The Changing Way Consumers Shop Online for Cosmetics

As consumers drive the beauty site experience instead of the brands dictating it, Ross Glick and Judy Shulman Brown take a look at the challenges and rewards in the fusion of social media and shopping online: experience commerce.

Q: As you think of the beauty industry and digital marketing, who was the industry forerunner, and in what ways have they evolved? And thinking about your history in the industry, is there a brand that really stands out as one who took the first step digitally?

Glick: The first company that comes to mind is MAC Cosmetics back in 1999. This was when the various channels of marketing communication were beginning to expand and consumers were spending more time online becoming digitally savvy.

At that time MAC was a true pioneer, embracing digital marketing from a creative point of view. They began asking the important questions: what can we do creatively with these new digital channels to create excitement, evangelize MAC culture and feed the MAC community? Because MAC is very much about community, the community of MAC and the artistry of makeup, not only the community of the professional makeup artist, but also the people who identify with the cosmetics lifestyle and their culture.

MAC intuitively foresaw that digital technology would help their brand connect more deeply with their community and consumers. By creating digital content that pushed the boundaries of digital marketing, MAC began to effortlessly unify the online global community of makeup artists. An example would be—an offline program that migrated to an online password-protected site—whose initial objective was to create loads of non-traditional kinds of content, including trend videos, product knowledge and application videos.

Since that time, MAC has become a digital content-driven organization, from books and application techniques to event promotion, event tie-ins, affinity programs, the MAC AIDS Fund and celebrity promotions—many of which are unified through social media. Each of these initiatives were buttressed by digital marketing activities and executed through multiple online channels—as opposed to just thinking about the initiatives such as print sponsorship possibilities.

Q: What were the initial challenges for brands entering and experimenting in the digital space?

Shulman Brown: Initially ,and even for a longtime thereafter, websites were overdesigned, making it extremely cumbersome and time consuming for the consumer to experience a brand and/or find what they needed. The vast majority of visitors to sites are researching and feel frustrated when they can’t achieve that which in turn can create a negative perception about a brand.

It’s important to remember that with social media, social shopping and experience commerce, it’s about what the consumer wants. Beauty and fashion companies must create an online experience based on consumer needs and wants. There are more options than ever which are just a click away, so now in a lot of ways it’s the consumer driving the site experience instead of the brands dictating it.

Q: Enter Experience Commerce—defined as the fusion of social media and shopping online, is emerging as the latest marketing trend for beauty companies. How are you seeing experience commerce impact the industry?

Shulman Brown: True experience commerce is a 365-degree experience—people are now being exposed to brands via many different touch points. Experience commerce is just an extension of marrying content and commerce which sounds easy, but can be quite difficult to balance for a variety of reasons. Beauty companies are trying to create a personal relationship with consumers by making their experience as good as, or in some cases better, than it would be at a store—and that positive, clever experience creates loyalty. Virtual makeup applications make it possible for consumers to see an unlimited number of shades and combinations in seconds on digital photos of themselves or a model and that could not be replicated in store. Videos (content) enable people to enjoy watching and learning from renown makeup artists and celebrities in the intimacy of their own space; insider tips and tricks along with backstage access are now theirs to enjoy and, along the way, they might decide to buy what they see being used, research the product by reading reviews or go to a store to explore.

Or it’s a Saturday night and you decide you want that smoky eye, well a trip to the counter isn’t an option, and then it’s all about going digital for the how-to and as quickly and efficiently as possible. This doesn’t mean that the experience has to be in a minute but it has to be right, meaning being considerate of the customer and not wasting her time with bad content; thus a negative brand experience.

Q: What is your opinion of experience commerce and beauty brands today?

Glick: Today brands are saying, “Look, yes, obviously we want to sell lots of product. We also recognize, we don’t want to just sell to consumers. We want to connect to them and consequently extend the selling cycle on the first or second buy.” The more educated marketing executive at beauty companies recognize that by investing in a richer, more meaningful online strategy from the beginning, they are more likely to keep their relationship with consumers fresh and real —so much so that they’re much more likely to stay connected with the brand, and equally, they’re more likely to share the experience and content with a friend.

Q: Is experience commerce different for beauty brands as opposed to other industries or markets?

Glick: Experience commerce is a very broad term, but it’s really about consumers buying into the narrative the brand it is offering, and utilizing digital channels and devices that support video and Flash and HTML 5 to build an experience that resonates with that target demo.

When we talk about e-commerce, it’s not necessarily also true for a company that sells direct to consumer, like some of the pharmaceutical brands, which have a two-step conversion process. Pharma companies need to convert the consumer into first connecting with whatever their medical problem is and then sending them to a doctor to get a prescription written. There are multiple steps to the transaction.

Q: How does narrative marketing, another trend in the online promotions business, relate to experience commerce?

Glick: By narrative-based marketing, we are talking about the narrative of a brand, manifesting it through visual, motion-based devices that can be executed through digital channels for distribution in the dot-com, social media and mobile arenas. There exists a functional expectation for narrative-based marketing; so that could mean taking surveys or registering for an account or actually buying a product or subscribing for a membership, like some of our magazine clients, such as Cook’s Illustrated. For Cook’s Illustrated magazine we had to redesign the whole video section of their site because their conversions—from visitor to sale—were below expectations. It was a creative assignment leveraging narrative marketing, but it was really driving towards a functional motivation to improve their subscriptions based on the video component of

Shulman Brown: Online, the experience is the brand and that experience in turn drives the narrative. If you have a great experience with a brand, chances are you’ll be loyal and in this day and age—let your friends know who’ll let their friends know, who’ll let their friends know, etc. Consumers know when a brand understands them and is perceived as even “cooler” by incorporating technology that enhances the experience.

