One of the biggest technology innovations at South by Southwest had nothing to do with virtual reality or artificial intelligence, or any of the other sexy tech topics that tend to dominate the conversation at tech conferences.
Promoted without much fanfare during an interview inside an Austin Convention Center ballroom, Amber Venz Box, the president of a Dallas-based company called RewardStyle, described an app the company released March 6 that could revolutionize the way people shop online.
Box’s company develops technology that helps fashion or lifestyle bloggers, or “influencers,” make money, by giving them a cut of the online sales generated for brands when someone reading one of their posts actually buys the clothes or other merchandise they are featuring.
This version of affiliate marketing is one of the invisible ways retailers are tapping into the power of social media to draw people to their sites online. RewardStyle is one of the main companies fueling what’s known as “social shopping.”
RewardStyle was started in 2011 by Box and her then-boyfriend, now-husband Baxter Box, who is an engineer. At the time, Box was a fashion blogger trying to figure out how to make money. Though she runs RewardStyle, she’s still a fashion influencer herself.
Box is the president of the company and the public face, while Baxter Box is the CEO. She also spoke at SXSW last year and comes across as poised and forward-thinking for a startup founder who is in her late 20s.
What Box announced during SXSW makes social media-based shopping even easier by allowing anyone who downloads their LIKEtoKNOW.it app to buy clothing items after only taking a screenshot from their smartphone. Product links are sent through a notification.
Here’s the interesting part: The app is platform-agnostic, meaning it works whether you’re grabbing a shot of an Instagram photo or Snapchat image, or of a photo posted to a website.
It’s a clever move. RewardStyle -- and its team of 90 engineers -- found a way to reach people inside their mobile devices, right at the moment someone is interested in making a purchase, without needing to work with any social media platforms directly.
The app is an extension of their existing LIKEtoKNOW.it platform, which is exclusively focused on helping people buy outfits or other merchandise featured on Instagram photos. Product information is sent to someone’s e-mail inbox after “liking” an Instagram photo.
Since that platform launched in 2014, consumers have used it to purchase more than $230 million in merchandise, according to the company, which has amassed an influencer network of 11,000 and has 3 million LIKEtoKNOW.it users.
The app and its screenshot technology were developed as a way to guard against platform migration, Box said.
“Just since our launch, we had gone from blogs, to Pinterest to Instagram and we’re just a nascent company,” she explained on stage, adding that “consumers are going to continue to migrate and we need to build for that.”
The app, which uses image-recognition technology, only functions with photos that are taken by influencers who are part of app’s network.
Box noted the shift in communicating and searching online to image or emoji-based searches. “People want to search based on images,” and fashion is unique in that it’s not just any white dress a shopper is looking for, she said, but that specific dress from a certain brand.
“This is solving a real consumer problem,” she said.
When Box was describing her app on stage, I watched as phone screens lit up around me as people started downloading it, taking screenshots and trying it out.
I was one of them. It’s incredibly easy to use, even for people who don’t normally shop this way. For instance, I don’t follow that many fashion bloggers, so the app suggested some to get me started.
It’s clear this screenshot technology could really change how people shop online.
But it’s worth noting that the number of people -- predominantly women -- who shop through social media is still relatively small. For instance, Fast Company said RewardStyle “drove more than $700 million in sales” in 2016.
But that’s less than 1 percent of total e-commerce activity in 2016. Forrester Data reports that total online spending last year was $397.4 billion, which is only 11.7 percent of total retail spending.
Most people shop online the old-fashioned way, directly through the brands themselves.
Not everyone has the time, money and tech-savvy to find fashion influencers they like and buy the merchandise they recommend, which tend to come from higher-end retailers such as Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus.
Fashion influencers offer a fantasy life to their followers, much in the same way that magazines like Better Homes and Garden and Vogue do, with carefully crafted outfits and professional photography. This aspirational life doesn’t usually include a $15 shirt from Target.
The only time I bought something recommended from an influencer was during a Black Friday sale at Loft, when sweaters were marked down 50 percent.
But studies show social shopping is especially popular with most Millennials, which means that taking a screenshot could be the way people shop in the future.