How Will the Social Web Monetize the Uptick in Visual Content?

Jamie Thompson



Remember the kindergarten exercise, show and tell?

Well, based on its more mobile-friendly News Feed redesign, it appears Facebook will now be more show than tell. Or, to be more precise, it will be burying the tell in billions of pictures. The shift to a personal newspaper-style format with larger and more prominent photo displays is a response to photo-driven behavior that has rapidly changed the social media landscape. In fact, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says that 50% of all posts are now pictures, double the amount from just a year ago.

It’s a shift that makes sense considering our brains are wired to favor pictures over words. A recent HubSpot study of 1,500 B2B and B2C company Facebook Pages determined that photo posts generate 53% more Likes and 104% more comments than average posts. In addition, photo posts receive 84% more link clicks than plain text status updates or links with thumbnail pics.

So if it’s true that Facebook is becoming (a bigger version of) Tumblr or Pinterest and text posts are dying, what happens after the funeral?

How Will the Social Web Monetize Visual Content?

To date, the internet has been monetized primarily by text-based ads. In fact, an entire industry has developed around keyword optimization for ad buyers. Words drive SEO. Words drive Google and Facebook ads. Words drive the economy of the web.

If consumer-generated photos are the new currency, is the entire concept of indexing words to serve up relevant content and advertisements going to become extinct?

As we move toward a visual-centric content universe, the machines that monetize the internet need to keep up with the times. In the new Facebook News Feed, the best advertising will not look like traditional ads on the surface; they'll look like your friends’ photos. But it will be your friends’ photos which voluntarily celebrate their favorite brands that will become most valuable to advertisers.

Unfortunately for marketers, this authentic consumer content is rarely tagged with brand names unless it's in response to a contest or social media campaign offering prizes, discounts, or other incentives. People naturally tag the names of people and places they care about -- not products.

Photo Monetization: A Theory

What’s needed is more image intelligence -- a way to systematically scan and detect the presence of brand logos, packaging, and products lurking inside the billions of consumer photos streaming into the internet each week. (According to Facebook, this social network alone gets more than 300 million photo uploads daily.)

A smart computer vision system applied to those photos could extract the relevant meta data and essentially turn your friends’ pictures into "buyable" ad units. You click on the photo and are presented with targeted sales offers.

At any given moment on Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, you can find photos of your family or friends exercising. Every 5K race, treadmill trot, or yoga pose continues to be documented for posterity. You probably don’t care what brand of sneakers they are wearing. But advertisers do. A smart computer vision system could detect whether they are sweating in Nikes, Reeboks, or New Balances -- and where they are working out.

Similarly, at any time, you can also crash your co-worker’s nephew’s birthday party. You probably don’t care if the kiddies are eating Breyer’s, Ben & Jerry’s, or Turkey Hill ice cream. But, again, advertisers do. And the right image intelligence tools could also reveal which soda they are washing all that cake down with. Using super-resolution image magnification, you might also see if the grown-ups are sipping Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks in the background.

Even further, facial recognition technology can be used to detect emotions based on happy, sad, or indifferent expressions. It’s a small leap to measuring visual brand sentiment -- extracting moods and feelings about products from uncaptioned photos.

Problems With Photo Monetization

Will consumers welcome their personal photos being leveraged as advertising? Some will have privacy concerns. But many others will surely embrace the opportunity, motivated by rewards in brand loyalty programs or perhaps through outright revenue sharing for the most prolific creators of brand-themed content.

Before the News Feed makeover, Facebook attracted a lot of buzz over its Graph Search feature, the solution for more niche targeting of Facebook's more than one billion users. Graph Search lets you connect with people based on extremely detailed criteria, such as “Friends Who Live in Italy Who Like Justin Bieber and Oreo cookies.” It taps into an enormous wealth of data, but it also has limitations for identifying what is in photos. As with all Facebook ads and promoted posts, Graph Search relies completely on text. If a photo is not tagged with what you’re looking for, it won’t show up in any search.

Underscoring its massive shift to visual content, Facebook also announced it is soon rolling out 15-second video ads that automatically start playing in your News Feed. The jury’s out if there will be a consumer backlash at these mini TV commercials, as they are way more obtrusive than silent photos.

As Mark Twain might say, the reports of the death of text-based SEO are greatly exaggerated. But while visual self-expression continues to explode, social networks are still struggling to monetize this photo-sharing behavior at scale. Huge opportunities exist for applying image intelligence tools to their current advertising services. There’s no need for millions of untagged brand photos to remain “invisible” any longer.

This is a guest article written by Jamie Thompson. Jamie is the founder and CEO of Pongr, a computer vision and mobile technology company that develops direct-response photo marketing tools for brands. You can follow him on Twitter @Jamie_Thompson.

Topics: Visual Content

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