Sight Search

Four keys to improving a brand’s online presence throughout the shopper journey in a visually driven world

By Tim Kendall




It's a tricky time to be a digital marketer. More engaging ad formats and more precise targeting capabilities make it easier than ever to reach the right audience, but that audience is constantly jumping between devices and channels, and switching up its goals. In addition, consumers do more research and encounter more options than ever before. All of which is creating a paradox: As ad quality and targeting get better, it's also getting harder for an ad to be seen, let alone remembered and acted upon.

It's no longer enough to reach someone right as they're about to make a purchase. Digital marketers need to adjust to the way people shop today. That means getting people to consider a brand earlier in the shopping process, when consumers are still forming an idea of what they actually want to buy or do. That also means giving people content that helps them make a decision — something that complements the online shopping process, rather than disrupts it.

As if that weren't challenging enough for marketers, people not only want their shopping experiences to be free from disruption (a 2016 study by IHS Technology found that people are up to 60 percent more likely to engage with native ads than standard banner ads) but shoppers want to make discoveries. People start from a moment of inspiration and want new ideas that will eventually lead them to new products or things to do.

To that end, consumers are increasingly looking for online visual discovery tools that create a similar experience to browsing in a store. This means being able to ask for more items like the ones they're already looking at, exploring how something can be used, and looking at products in the context of comparable options.

One of the most valuable aspects of shopping in person is the chance to find something unexpected that, in some cases, you didn't even know you were looking for. Visual discovery platforms can provide this kind of experience.

Better tools for the awareness and consideration phases of shopping benefit both consumers and businesses. Consumers can explore more possibilities, evaluate a greater spread of options, and feel more confident in their decisions. Marketers, meanwhile, can reach their audience with targeted, relevant messaging.

Here are four key strategies to break through the clutter and reach shoppers online through visual discovery.


1. Reach People at Their Moments of Inspiration and Discovery

On Pinterest, nearly half of people (45 percent) start searching for holiday-related products and content at least 60 days before a holiday arrives. This means Pinners are looking for the right product or brand well before they're ready to make a purchase. If marketers can reach people at these early stages — with compelling and creative content — they can drive new demand before other companies have caught up.

In one blind study conducted in 2016, Pinterest researchers found that 64 percent of Pinners prefer to begin a search with a general idea, rather than searching for specific items. To reach these consumers, marketers need to create advertising campaigns that connect early in the shopper's journey, and then keep the momentum going through each subsequent step.

"Marketers have to be present at every interaction with the consumer and focus on platforms and publishers that have the highest engagement with their core audiences," says Tom Affinito, VP of product marketing at marketing software firm Kenshoo. "If I'm trying to sell black dress shoes, I have to have fantastic imagery of those black dress shoes for the bottom of the funnel. But for consumers at the top of the funnel, I also have to have pictures of those shoes in a context that gets them to open up, to dream, to say 'I like how those black dress shoes look with those slacks. I want to learn more about those shoes.'"

According to Affinito, brands need to expand their use of creative and storytelling to reach consumers at different parts of the funnel.


2. Design Cross-Platform Campaigns — and Include Search

Now that consumers use multiple platforms for their search journeys, it's critical that marketers keep up. Marketing campaigns need to work just as well on tablets and phones as they do on laptops — and resonate just as well on search as they do on display and social.

To maintain a seamless experience, marketers should coordinate with everyone pushing out their brand — from brand and search marketers to social media managers and the PR team — to ensure that, as people go through their day, the brand will always be presented in the right way and at the right moment.

One of the best ways to accomplish this goal is to harness visual discovery. People use what looks good to uncover ideas they love. For a brand, that means more people can discover what it has to offer, even if they've never heard of the product or service before.

Mobile searchers tend to be eager shoppers: 78 percent of consumers who research products on their phones are looking to make purchases within a day, if not sooner.

At Pinterest, visual discovery technology identifies characteristics within an image — like colors, shapes, and textures — to make sense of what people find appealing, even when they can't express it in words. Understanding what consumers want to see — and providing them with a way to visually explore products — will help brands capture upper-funnel search activity and influence consumers who are still in the inspiration stage. But brands need to do more than simply make people aware of their products. They need to incorporate content that inspires people with ideas of how they'll be able to use those products, and how those products will work well alongside whatever else they purchase.

The platform where these kinds of innovations make the biggest difference is mobile. In 2016, mobile overtook desktop as the preferred device for accessing the internet — and this influx in mobile sessions carried over to search behaviors, too. According to a recent Kenshoo report, smartphones accounted for 52 percent of search clicks by the end of 2016, which means that mobile is the new go-to device for retail research. In fact, according to the "2016 Mobile Path to Purchase Report" by xAd, 46 percent of shoppers say that mobile is their most important device, compared to just 31 percent who cited desktops and laptops.

