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How The Visual Web Is Changing Holiday Shopping

ReadWrite Shop is an occasional series about the intersection of technology and commerce.

Online holiday shopping begins long before Cyber Monday—and that’s all thanks to the Visual Web. Since image-based networks like Polyvore and Pinterest focus on things, not social connections, potential gifts pop up on user feeds all year long. 

Visual Web sites like these—or Instagram, or Tumblr—are characterized by layouts that emphasize images over text. It’s a hot area, flush with billion-dollar valuations and acquisitions. And it turns out that the Visual Web picks up even more steam than usual around this time of year. 

See also: Why The Visual Web Is A Billion Dollar Trend

As a Pinterest spokesperson told me in early November: “In the months leading up to the holidays, we see a 25 percent increase in boards related to gifts and wishlists. ‘Christmas gifts’ is already in our top 25 search terms.” 

Sharad Verma, CEO and founder of Piqora, said it all makes sense when you realize human beings process images 60,000 times faster than they process text. Piqora, which provides analytics for Visual Web networks, has noted an analytical spike in Q4. 

“Images simplify and speed up the process of how we receive information,” said Verma. “And we have an unlimited appetite for simplification.” 

Here are three of the ways Verma believes the Visual Web is changing ecommerce:

The Visual Web Is Public

There’s a reason Pinterest only lets you create up to three secret boards. With the advent of the Visual Web, networks are swapping out user privacy for the communal convenience of a fully accessible, open database.

 “A fundamental attribute of the Visual Web is that it’s public in nature,” said Verma. “It’s unlike Facebook, which is a closed, private graph. Or even Twitter, which lets you keep your tweets private.”

While many people care deeply about their privacy on Facebook and Twitter, where they’re sharing personal thoughts, these same concerns haven’t passed on to image-based networks. That’s because the Visual Web revolves around objects. Users choose to follow one another based on content, not on real world connections. 

As a result, nobody’s contributions to the Visual Web are off limits for your Christmas list. You could get shopping ideas from a Polyvore set created in India or from a perfect stranger’s pinboard, and there aren’t any cultural or language barriers to slow you down. 

The Visual Web Is A Two-Way Street

Verma said it’s a mistake for marketers and retail companies to only pay attention to which images people are pinning and Tumblr-ing. They need to be contributing their own images too, and that doesn’t mean repeatedly spamming their own products. 

“We’re living on a two-way Web now, where marketers can be part of the conversation,” said Verma. “Marketers need to not just understand which images are driving clicks, but become publishers of that content themselves.”

For example, New York City’s holiday shoppers always look forward to the elaborate displays in department store windows. So this year, Barneys decided to bring the big reveal to Instagram first. 

The Visual Web is like a testing ground for retailers’ big ideas. Since it’s inexpensive, there’s little risk.

“Since it’s interest based, it’s almost like a large scale automated focus group except marketers can also participate,” said Verma. “The holy grail of the two way marketing approach comes to fruition on the Visual Web.”

The Visual Web Is Positive 

According to Verma, there’s also something to be said about the environment the Visual Web provides. Since there’s not really a space for text, the image-based communities see far less bullying, heated discussions about politics and religion, and similar common Internet turn-offs.

“I talked to a lot of users about what their fascination with Pinterest was,” he said. “For them, it’s a way to escape the drama of Facebook. Facebook is a necessary evil like a relative you have to visit. There’s a lot of cognitive psychological stress from using Facebook. Meanwhile, Pinterest is an active, life-improving type of escape.”

When it comes down to it, much of the Visual Web is about shopping, and much has been made of “retail therapy” and studies that show shopping really does cheer people up. That doesn’t explain why Facebook still leads the e-commerce numbers, but it might explain why the average Polyvore session leads to nearly $400 in purchases

Granted, all of these purchases take place off site at places like Amazon, but getting the product is only half of the process. Retail has always been about the shop creating a positive experience for the customer. But on the Visual Web, people customize their own experiences. With online shopping set to exceed in-person purchases for the first time in America this year, it’s clear which experience buyers prefer. 

Public, positive, and crawling with marketers—welcome to the Visual Web. It may center around transactions, but at least it’s not hiding that. And according to Verma, that’s why people like it. It isn’t multipurpose, but it’s the right tool for the job.

“The Visual Web is growing rapidly because people are using it to conduct real life transactions,” he said.

It’s not going to replace your Facebook, but it just might help you get your holiday shopping finished before Halloween decorations are even up.

Photo by JD Hancock

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