• August 03 2020

COVID Impact: Visual search in advertising

With changing habits and behaviours of shoppers using visual content to discover and find products, what does this mean for publishers and advertisers?

Since domino global lockdowns started in late February, retail sales have plummeted with non- essential stores shuttering and people having to stay at home.

According to an April report by the US Commerce Department, retail sales dropped by 8.7% in March in the US alone, as stay home measures started to get implemented. That accounted for a USD$46.2billion loss of sales shown in the breakdown below. In a separate report by Pantheon Macroeconomics, a similar picture in China was painted. China saw a similar plunge in retail sales by about 20.5% since it went into lockdown in late January.

Changing Consumers

They say it takes 12 weeks to form a habit, and that is how long many countries have gone into varying degrees of a lockdown. While countries went into lockdown for extended periods of time, consumer behaviours started to form and change. With people going out less, they spent more time at home working, playing games and browsing the web. Their purchasing patterns shifted as items gained new classifications  of “essential” and “non-essential” – with more of the former purchased online, and much less of the latter purchased on the whole. 

However, amidst these shifting consumer behaviours, and the huge blow they dealt to segments of the retail industry, ViSenze uncovered some truly unusual insights.  

An Unusual Discovery 

For some context, ViSenze Shopping is a visual shopping engine built into premium Android smartphones that helps shoppers discover and shop for products by using photos to search. 

With over 350 million monthly searches, our engine reflects the unique shopping behaviour of users following a path from inspiration to commerce – where  over 70% of fashion searches begin with existing images or screenshots, such as those from Instagram, digital magazines or online shopping sites. 

While most non-essential item categories took a big hit during the lockdown period, ViSenze Shopping numbers actually grew 30% between January and April. More importantly, they grew across ALL item categories, with footwear, apparel and jewellery being amongst the more surprising top gainers. With more time at home browsing video or social content, users were exposed to more visual inspiration and objects of desire, and hence followed a natural path to commerce where it was easily available to them. 

It was truly surprising that this increased content shopping behaviour persisted through the economic uncertainty of the pandemic and various community lockdowns. It seems the frictionless path to purchase from inspiration points is an organic consumer desire, and one that we anticipate to grow in a world where people are anticipated to spend more time online. We see this as an opportunity for publishers – to directly enable shopping from their content, so consumers do not need to leave the content environment to search.

Visual Search is powering a new era of shopping experiences


As more people go online to be inspired, discover and purchase products, what does this spell for advertisers? How does this go hand in hand with other external factors such as increasingly restrictive environments for audience targeting (3rd party cookies etc) and higher customer acquisition cost from existing advertising channels?

It has been reported that 75% of brands reduced their advertising investments in April 2020 and agencies lost between 54 and 91% of their billing in April 2020 due to the uncertainties brought about by COVID-19.

The impact of COVID-19 on the advertising sector in 2020 will result in a 30% decrease in advertising investments. All media are affected by the fall in advertising revenues. Some (billboards) more than others (social networks).

The lasting behavioural changes induced by the Covid crisis will lead advertisers to adapt their advertising messages as soon as the confinement ends. Outcomes based metrics will be even more scrutinized as ROI needs to be delivered, and campaign performance and efficacy will be closely monitored.


But while the black swan threw up a lot of challenges, it is also disrupting the advertising industry to do more and perform better- in short, opening up doors of opportunities. 

The old text-only based contextual technologies and solutions available are not sufficient to precisely understand the shopper journey, intent and context. Visual search data shows strong user intent and with the images shared, it gives more depth and context to what consumers are searching for, how they are getting inspired, and what inspired purchases. In short and with pun intended, it gives a fuller picture of the shopper for advertisers to achieve the intended outcome.

Consumers are consuming so much more visual content on a daily basis and our strategy leverages on that. As publishers are able to expand their offerings to monetize their visual content, advertisers will be able to explore new and more innovative ways to attract consumers with powerful visual content.

So what is it with visual search that can power new advertising opportunities?

Enabling visual search on publisher sites:  ViSenze Shopping provides a visual-based shopping search engine that can be directly integrated into a publisher’s text-based search engine. This allows the provision of an additional utility to users. Instead of consumers needing to type in inaccurate or long search terms, a simple image search will do the trick of returning more accurate results that help quicken the path to purchase.  Publishers such as search engines, browsers and content platforms can enhance user experience and generate a new source of revenue from product ads by incorporating such a feature. 

New visual-based contextual advertising: Visual content, images and videos will be treated as the “context” to feed data into the product shopping experience. When a user is on a page showcasing a new collection of running shoes, we have every reason to believe that this consumer is interested in shoes. Stretching that further, how about using the shoe images that a consumer is browsing as the signal of intent to shop for similar styles? In this case, consumers do not need to download the image, leave the page and find another means to search for similar products. ViSenze provides “shoppable image” and “shoppable video” products to be integrated into content publisher’s existing content that creates contextual ads that are relevant and effective.

Next Steps

With all advertising online being visual, both publishers and advertisers need to start thinking out of the box both literally and figuratively to thrive. As the uncertainties die down and COVID-19 becomes endemic, consumers’ confidence will return. However it will no longer be business as usual.

Consumers have developed new shopping habits and behaviours online that were reinforced during lockdowns and store closures around the world. Advertisers need to pay heed and re-evaluate their customer journey from discovery to conversion- essentially letting consumers shop the way they want to.

As mentioned in the first part of this article, with visual search growing in prominence and usage, it is imperative that advertisers seek out the right technology partners to deploy such technologies and make themselves available to visual analytics that will shed more light on their consumer intent.

For some of our clients, we have deployed a smart search product that allows audiences to do any type of search (visual, text or mixed) on a site/app. There are also shoppable image/video products that allow audiences to shop in the right context, and a shopping inspiration product that leverages different audience and contextual data to recommend the right products, at the right moment and in the right place.

It is no longer business as usual. Publishers and advertisers need to break free of conventional and traditional methods to ride through the wave strong.

To find out more about the impact of COVID on ecommerce, please feel free to download the full report here.

Written by Sanjeev Menon