanting to avoid making your prospect wait eons for the images to load, you should avoid using images "just because." Your screen real estate is a precious commodity. Make sure everything you put on it earns its keep! If you're selling something that’s a “visual commodity” (everybody knows what they look like) you really don't have to go overboard with the graphics. Ditto anything where the visual aspect of the product isn’t a big driver in the ultimate purchase decision. MAYBE a small visual, but here's where compelling and comprehensive copy is likely to be more than sufficient.

At the end of the day, think about the value of any picture to your prospects - think about what would be important to YOU as a prospect. And think about the trade off between image size and load time. Images can be powerful elements in your conversion process, or they can just bog it down or even stop it cold. Make sure you use them intelligently, and only when they aid your goal of communicating value to your visitors, value that helps convert them from “just” visitors to paying customers!

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Return to: GROK Dot Com 10/15/2001

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