In case you haven't noticed, consumers on the Internet are doing a lot of their online communication through visuals these days. People are sharing roughly 1.8 billion photos every day just on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp. But image sharing reaches far beyond personal photographs and these particular services, and brands are waking up to this fact.
Are you taking advantage of this in a meaningful way? How so? Discuss in the comments.
Pinterest is building a whole new search and advertising ecosystem based on the image-heavy sharing the site's known for, and recently announced that it is working with a small group of marketing technology companies to offer new business insights. One of those is Curalate, a visual analytics company - the only such company, in fact, to be included in Pinterest's new API initiative, Tumblr's A-List program, and Instagram's Platform Developer program.
We had a conversation with CEO and founder Apu Gupta about how consumers are now communicating predominantly with images, and how brands and retailers are adjusting.
Photo sharing is not a new phenomenon by any means, but has really risen in popularity as a form of communication with sites like Pinterest, Instagram, Imgur, and Tumblr. In fact, it's pretty much on the rise across all the big networks.
"I've always looked at this as less of a social network phenomenon and more of a consumer behavior one," Gupta tells WebProNews. "Today, consumers will share over 1,000,000,000 images across the major social networks. While Pinterest and Instagram and certainly built from the ground up to be about images, communicating in photos on more established networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr has increased dramatically. 75% of posts on Tumblr, for instance, are image posts. And probably one of the most under reported news items was how Twitter started displaying pictures by default in their feed. For Twitter to go from 140 characters to 1,000 words represented a massive philosophical shift and a deep understanding that images have become the new currency of social engagement."
So how are brands adjusting to this shift?
Gupta says, "In general, brands are embracing the shift to images, but the majority still need a lot of guidance. The primary problem we see most brands facing is that they're too focused on the content they're pushing out rather than the content their fans are organically sharing. The vast majority of engagement on Pinterest originates from content that was sourced by a consumer visiting a brand's website. That content goes on to get discovered on Pinterest and shared by other consumers. This has nothing to do with what a brand is pushing out on its owned channel on Pinterest. Similarly, on Tumblr, we find enormous amounts of engagement for brands that don't even have a page on the network. Today, the conversation is initiated by the consumer, not the brand. This is a mindset that a lot of marketers struggle with embracing because they've been so used to pushing out messages. Smart brands however, are tapping into these consumer initiated conversations and getting a much deeper understanding of what their consumer cares about. This, in turn, makes brands more relevant."
These words also ring true for Facebook engagement. While organic reach of posts pushed out by brands on their own pages has declined dramatically, website referrals from Facebook continue to increase, signaling that it is indeed the consumers driving the engagement.
"It really doesn't matter which network is most engaging," says Gupta. "Today, if your consumer is on a network, your brand is on the network, whether it's an active participant there. So the real question should be do brands want to remain relevant to their audiences wherever they live?"
"Pinterest by its very nature is about image sharing," he says. "The majority of that sharing originates from content that exists on other websites. As a result, Pinterest will over index on content-heavy sites. As a result, we tend to see fashion / retail / luxury as well as publishers (including the blogs of brands) / recipe sites do very well."
"Two things work particularly well with Instagram," Gupta adds. "From the perspective of a brand, Instagram offers an opportunity to bring the consumer into the brand's world in a very human and authentic way. It's about artistry and the celebration of how lives are enhanced by being connected to the brand. The other thing we see work really well with Instagram is taking the photos that fans have generated and making those photos shoppable. Curalate has worked with numerous brands including Rebecca Minkoff and Urban Outfitters to do just this, and the results have been astounding."
I liked Bolthouse Farms' approach to using Instagram to sell products. The drink maker encouraged users to snap pictures of its products, tag it with a pre-determined hashtag, and get money-saving coupons to use towards the products. Simple, yet effective.
"The primary difference is that Pinterest tends to contain more imagery generated by brands while Instagram tends to contain more user generated content," Gupta explains. "In many ways, these two platforms represent a continuum from pre to post purchase. If Pinterest is what people aspire to own or try, then Instagram is where consumers go to celebrate what they did. Beyond that, Pinterest's layout offers the opportunity to thematically organize images to tell a broader story, whereas Instagram is more temporal and favors singular arresting images that document the 'moment.'"
Just what does make an image popular on Pinterest or Instagram? Gupta says his company has run studies for image characteristics for both networks.
"While there are some interesting correlations between colors, textures, backgrounds, etc and engagement, these studies still primarily deal with the 'what' and not the 'why,'" he says. "The fact is that science still knows very little about what makes a great image and how humans will react to them. In the absence of that, our general best practices involve images that are authentic, inspiring, and unexpected."
How are brands integrating user-generated content into their marketing effectively?
The most effective use of user-generated content for brands, Gupta says, is inspiring other consumers.
"Curalate's Fanreel product powers the UGC efforts of numerous brands and enables brands to bring UGC from the social web back into a brand's product pages," Gupta says. "The resulting images are the antithesis of product reviews. While product reviews ask consumers to be critical and rational, UGC is celebratory and emotional. And it shows - clicks and revenue on UGC displayed on a brand's website are tremendous."
On how image recognition algorithms and other technologies are leading to analytical data that marketers can use, Gupta says says the primary challenge is that when people communicate with pictures, they don't use a lot of words.
"Every social analytics tool ever built assumes text will be there for the finding," he says. "So what happens when text disappears? Curalate solves this problem by 'reading' the picture itself - we memorize the pixels in an image (over 200MM times daily) and if we ever see that image again, we know who owns that image and frequently, what that image is about. That data is hugely valuable to marketers, because for the first time we know the social popularity of any product you make. That information is now being used to make better buying, merchandising, and advertising decisions while also being used to drive up social engagement."
As social networks continue to make more analytical data available in different ways (as Pinterest is doing), marketers stand to gain more knowledge about what works, and improve their marketing efforts across social media at large.