Selling online has its limitations. Our customers can see our imagery and read our descriptions. If they’re lucky, they might get some video clips. We’re so used to this digital medium, it can be easy to forget how limiting it is… until we’re working with a product that really begs for another sense or two.

Let’s all take a moment to sympathize with our colleagues in the business of selling fragrances online. And how about those poor saps peddling delicious, gourmet food? I’ve had experience with both. And it might not seem obvious to lump blankets and throws in with these others in the e-commerce arena, but trust me – just like those, my job is to sell sensory products online, and it’s challenging.

These ecommerce tips are intended to help those of us faced with selling anything sensory or tactile online, but this is sound advice for anyone responsible for an e-commerce website. 

Until we have smell-o-vision…

You’re a consumer. You’re selecting a fragrance. What would you want to understand about it? If you think the answer is “how it smells” you’re not being fully honest with yourself. The real question is “how will it make me smell?” It sounds strange, but fragrances are different on everyone… and more than that, if you’re shopping for a scent, it’s likely for the purpose of smelling appealing to a certain other person, or type of person.

Think about that: a skilled e-commerce marketing pro will not just list the hypothetical stinky things that lent their essence to a given fragrance. They’ll take it a step farther, attributing personalities to the scents. They might be identified as “floral” vs. “earthy,” creating classifications to help you narrow your decision. Or the hypothetical feelings might be represented, as “flirty” vs. “chic.”

You can see, I’m sure, how each of these helps the consumer self-identify (hint: I’m a woodsy, or green, sometimes a little earthy, and never floral – or if you prefer, playful but not too sweet, slightly dark, not particularly chic or polished.) I know myself, and how I like to present to the olfactory sense of others… so savvy web marketers selling fragrances know how to sell to me: make it clear which scents are for me, and I’m in.

See how it’s less about what it actually smells like and much more about the consumer?

And within these frameworks, each perfume brand sets itself apart with its packaging design and presentation style. Mark Jacobs’ fanciful packaging appeals to someone a modern, fun and bold. The customer identifies with the style, and sees the fragrance as a good fit.

Contrarily, Chloe shows refined imagery, classic cut glass bottles and styling that suggests the more conservative, feminine scents inside the packages.

Then of course the verbal descriptions walk the line between actual scents in the mix and the feelings they elicit to complete the picture and help the consumer identify a product as “so me!” or “not for me.”

This combination of brand positioning, style presentation, imagery and literal descriptive language get us as close as possible to the sensory experience we’re missing in this digital realm.

Delicious pixels…

Let’s revisit our friends in the gourmet food business. Selling food online is not easy. If it’s giftable, it’s not quite as tough. In that case, it becomes more about presentation than anything else. When you send a food gift, you’re sending a feeling. Isn’t that the hope, at least? It’s a wish (get well), an acknowledgement (happy birthday), a substitution for showing up (condolences) or a celebratory note (congratulations). You want your recipient to feel that you’ve given them something – that you have somehow been there for them.

The best e-commerce sites selling gourmet food gifts, therefore, need to demonstrate the feeling you’re sending to your recipient. Foods are shown packaged in gorgeous wrapping – or even partially opened. The gift – and the experience of it – is the point. Descriptions focus on the visual impact of the gift, often citing emotional words. Gift givers send love, support and best wishes.

Now imagine you’re shopping online for fancy foods for yourself. It’s not wrapped in a pretty package. It’s not for someone else. What you want to know is how it will taste – not easy when all you have is words and pictures on a screen.

In the old days of e-commerce we all thought the goal was to simply show the product. We took the plainest, most literal photos ever. We thought… consumers can’t see it in person so we just have to make sure they know exactly what it looks like. That worked for about a minute. We quickly learned that it takes more than just “here’s the widget – buy it!”