I can think of quite a few e-commerce sites that have had unbelievable growth because they totally understand the needs of their consumers and offer that rich experience.

Q: Which brands in the market today offer consumers an incredible online experience and why?

Shulman Brown: From a retail standpoint, does an incredible job and established itself as a leader. They do many things so well—they have taken selling the entire look to a whole new level. The site features runway videos that you can shop from. They have a fantastic editorial point of view, almost everything is shown on a model and a customer has the ability to purchase everything their models are wearing. Equally important is the ability to effortlessly find exactly what you need for any occasion. The overall experience is much easier than going to a store—not only do I have the benefit of seeing all items on a person, I can see countless looks in such a short time. They also make it easy to return so you can try on in the comfort of your home with your own accessories and return something in less time than it would take to do so at store.

When I think of customer service I immediately think Free shipping on all orders and returns for a full year—they even have a video to make returning as easy as possible for the customer. You know they want you to be happy. They typically have more views of their merchandise than anyone else which makes for an informed customer and therefore a happier customer. They set the bar for online shoe shopping—a no other offline giant comes close.

Some other examples that are not sexy at all are and Fresh Direct. On Fresh Direct, they have a great library of recipes and if you decide to make one, with just one click all the ingredients are added to your cart.

Q: From your experience then—would you say that the luxury  industries, including beauty, should have a different strategy when it comes to their digital campaigns? Or for beauty consumers, is buying beauty products the same as buying groceries?

Shulman Brown: No, it’s not remotely the same. A luxury brand should have rich content for those who want it and some won’t be interested in it no matter what—the point is to give users the option of choosing their experience. When you go to a good commerce site, you can get to the same area or product many different ways, and now with all the social media and mobile capabilities, people are experiencing a brand from multiple touch points. The problem is that it can be costly to create the content that will drive the rich experience. So again, it’s trying to find the optimal balance. But if experience commerce works, it’s about helping customers to feel a certain way about a brand from these multiple touch points.

Glick: That is a critical point because the reality is that—as mentioned—people are interacting now with brands at various touchpoints within the context of many different environments. The idea of being able to buy a product or engage with a new brand or an extension of a brand doesn’t necessarily have to happen on their dot-com site.

That being said, if a brand is out in the vast Internet landscape looking for customers, then it must be about engaging them in a deeper way that goes far beyond traditional marketing communications. The online engagement, when it happens, must be an amazing customer experience and fulfilling.

Q: Laura Mercier recently launched its new experience commerce site and you both collaborated on that project. What sort of challenges did you encounter creatively and technically?

Shulman Brown: For Laura Mercier, we looked at the numbers in order to understand the business and what needed to change, and then began an intense re-architecting of the site in trying to achieve the perfect balance of content (the rich experience) and commerce (the functionality). As always there are legacy systems in place that restrict changes, and, in this case we, had an incredibly short timeframe, which limited some of the content and functionality development. But we were able to redefine the user experience and redesign the key shopping elements in order to improve initial customer engagement and increase conversion rates.

Glick: I would add that much of our work was about really enhancing the user experience for Laura Mercier customers—both aesthetically and functionally. We also engaged a social media activation strategy to unify their digital marketing and traditional marketing program.

Q: What do you see as the future of beauty brands and experience commerce?

Shulman Brown: I’m so excited to see how mobile commerce progresses. I think we’re headed for easy breezy one-click shopping or a simple scan to purchase. Maybe next, we’ll receive real-time promotions for stores right as we’re passing by.

Glick: Mobile itself; the concept of mobile is now changing. Mobile really means just various devices where you can access things on the go. For mobile to be successful, it all comes back to the center objective for any good online marketing campaign. Marketers must ask, "what is the experience we want our customers to have? What is the messaging, and how much of it’s brand-centric versus product-driven messaging—or is it something that intertwines the two?"

The key for an experience commerce mobile marketing initiative is to connect with consumers emotionally—and this is where I think traditional media always fell short. You may be touched, moved by a billboard. [But] 20 minutes, 20 seconds after you pass it, you probably forgot about it.

How often do you write down, “Wow, I saw this billboard with a toll-free number of brand X. I’m going to call and go find that store.” I mean, how often does that happen? Maybe in a magazine you tear it out and you put it in your pocket, but do you share it with a friend? Rarely.

So with mobile the billboard scenario becomes much more compelling: you’re walking down the street—and the digital billboard provides your mobile phone with an offer to opt-in for information on the store and discounts. The message reads that the store’s ten paces down on your left. It’s a bit Minority Report, but it’s happening.

Ross Glick is the CEO/co-founder of Indelible; Judy Shulman Brown is an e-commerce and digital strategy consultant. Based in New York City, Indelible is a full-service digital advertising agency and production studio specializing in experience commerce, narrative marketing and social media activation. Founded in 1999, the company’s portfolio of clients include Estee Lauder, Clairol, MAC Cosmetics, Chanel, Allergen, Shering-Plough, Sears, K-Mart, Sony, Casio, Viacom, Napster, Playboy, Esquire and Ladies Home Journal.

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