By Greg Pal

Converting prospective customers to buyers is a constant challenge for skincare brands online. Consumers are given a virtually unlimited choice of brands and products, leaving them undecided and in search of expert advice.

In a study of 1,500 US beauty consumers, Wakefield Research showed that 66 percent are overwhelmed by the number of beauty products on the market. Going through the breadth and depth of brands available to identify the best products for them requires a lot of work by consumers, often leading to delayed decisions and drop-off.

Lisa Gevelber, global vp of marketing at Google, has alerted brands to the need to adapt their marketing strategy in age of assistance. In 2018, Gevelber shared that “over the past two years, mobile searches with the qualifier ‘for me’ have grown over 60 percent … Finding what we want and need in this world of infinite choices can be a challenge. We expect to find answers (even if we’re not exactly sure what we’re looking for) as fast as possible, with as little effort as possible. And they’d better be relevant.”

Skincare marketers have identified this trend and have started to leverage AI to provide personalized advice and expertise to their consumers. Working with Automat, Vichy and La-Roche Posay (of L’Oréal’s Active Cosmetics Division) have deployed virtual skincare advisors across multiple global markets. Just this month, Bobbi Brown (of Estée Lauder), Kiehl’s (of L’Oréal’s Luxe Division) and Sephora (of LVMH) also launched their own versions of virtual skincare advisors in both the United States and France that empower consumers to get recommendations and drive online purchases

These deployments set the table for virtual skincare advisors — and virtual product advisors more generally across other domains — to become an industry standard to engage with consumers, learn about their needs and generate valuable first-party data and higher sales conversion.

What are virtual skincare advisors?

Consumers shopping for skincare products in-store can always count on expert staff to welcome them, make them comfortable, take time to understand their concerns, provide and explain personalized recommendations and give consumers confidence in both their purchases and themselves. Virtual skincare advisors are built to offer the same kind of experience online 24/7. As such, one way to think about virtual advisors is as digital experts staffing digital stores in a similar way that human experts staff physical stores.

 

Vichy’s Virtual Skin Expert is able to offer dynamic recommendations and adapt product presentation to what an individual consumer needs. Solutions like these started on Facebook Messenger, but quickly moved to websites and landing pages for digital advertising.

Powered by conversational AI, virtual skincare advisors can create personalized conversations and use complex recommendation engines to find the best products for the consumer. Brands like Olay and Ulta have also created alternate forms of online advisors that rely on image analysis and have seen impressive results.

An example of an image recognition-based skincare advisor from Olay. Source: https://www.techiexpert.com/artificial-intelligence-based-skin-advisor-olay/

These approaches are complementary, as text-based messaging built upon conversational AI provides the foundation for the overall advisor experience that can service all consumers. Features like image analysis can then be layered into that experience for the subset of consumers who are comfortable sharing selfies of themselves and desire that functionality.

How new, best-in-class advisors are changing the market

Among the aforementioned brands, Vichy was the first to pioneer this type of solution in 2018. Since then, virtual advisors have expanded worldwide and even been included in brand new channels like display advertising.

Examples of five distinct regions and four languages where the Vichy virtual skin expert has been localized for different countries outside of North America. 

This solution has increased “conversion, time spent and customer satisfaction [and have proven] relevant solutions for consumers,” according to Christian Bouchard, international business development director at L’Oréal.

The initial Vichy deployment generated over four minutes of engagement per interaction, an average of six unique insights and a 35 percent increase in average revenue per user, compared to the traditional e-commerce website.

As a greater variety of brands have deployed virtual skincare advisors, there has been diversity and differentiation in the approach taken to the experience. Kiehl’s, the flagship skincare brand of L’Oréal’s Luxe division, has implemented their virtual skincare advisor as an automated experience within their live chat offering.

 

With a virtual skincare advisor integrated directly into LivePerson, Kiehl’s is automating and amplifying a core component of customer acquisition while still allowing live agents to handle the support requests they’re best suited to. 

With Estée Lauder Companies’ Bobbi Brown, virtual skincare advisors have stepped beyond skincare to also include cosmetics products. This allows consumers to find their perfect foundation as part of a complete set of skincare product recommendations. The virtual advisor also provides an explanation regarding why each recommendation is right for them as a way to boost consumer confidence and create a direct connection between the information the consumer provided to the system and the recommendations being made as a result.

Deployed through Facebook Messenger, Bobbi Brown’s virtual skincare advisor helps users find their foundation, get skincare recommendations and talk to live makeup artists, fully integrating AI into the consumer decision journey in new and innovative ways. 

In parallel with these two brands, Sephora France has also just introduced its own multi-brand virtual skincare advisor — just in time for Black Friday. This advisor can engage consumers and recommend a complete skincare regimen across a variety of brands.

With hundreds of products to recommend, along with the ability to personalize the conversion process, Sephora’s new virtual skincare advisor is taking conversational AI firmly into the retail domain. 

 

Why is this trend picking up now?

With multiple launches across three of beauty’s biggest holding companies in just the last few weeks, it’s clear virtual skincare advisors are building market momentum and becoming a mainstay in the industry. So, why is this happening now?

According to Accenture, 91 percent of consumers are more likely to shop with brands who recognize them, remember them and provide relevant offers and recommendations. Consumers are looking for more assistance, personalization and recommendations to make their decisions easier — something that is becoming all the more difficult as the ability to use third-party data continues to be choked off.

The technology is now available to help marketers overcome these challenges. Machines can now ingest, tag and map products in sophisticated ways that deliver high-quality, personalized recommendations and dynamic interactions that make the right information available at the right time.

This considerably improves the consumer experience, and works best when trained to be smart about a specific industry. With the support of conversational AI capabilities, the experience can then communicate in a natural way that can be optimized for any and all goals brands have online — whether it’s generating conversations, insights, clicks, email captures or conversions.

Here, one of Kiehl’s hero products is mapped to the concerns it addresses and benefits it provides. This allows the virtual advisor to identify if a product is a good match for a consumer. 

 

How virtual advisors change the way brands and consumers connect

With restraints on targeting and third-party data forcing marketers to adapt, new solutions don’t just need to improve conversion. They also need to provide first-party insights that allow brands to target and personalize with consumers in new ways.

Virtual advisors — based on the questions they ask, concerns they address and clear product information they provide — are perfectly suited to help brands meet the challenge of today’s overwhelmed consumers and overcome the restricted ability to target them with established platforms. By working with AI partners that know their specific industry and creating one-on-one conversations at scale, brands can create stronger, lasting relationships with consumers and do it in a transparent and opt-in way that builds consumer trust, provides first-party data and ultimately leads to increased consumer purchases and lifetime value.