Brand on the Run: Gleaning customer data from "photo snooping"

Why Twitter, Facebook pictures are worth more than a thousand words to brands

If you smashed your iPhone screen and posted a photo of it to Twitter recently, Samsung feels your pain.

Or at least, the South Korean electronics giant is aware of your existence. Samsung’s London ad agency, Mars, has called on Ditto Labs to parse the public’s photos for such activity. Samsung might then use this information to target consumers — very specific consumers — with ads for a new phone.

If that scenario strikes you as creepy, then you should probably stay off Tumblr as well. Last year, the Yahoo unit also inked a deal with Ditto, which is based in Cambridge, Mass., to search photos on that network for brand affiliation.

Welcome to the next frontier of social media marketing: photo snooping.

For the past decade or so, many brands have searched text on social media to try to glean insights about consumers. Companies like Topsy (now owned by Apple); Simply Measured; Sysomos; General Sentiment; and Crimson Hexagon have attempted to mine public social media conversations for brand affiliation and sentiment.

Now, a new wave of companies, including Ditto, CamFind and Slyce, are doing the same with photos.

The logic is sound. As Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers analyst Mary Meeker noted in her May 2015 Internet Trends report, Instagram is now the preferred social network for teens. The report also found that 44% of Millennials use their camera daily, and 76% post photos to social media. Meeker’s 2014 report cited research showing people posted and shared 1.8 billion photos every day. All those snaps surely hold clues for marketers hungry to learn more about the most-coveted generation.

Ethnographic research
Proponents of photo snooping say people reveal much about themselves in photos that they don’t via the written word. Say you pose for a selfie with a Subaru in the background. That would tell the brand that you either own a Subaru, have a friend with one or just happen to be standing in front of one. Whatever the case, that’s useful intelligence for the brand. "We’re really trying to read the more subtle affinities that people have for products rather than the intentional actions," says Ditto CEO David Rose.

In the past, Ditto has analyzed photos to discover how consumers are actually using products. The answers are sometimes surprising. The firm discovered, for instance, that customers were consuming Chobani yogurt in their cars and that 16 year-old girls often get Vera Bradley handbags for their birthdays as a rite of passage. Both brands applied those insights to their marketing.

Capitalizing on viral moments
In addition to providing ethnographic research, the photos can help marketers rapidly capitalize on a viral moment. Adi Kleidman, a VP of Product for Tracx (a partner of Ditto) notes that American Airlines (not a client of either Tracx or Ditto) got 750,000-plus mentions over the past month because someone posted a photo online of an AA employee who looked like the character Snape from the Harry Potter movies (a k a actor Alan Rickman). Though the brand did eventually respond, Kleidman says, a little photo analysis could have helped it do so faster.

Severus Snape will assist you in the boarding process for Flight Nine and Three Quarters from LaGuardia to Hogwarts. We’...

Posted by American Airlines on Friday, June 5, 2015

"You’ll be surprised, but many times people share things without referring to the brands," Kleiman says. For instance, a few months ago singer Bruno Mars posted a photo of his lunch on Twitter. The meal included Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, but he didn’t mention it. Kleidman says that’s typically the case — even big fans of a brand might take a picture with it without mentioning the name. For brands, these are missed opportunities.

Who’s up, who’s down?
Another insight that can be uncovered through photo snooping is the relative momentum of brands and trends. Slyce, for instance, helps partner Neiman Marcus look for which colors and styles are trending based on photos people post. "It helps with merchandising decisions," says Slyce CEO Mark Elfenbein. Toys ‘R’ Us is also using Slyce’s technology to try to see which toys are catching on with kids.

Ditto also regularly lists the top-trending brands in photos. (Starbucks is No. 1 overall, not surprisingly.) One of the company’s clients is an unnamed investment firm looking for insights into which brands and affiliated stocks are getting the most mentions.

Photo analysis technology progresses
Though Tumblr is the only network right now that’s actively scanning photos for brand affinity, Facebook and Google could conceivably muster the same capability.

In the past few years, Google bought JetPac and DNNResearch — two firms that specialize in image recognition. In 2012, Facebook bought a company called that specializes in facial recognition via photos. Pinterest, meanwhile, purchased a startup called VisualGraph last year that provides photo-scanning abilities.

In May, Flickr also unveiled a feature called Magic View that automatically sorts your photos into 60 categories like "kids," "landscape" and "sunsets."

As such tools become more available, they’re likely to prove tempting for brands looking to learn more about snap-happy Millennials. For such consumers, this might give photobombing a whole new meaning.

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