This is good news for marketers. Mobile searchers tend to be eager shoppers: 78 percent of consumers who research products on their phones are looking to make purchases within a day, if not sooner, according to xAd. For this reason, mobile search ought to feel seamless, with simple navigation and streamlined design. Mobile marketers should emphasize images, rather than words, since they're easier to browse than tiny blocks of text. And marketers should focus on making the path to purchase take as few clicks as possible.

Of course, marketers can't control every detail of searches outside of their owned channels, but they can optimize all search ads for mobile by considering what happens after someone clicks on their search ad. Is that page visually compelling and optimized for mobile? Is it simple to continue the path to purchase? If not, it's time to make some changes.


3. Invest in Native Ads

According to the 2016 IHS Technology study, consumers are far more likely to engage with native ads than they are with banner ads. For that reason, expect to see many more in the years ahead. In fact, Business Insider predicts that by 2021, native advertisements will account for a 74 percent share of display revenue, as impressions migrate from browser-based banners to in-app placements.

Of course, search ads have always benefited from native placements, but the newer formats provide even better engagement — especially when they're visual. A standout example comes from product listing ads, which prominently feature product images and are served to consumers via keyword search. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, they grew roughly 86 percent in impressions and clicks, according to Kenshoo. This is unsurprising, since product listing ads bring inspiring product imagery directly into consumers' search results.

Younger consumers, particularly those in generation Z (the cohort that comes after millennials), are far more likely to engage with native ads than standard forms of advertisements, including pop-ups and non-skippable pre-rolls, which they tend to ignore. What's more, according to a Millward Brown report, gen Z consumers have a tendency to appreciate great design more than older generations— whether they're looking at display or video advertising formats.

To appeal to this generation and others like it, marketers need to make sure their ads are relevant through the right targeting, images, and sequencing. Native ads fit the bill.


4. Use Data to Get the Most for Your Ad Dollars

For shoppers, the increased number of paths to purchase has made things easier, but for marketers, those myriad options have made it far more challenging to reach the right people at the right time. So for businesses to succeed, they must be vigilant in how they connect with potential customers.

To optimize for fragmented searches, brands should map their audience's search patterns by device, platform, and goal in order to bridge messaging across platforms and target potential customers more effectively. And to really succeed in today's environment, marketers should resist the temptation to evaluate marketing effectiveness using short-term measurement windows. Instead, brands should track advertising over a longer period of time, to account for influence during the discovery process. To accomplish this goal, brands need visibility into how individual consumers interact with their ads. But while 86 percent of marketers in a 2016 Econsultancy report said they prioritize providing an integrated experience across devices and media for consumers, only 12 percent said they actually have a single customer view. This means that the vast majority of brands aren't able to identify where they went wrong on an individual-by-individual basis.

To get a better view of what's working, brands should consider following Econsultancy's advice to use transactional and other data to ensure each online ID is mapped to a verified individual. This way, brands can see if their advertising dollars are leading directly to purchases — and if not, they have the data necessary to make sure their ads get to the right people at the right time in the future.

Companies can create new and lasting demand — the kind that evolves in as sophisticated a manner as today's savvy shoppers. To make that happen, brands should consider adopting these strategies, then monitor impact over time to get a more complete picture of marketing effectiveness.


Tim Kendall is president at Pinterest. You can email him at



Q&A with Tom Affinito, VP of Product Marketing at Kenshoo

Q. What do you see as the role of visual search in marketing in the near future?

The research says about 30 percent of our brain neurons are tied to our vision system, so it's no surprise we love imagery. We are experts at visual selection, we see subtle details, and that aspect of focus can have a huge influence on human preference.

Visual search is just the technological application of a behavior that is innate to us. Consumers love to click on pictures on mobile devices. We've all seen videos of babies trying to click on pictures in magazines and then getting sad or bored when the pictures don't change or respond … clearly the magazine is a broken screen to them.

So, from a psychological viewpoint, we know that visual search should work. And when we actually look at the click rates and ad performance of our advertisers, there is no doubt that consumers have found this and the native inline placements to be the strongest innovations in search.


Q. How does visual search affect the experience for both consumers and marketers?

We're still in the early days of visual search, but one thing that we're noticing now is that visual search fills a critical gap. People can't always come up with the words they need to find something in a text-based search.

To experience search as a conversation of imagery between consumer and computer is in a sense playing the "hotter/colder" game interactively. It creates a sense of personality and deeper engagement with the search experience itself that points to even richer interactions we will have — not just on our mobile devices, but in our homes and in our cars.
— T.K.



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