News & Views

Monetise Me: Selfies, Social and Selling

by Katrina Dodd
Truly, it pains me to contribute yet another article to the relentless tide of selfie-obsessed jibber-jabber that’s clogging the social sphere. But everyone else is doing it, and at least this time there could be a dollar or two in it for you.

Since Oxford English Dictionaries declared ‘Selfie’ their word of the year for 2013, instead of cooling our ardour for this onanistic pursuit, it seems to have fanned the flames. Samsung reckons that 17% of men and 10% of women take pictures of themselves, which means we probably have a LONG way to go before we reach Peak Selfie.

In the meantime, retailers, long frustrated by social media’s noncommittal response to their attempts at social commerce, are beginning to find ways to get in on the act. ASOS, on its oft-stated mission to become the one stop shop fashion destination for 20-somethings everywhere, began the year by launching #AsSeenOnMe.

The hashtag doubles as the name of a new gallery on its website; a gallery populated by images of ASOS customers wearing looks they’ve built around purchases from the etailer. Inspired by the rise of street style blogs and Outfit of the Day posts, these selfies are proudly offered up on Instagram and Twitter with the #AsSeenOnMe hashtag, enabling ASOS to scrape them into its own domain for online shoppers to browse. Each photo, when clicked, appears next to the retailer’s own product shot of whatever the contributor is wearing; one more click takes you to the product page… and it costs less than you thought… and ASOS does free delivery and returns… and… ker-ching.

It’s kind of perfect. The #AsSeenOnMe hashtag is a play on the brand’s early days selling stuff we’d seen on TV shows and in film. As Seen On Screen was shortened to ASOS, but its pre-acronym nomenclature seems deliciously appropriate to an age where our screens have become such an indispensible extension of ourselves.

Cosmetics retailer Sephora, another digitally adept player, has found its own take on the mechanism used by ASOS. Inspired by users already documenting their make-up skills by hashtagging their pictures #SephoraSelfie, it created Beauty Board, a new platform for user-submitted images, using tags to detail the products applied to create each make-up look. To use the platform, people sign in with their Sephora Beauty Insider login, allowing them to browse for looks that will match their skin type or hair colour. Again, the user is never more than a few clicks away from a Buy button for products that catch their eye.

Both these platforms emerge way, way back in the wake of one of my long-held favourites, VANCL Stars. VANCL, a pure-play Chinese online retailer, built its own outfit of the day platform, linking the profiles of the most popular users – ‘Stars’ - to its product pages, and rewarding them with a cut on sales their images drove to the site.

What’s fascinating now, though, is that rewards and kickbacks don’t seem to be required. The product-tagging we see applied so effectively in the context of the Sephora Beauty Board is emerging as a universal trend amongst Chinese youth. Upload a selfie using emerging apps like Nice and Pinco and you can – of course – add a filter but also tag any products sharing the frame with their brand names, which then appear as an overlay. Pinco only lets you share images to Sina Weibo or WeChat, but Nice is going for a more global appeal, allowing you to share who you are and what you have in English via Facebook. Both apps let you follow streams connected to the brands you hold dear.

The power of peer-to-peer recommendation has long been recognised as a major engine of ecommerce, especially telling when we can’t experience products at first hand. The image explosion and rise of the visual web has become a powerful complement to that, creating a global visual lingua franca with an immediacy that’s incredibly useful to brands that understand its value.

When it comes to fashion, in particular, we have a seemingly limitless appetite for visuals. Thanks to the internet, Diana Vreeland’s observation that ‘the eye has to travel’ has never been so easily indulged. And consumers of imagery seem to make more eager consumers of product.

I recently read Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock and was struck by a passage on L. Frank Baum, who went on to write The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and his role in shaping an aspect of consumer culture we take for granted today. ‘Baum was responsible for what we now think of as the store window where an entire aspirational lifestyle would be represented in a single frozen scene… Store windows must communicate through a still image.’
That capacity to create consumer desire is something smartphones have put at our fingertips now, augmented by the capacity to convert, with no store and no window required. The image explosion and rise of the visual web is huge for retail. Yahoo reckons that 880 billion photos will be taken during 2014 – that’s 123 for every man woman and child on the planet. Finding elegant ways to close the loop, where appropriate, is fast becoming fashion’s favourite sport.

But while image recognition software is being championed as the Next Big Thing by many, the truth is that it has a long way to go. At last week’s Fashion Decoded summit in London, Ben Jones, technology director at AKQA, made his frustration clear: ‘It doesn’t work’, and its use in apps like Snapfashion is all too often ‘disappointing’.

Perhaps taking this into account, recently-released app ASAP54, dedicated to identifying and sourcing garments from images gathered on the go, bolsters visual recognition with a forensic human eye. If its algorithms come up with a set of unsatisfying results, human stylists will step in and provide five hand-picked alternatives. If you’re not happy with those, you can enlist the input of the wider community of ASAP54 users.

The latter feels like the clincher to me: the untapped people power we see in the comments section of blogs like The Sartorialist (someone ALWAYS knows where the shoes are from) is a force to be reckoned with. For a more systematic approach, look no further than the Mail Online’s FashionFinder feature, quickly converting the celebrity looks of the day into links to the items they’re wearing – plus an array of accessibly priced alternatives. Why? Because there is an audience for that information.

Sephora and ASOS have both found ways to monetise existing consumer behaviour while simultaneously using it to reinforce their communities and build brand love. While our passion for pictures shows no signs of abating, the brands that build bridges between inspiration and acquisition in similarly deft and intuitive ways will continue to be the ones that do well. McKinsey attributes 35% of Amazon sales to suggestions made by its algorithms. It would be fascinating to see how much the show and tell of social might contribute to retail in the future.