The past few weeks, we’ve introduced the StartupYard Batch X companies in a series of in-depth interviews. Last but certainly not last on our list is the one Czech company in our 10th accelerator round: Vistag, the visual e-commerce platform that is making images shopable, and re-inventing product placement and branded content for the modern day.
I caught up with Premysl Koudela this week to talk about Vistag, and his vision for a more visually engaging e-commerce future.
As the one Czech team in Batch X, you probably knew more about the program than your fellow participants. How has the experience of the accelerator matched up with your expectations so far?
Well yes. StartupYard is well known among Czech tech people, and I know a lot of the alumni personally or at least by reputation. I had nothing but positive recommendations, so the quality was not a concern for me at all. You can tell from the mentor group and the investors that this is a community that knows a few things.
The harder question for us was whether or not it was the right time to join StartupYard for acceleration. That is something you are never sure about, so we went into the interview process with this question in our minds. The SY evaluators thought we were ready, and looking back on it, I agree it was the right time. As I have seen now, it’s rarely too early for an accelerator like SY. If what you need is to expand your immediate network and get a lot of feedback on your ideas as quickly as possible, then it’s something you should start looking at from the first moment.
I am glad we did it, and yes it met my expectations.
It might surprise people to learn that you were originally a filmmaker, before getting into the tech industry and founding Vistag. Can you tell us about that journey?
I always loved films, even as a little kid. What some people don’t know about Czechs is that we are very serious about cinema, and have a strong tradition of great directors and groundbreaking films. Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, and Jan Sverak are just a few examples. This tradition goes back to before communism, but we were also known as the autuer filmmakers of the former Eastern Bloc as well.
My father is a film director, and so naturally I also was attracted to the same field from a young age, and got work experience at Czech Television doing some of my own projects. In fact, this is the experience that brought me to founding Vistag.
In modern cinema and TV, product placement has become a necessary part of the economic model, and thus directors and producers have to look for ways of incorporating brand messages into their work without making undue artistic and narrative sacrifices. As in any medium, the economics will always have an effect on the final product, because someone is paying for a series or a film to be made, and very often that is advertisers.
Some people in film are quite ambivalent about that fact, but to me, if something is unnavoidable or necessary to get films and shows made, I would rather work within those confines and try to produce the best possible experience for the audience. We must keep in mind that art has never been free of commerce.
One of the problems with product placement is that it frequently runs counter to the storytelling process: it interrupts the story or distracts from it. So I began thinking how to make visual storytelling more interactive, and in doing so, offer more authentic opportunities to put brands and products into visual content.
It is not a new idea, to make visual content interactive and “buyable.” You can see this concept played with in films like the Truman Show, where in the fictional world of the film, the audience can buy anything they see on the TV just by calling a phone number. Television shopping is even older than this, but the more immediate, more e-commerce version of this kind of shopping was not really ready for the mainstream until very recently.
Today I think the market is ready for it. We are more used to brands acting as content producers on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest. We have a different relationship with the content they produce. People watch and share advertisements today as a form of entertainment. I don’t say whether this is a good or bad thing, it is simply true. So making those ads more useful by making them interactive and shoppable is a natural extension of this trend.
I also believe that ultimately this will allow creatives and brands to focus on higher quality content, because the interest of viewers should be driven by the stories being told. Right now, with the one-way communication style of TV adverts, people are well trained to ignore and skip advertising when they see it. That makes ads of less value, and in turn means you need to show people even more ads to monetize content properly.
But what if you could only show ads that are super-relevant to what a person is watching? An add that can say to you: this character’s watch that you noticed, which you admired, you can buy right now, for a special discount. Well, to me that’s a positive experience, if it is helping content creators to focus on telling a story, and still serving consumers with things they actually want to see.
Vistag is what some people would call “ad tech,” as an artist as well as a businessperson, how do you feel about the current role of advertising in shaping the direction of the modern internet?
As I said, I think modern ad tech solutions can and should bring audiences better experiences than in the past. We often see ad-tech as only becoming more invasive and more “dystopian” in the future. However I think this tendency to view advertising negatively causes us to forget the ways in which advertising and brand messaging have improved a lot in recent times.
No longer can brands shout at us from the television, because we have so many choices of what to watch and where to watch it. Now advertisers must be more focused on their core audiences, and they must be careful not to overstep or annoy customers. I think that is the countervaling effect of new digital media, which is that advertising does not have to become increasingly aggressive in order to work.
One reason is that digital advertising is not just about performance and retargeting only, it’s also about content and offer personalization. Knowing much better what a person enjoys, and what kinds of stories interest them, we can much better craft a branded experience around that, which focuses on the viewer, and not so much on the needs of the brand.
Ultimately, when you see an advertisement, it is either helping you in some way (to make a decision that will benefit you), or it is wasting your time. So why not have ads that people can choose to engage with? If I’m watching something, and I say to myself: oh, I like that car, what is it? I can click on it and find out more. If it goes right over my head and I don’t notice it, then I’m not in the audience for an ad about that car.