Before you buy that gorgeous bacon, you want to know how it tastes. You don’t want to see it vacuum packed and sealed in plastic. You want to see its details (how thick the slices are, how much fat there is, how much it shrivels when it cooks). But more than that, how incredibly yummy is it? It’s all put into the intended context – because I have an expectation framed by the plating, other foods served with it, and style of the table setting, I’m now imagining that crispy bacon… mmmm…

Think how different a consumer would feel, shopping online for bacon that’s photographed crammed into its tight plastic package, vs. beautiful, thickly sliced bacon shown perfectly cooked, well lit (no flashes to make greasy spots reflective), and served in an appealing way.

A gourmet food brand that’s positioned itself for quality, putting down roots in its dedication to freshness and reliability, sets the stage for a tasty expectation. Imagery and descriptions that focus on the ideal moment of enjoyment will be much more successful than literal explanations of a food or package.

Try to feel a photo…

In my current position, I am responsible for selling soft things online. My shoppers need to understand how each blanket feels, and how it’s different from the next one.

So imagine running your hand over your favorite blanket, or climbing into bed under it. How would you describe it? Maybe… soft? Warm? Right. And that’s how everyone else would describe theirs, too, though I’m sure they’re all very different.

We know that our consumers’ absolute top purchase motivation is how a blanket feels.

Then how do I differentiate one soft, warm blanket from the next? Everything we offer is soft and warm – they’re blankets! Short of interesting features (weave, patterns, binding, etc.) I have to find ways to represent our wide offering so that first, shoppers buy into our brand position and second, they are able to identify the blanket they want to purchase.

I worked closely with my photographer, Doug Adams, to create the right atmosphere for our lifestyle imagery. These are the photos we use for positioning – the ones that set the stage for who we are, and what to expect from our products. Our entire persona is about warmth (not just literal temperature, but the inviting feeling of comfort).  So we came up with the concept that it’s not just about how our blankets feel, but how they make the shopper feel.

Once again, it’s all about my consumer. She, and the family members for whom she’s shopping, want to sink into a bed or collapse onto a couch with an overwhelming feeling of relief, comfort, and yes – warmth.

Visually, this is my resulting one-two punch:

1. Establish the anchoring perceptions of warmth and comfort using iconic images, featuring models who are attractive but inviting, happier than traditional fashion poses, and always physically interacting with our blankets and throws – frequently in a cuddly posture with the fabric by their faces.

2. Use a zoom functionality on the website with high resolution images to show extreme close-ups of the fabric. How better to imagine how a blanket would really feel than to see those fibers close-up?

Photo courtesy of Berkshire Blanket

Photo courtesy of Berkshire Blanket

We’ve also introduced brief videos to show “feel” in a more literal way as well – a close-up of a hand on the fabric.

We combine these graphical representations of our products with descriptive language that calls out features without becoming technical, and sends clear messages about the audience for whom a product is a good fit. A whimsical pattern gets a slightly different tone than a chic fabrication, but both are always framed within our warm brand voice.

Pulling It All Together

Let’s sum this up – selling sensory products online comes with certain challenges. Meet them by:

1. Positioning the brand appropriately to set the right expectations for the product line. Always consider the audience, and reinforce the brand story at every step through the conversion process. By establishing this position early and consistently, you’re not starting from scratch with each product.

2. Show products in use, in the ways most relevant to the consumer. Remember half-opened gifts, perfume packaging that instantly defines style, and snuggly blankets with happy, cute girls. Always imagine how the photos will make the consumer feel, beyond how the product feels, smells or tastes.

3. Include detailed photography of each product, in its ideal environment or lighting. Food looks like you could reach in and eat it (and it would be delicious). Blankets look like you could reach in and pet them. Close-ups aid distinction and allow connoisseurs to see differentiating details.

Descriptions are both accurate and suggestive, outlining the actual features of the products while simultaneously setting the stage for the intended emotional connection with the product.

In the absence of such crucial sensory input, we must compensate for our limited means of communication by triggering an emotional response and personal connection. I’ll just continue developing ways to up our game through the avenues we do have… at least, until I can find a way to deliver instant digital swatches.

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