Slave to the algorithm? Why humans still have a role to play in the digital shopping world

Slave to the algorithm? Why humans still have a role to play in the digital shopping world

While algorithms do a good job of surfacing what we’re looking for, personal, real-time interaction in digital commerce is rapidly expanding to help shoppers navigate new products. Chris Cooper, Planning Director at SMP, looks at why human curation and algorithms are not mutually exclusive in driving shoppers to the checkout.

Digital commerce continues to move on an upward trajectory, growing at a pace that would have previously taken half a decade. A year into the pandemic, e-commerce transactions accounted for over half of consumer sales in March 2021.

This expands across every generation. Brands launching – or pivoting – online now have an opportunity to foster intelligent relationships with audiences based on behaviours. But while algorithms help shoppers research with product recommendations, they shouldn’t be a trade-off against human interactions led by brand representatives.

We are, after all, social creatures and there’s an old adage in sales – ‘people buy from people’. Online really is ‘people’ plural though – especially when shoppers look to the wisdom of the crowd through user reviews, editorial curation and personal recommendations.

Algorithms meet the human touch

Marketplaces like Etsy champion human curation over corporate messaging – it’s their stock-in-trade. Sellers’ hubs celebrate the craftsmanship behind products while taking firm advantage of 21st Century digital tools.

This kind of content is key to being included in Etsy’s own editorialised merchandising and in reaching influencers. Both offer a human take on the products featured and are thus invaluable in amplifying their research.

Customers play a tangible role in building trust through their advocacy. The perceived authenticity of their support can’t be matched by retailers and brands themselves. But it’s not just user reviews: the growth of social media means customers are influencing their followers through their own content and recommendations.

This isn’t restricted to categories like beauty and gaming. Zillow, a real-estate platform that offers 3D virtual tours, became a pandemic hobby in itself for many in need of much-needed escapism. And it spontaneously spawned (user-created) online communities like ‘Zillow Twitter’, where people share new listings, create newsletters and even publish columns.

Algorithms do still have a big part to play at the head of the purchase funnel in directing shoppers to products and brands that align with their interests. But they’re based on users’ past behaviours. Touchpoints that are creative and led by people go the extra mile in encouraging shoppers to research products – even categories – they hadn’t previously considered.

Livestream shopping is heading West

As digital displaces the high street, online competition is increasing and brands are having to find new ways to engage audiences. In recent years, livestream shopping has been growing into an ever more significant channel in China and it is now heading West.

A sizable chunk of China’s Singles’ Day profits now comes from shoppable livestreams, featuring a high calibre of guests recommending products to thousands of users. Tabao, China’s largest online marketplace, debuted livestreaming in 2018. By the end of this year it forecasts it will have generated 500bn of its sales through the channel.

We’ve recently seen TikTok team up with Walmart for a second influencer-led livestream for trial and test beauty products. Meanwhile, Amazon Live is positioning itself as the QVC of the 21st Century, with creators showcasing leading categories like fitness and pet care.

A shoppable livestream is an experience in its own right. Millennial and Gen-Z shoppers in particular respond well to live engagement with influencers in ways they couldn’t do before. Once again, ‘people buy from people.’

But the success of shoppable livestreams comes down to two factors: exploration and entertainment. Choosing an appropriate influencer and platform is paramount, particularly for audience scale and engagement, but the purchase process must also be frictionless to prevent a drop in viewership.

Livestream shopping shifts the B2C e-commerce environment away from product-style catalogue functionality to more personalised experiences built around interactions.

Driving conversions through personalised selling

Livestream shopping reaches wider audiences and boosts sales in categories like beauty, but bigger ticket items – particularly those that are typically demonstrated in-store – also work well with one-to-one consultations.

PC World’s ShopLive encourages curious consumers to speak directly with an expert through a video call, offering bespoke advice based on their particular needs. A straight-to-basket option allows customers to add items during the session.

This is a significant juncture for e-commerce as non-essential retailers reopen their doors. For the time being at least, many people are still steering clear of the high street and will be looking for online advice in a safe and convenient environment. It’s up to the online specialists to give shoppers of all ages other engaging reasons to stick with digital once the lockdown ends.

This will mean changing how we think about digital. While algorithms are good at surfacing what shoppers are looking for – and converting that interest – humans are key in driving discovery of brands and products that weren’t part of the initial search. Algorithms are a valuable asset in fulfilling demand, but it’s just a fraction of the relationship brands must build with customers to demonstrate their lifetime value.

Chris Cooper

Planning Director