More efficient advertising is better for customers and better for brands. Ultimately the goal should be to only ever show ads to people who are truly engaged with something. Ads shouldn’t function as mass behavior manipulation; they should help people make appropriate decisions, in a perfect world. Having more awareness of context and of user priorities helps us to waste less of your time as a viewer and consumer of content.
This also bleeds into the way we imagine E-commerce working. From my perspective it’s better to have an offer of personalised and curated products than hundreds of products on a grid. We should build e-commerce experiences around content which people are looking for, not on the merely chance-driven economics of a shop browsing session.
I don’t see Vistag as just a tool for e-commerce. I see it as a new way to approach e-commerce. A way to ditch the grid approach, and sell in the language of the customer. Go to them instead of making them go to you.
What are some ways that customers or mentors have envisioned using your technology that were surprising to you?
There is always somebody who reveals some blindness we have about our technology. That’s a really important part of the mentoring process I really enjoy.
Surprisingly, I was not prepared to hear that there would be significant behavioral differences in the way different people of different cultures would interact with Vistag enabled content. That seems elemental, but when you are building the technology, you are thinking about how to design the interactions so that they seem to work for you. What you can easily forget is that for someone with a totally different consumer culture and context, these ways of working may not translate at all.
Therefore it is really important that we design ad products that help content creators integrate ads into their content. These are the people who understand their audience best, so making sure they are in control of how the ad experience works is important. Often the ad-experience is not in the control of the creatives, and this can create a jarring experience for viewers, who are good at noticing when something is not done according to the “rules” of the show or film they’re watching.
Basically, people can spot inconsistency very easily.
Is there something you think most e-commerce platforms or brands get wrong about product placement and content focused marketing?
The worst mistake, in my view, is to show customers something in a piece of content, like a picture or a video, but to try and sell them something that is only similar to that. No! That’s wrong! When you promise a customer one experience, and then try to sell them a different one, this errodes trust and kills the joy of the interaction and the discovery process.
So please, dont play games with us and give us what we see, and what we react to. Don’t try to cross-sell me when you haven’t closed the deal already. If I see a watch in the shop window, I want to try that watch. I don’t want to be shown 10 variants of that watch. I want the one I saw.
The concept of context aware advertising is older than the internet. Why do you think this has still not become a ubiquitous form of content monetization or ad placement?
I think its matter of time and technology. Six years ago, when I started thinking about Vistag, the market and technology weren’t prepared for such a thing. Still, whole advertising businesses were built around a different model.
Now, when internet connections are so fast you can download high res visual content in a blink of an eye on any device, now interactivity becomes more feasible. Context awarness is one thing, but you actually have to very smoothly integrate ads with content in order to make it work. That has always been the challenge.
Up until now, a tool to do this easily, which doesn’t rely on developers and custom technologies, was really not possible. Creatives really need a plug and play solution that just works, the first time. Otherwise it’s always going to be a gimmick that brands and advertisers are not keen to risk trying.
What prompted you to start developing Vistag? What did you see as fundamentally wrong with the way advertising and content marketing work online right now?
Actually the reason was my girlfriend. I told her about the Vistag idea and she said I am an idiot that I didn’t do it yet.
I dont want to judge current approach/market situation. I think its about quality and relevancy of content. “Content as king” is not as relevant as it used to be. There is so much content around us everyday that brands have to listen better to what their audience wants to and produce something special, unique, interesting that will distinguish the brand and attract an audience.
It’s not only about amount of content, but also about the volume of products on offer. When I shop, I dont want to be in the position when I have to decide between hundreds or thousands of products and variants. When I want to buy a blue shirt, I don’t have to have 10 or 20 very similar versions of one product, I dont want to suffer decision paralysis, because of something as simple as buying a shirt. Yet this is what e-commerce increasingly offers us.
I want my own curator. I want somebody, who will show me the right product for me from different perspectives.
How can an e-commerce platform or e-shop start using Vistag to sell their products? How can brands and content producers benefit from Vistag?
The tool itself is very easy to use. Implementation takes just a minute or two. “Vistagging,” which means actually making your content interactive, is the work of 10 seconds.
The harder work is making content that is very relevant to the intended audience. If you have a great idea of what content is hyper-relevant to your online audience, then Vistag
is a perfect solution for boosting user experience and driving conversions from your content. We cannot save you from having the wrong content or the wrong products, but if you know your audience and you know they like your products, Vistag is an ideal way to connect the two.
Give us a try!
When I was getting into marketing, we used to say “content is king.” And this was before content focused platforms like Instagram became really dominant. Do you think there has been a fundamental shift in the way products are marketed in the mobile age?
Our generation could be described as mobile friendly, so its a legit way how to sell products or communicate brands benefits, but is Instagram the right place to sell? Do the numbers of conversions on Instagram, FB or Snapchat affirm this is what consumers want to do? Current form/approach of Instagram isnt something what we can call ideal selling channel. People wants to see nice picture at a first place and only few of them wants to buy it there. Highly likely Im total wrong, but answer and possible solution could be close – Instagram announced their new shopping app.
But i think the real shift will come in next few years with AR, it will be fun and vistags will be there!:)