Does "What You See" Really Influence "What You Get"?

Was sitting back quietly last weekend reading the Sunday NY Times (What? They forgot the comics section again!), when I was jarred by an otherwise innocent-looking graphic in the Week In Review. In a piece about the tons of people who viewed President Obama's inaugural events, it rattled off some of the major U.S. broadcast networks in a chart: NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, MSNBC and Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart? Yep, the number of Americans who watched the events on Wal-Mart TV was almost half as many who saw it on MSNBC and almost a third of those who watched Fox.

But let's get back to Wal-Mart. Those numbers nicely illustrated the massive reach that in-store retailers are finding with video, especially POS-situated videos for captive consumer audiences.

Of course, the massive surge in video interest—encouraged dramatically by today's YouTube-addicted younger consumers--isn't limited to in-store. Comscore reported Monday (Jan. 26) an impressive 40 percent increase in monthly U.S. online video viewers, when comparing October 2008 (almost 35 million such viewers) with October 2007 (fewer than 25 million such viewers).

The pattern of increasing online video usage is nothing new. But what's intriguing about the latest Comscore figures are not the hard increases as much as the behavioral changes. "Among the benefits of videos touted by Web retailers are a lower number of abandoned shopping carts, reduced return rates and higher sales," said Jeffrey Grau, eMarketer senior analyst.

Let's pause for a bit of context and a sprinkling of cynical reality. Web video is still quite young, so percentage increases are going to be misleadingly huge until about 2012 or so, perhaps even 2014. And some of these figures are going to be misleading due to self-selecting factors. In other words, a consumer who is willing to spend 10 minutes watching a demo or an explanatory video was quite likely already highly inclined to purchasing that product. That means looking at the higher purchase rates of consumers who watched a video may not be indicative of much. It wasn't the video that turned them around. Those who watched were probably convinced before they clicked "play."

The Power Of Video

That all said, it's clear retailers are just beginning to understand the sales power of in-store videos, which is nice, because consumers are just starting to understand the informational power—and, yes, the convenience—that well-done videos can offer. Will these two trains meet? And I do not mean in a Gomez Addams model train set kind of way.

The economy may also play a role. I'm hesitant to say that, because columnists, marketers and politicians (how's that for a trustworthy group?) today seem to find in the weak economy the magic answers that will explain everything. ("Traditionally, Brussels sprouts are not big sellers in school lunch programs, but with the way the economy is headed, that's going to change.")

eMarketer's Grau made that specific argument about retail videos. (The economy one, not the Brussels sprouts one.)

"Seeing the sales lift from videos, retailers are exerting pressure on their suppliers to create video content. This may be the year the logjam breaks," Grau said. "Once retailers build up the video content on their sites, they will focus on turning their video assets into customer acquisition tools by pushing video to other sites, such as affiliates, social networks and video-sharing destinations. Retailers will also place community elements around their videos to make it easy for consumers to upload them to social networks, blogs, bookmarking services or E-mails."

Perhaps. But much of that will rest on whether retailers take the time and effort to create high-quality videos. The lesson learned from YouTube is that consumers will embrace video as long as it's done well. Let's hope that retailers don't draw the wrong conclusion from a potentially very persuasive lesson.