Increasingly, retailers, manufacturers and service providers are utilizing the Internet not only as a sales channel but also as an instructional tool for consumers and employees.
But rather than merely replicate product manuals online, companies are using the Internet's interactive capability to provide streaming how-to video and animation that demonstrate products, walk consumers and sales associates through their setups, and illustrate troubleshooting tips.
Although full capability is limited by bandwidth, supporters are confident that online simulations of complicated consumer electronics will be a boon to sales training, and, on the consumer side, will encourage purchases while cutting down on returns and service calls.
To fill the virtual demonstration breech, a number of service providers have appeared on the CE, majap and extended warranty scenes, including e-SIM, SeeItWork and, most recently, How2TV.
At 10 years old, e-SIM is the granddaddy of the pack. The publicly held, Jerusalem-based business provides "simulation technology" for wireless and electronic product design, and also re-creates virtual products for the CE industry. These so-called "LiveProducts" look and behave like real units, and are distributed over the Internet or Intranet for Web-based e-commerce, interactive customer support and marketing.
Last month the company officially launched its customer support website, LiveManuals.com (www.livemanuals.com), which provides functional, interactive product simulations for CE, home office and majap products from 40 companies.
The virtual demos allow consumers to "try before they buy," or learn how to operate and troubleshoot their purchases in a "fun and easy-to-use environment," explained president/CEO William Sims.
Zenith, which is using the site to support its line of universal remote controls, "has seen the call volume to our customer service line drop significantly ... reducing our customer-support costs," said accessories VP Len Coakley.
LiveManuals.com also features links to manufacturer and dealer sites for comprehensive information on 10,000 products, and has an e-commerce function that allows consumers to compare prices, make purchases, track their warranties, buy extended warranties and schedule service appointments online.
The extended service component was forged this past summer with GE Warranty Management, following e-SIM's earlier success at putting a fully functional, virtual version of GE Appliances' Advantium oven online. Under the warranty deal, e-SIM has been promoting the sale of GE contracts covering all brands of CE and majap products on its LiveManuals site in exchange for a transaction fee for each contract sold.
Also making news last month, thanks to a new partnership with Roxy.com, was SeeItWork.com, an 11-month-old provider of product-centered streaming media content. Utilizing its 70,000-square-foot Digital Video Factory, SeeItWork.com can mass-produce digital content and product catalogs, while also providing the servers and bandwidth to deliver "a fast and affordable solution for bringing products to life," the company said.
For Roxy, the Dallas-based business has written, produced and hosted full-motion videos on more than 100 top-selling wireless products on the e-tailer's Everything Wireless site, and it will add another 100 clips to the flagship Roxy.com site over the next few weeks. In addition, Everything Wireless is planning to send out its first e-mail sales blasts incorporating SeeItWork's video streaming.
"As high-speed Internet access gains a strong foothold in the consumer market, rich media already has become a significant factor in online advertising," stated Roxy director of business development Alan Refaeli. "We are taking it to the next level, as a direct retail sales tool, providing our visitors with a virtual touch-and-feel experience that will help them choose the right product. Consumer research indicates this should significantly boost our look-to-buy ratio."
SeeItWork currently maintains 3,000 products within its video library and plans to expand the assortment to 10,000 PDAs, pagers, Web cameras, wireless products, GPS devices and other CE items by year's end.
The newest kid on the virtual demo block is Los Angeles-based How2TV, which was founded last year and officially launched last month. According to president/CEO Henio Arcangeli-a veteran of Yamaha, Thermador and GE-the company can help retailers and manufacturers generate sales leads and lower customer service costs through its mixed media information "packs."
The instructional packages contain pictures, graphics, diagrams, video and copy that show consumers how to assemble, install and operate complex products or learn more about items they might want to buy. The experience is designed to reduce consumer frustration, thereby reducing the number of service calls and returns while building loyalty and add-on purchases.
The packs sit on the retailer's or manufacturer's website, where they can be accessed via the Internet, interactive TV or wireless devices, and support an assortment of media players without download issues or plug-ins.