Beyond Facebook’s Makeover: If Text Is ‘Dead,’ How Will Advertisers (Finally) Start Monetizing Photos?

Remember the kindergarten game, “Show and Tell?” Based on its more mobile-friendly News Feed redesign, it appears that 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” format with larger and more prominent photo displays is a response to photo-driven behavior that has rapidly changed the social media landscape. Facebook Co-Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg says 50 percent of all posts are now pictures, double the amount from just one year ago.

It’s a shift that makes sense, considering the fact that our brains are wired to favor pictures over words. A recent HubSpot study of 1,500 business-to-business and business-to-consumer company Facebook pages determined that photo posts generate 53 percent more likes and 104 percent more comments than average posts. In addition, photo posts receive 84 percent more link clicks than plain-text status updates or links with thumbnail images.

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

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 search-engine optimization. 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; it will look like your friends’ photos. But your friends’ photos that voluntarily celebrate their favorite brands will become most valuable to advertisers.

Unfortunately for marketers, this authentic consumer content is rarely tagged with brand names unless there is 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.

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 (Facebook alone gets more than 300 million photo uploads daily).

A smart computer vision system applied to those photos will 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 can 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 will 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.

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.

Underscoring its massive shift to visual content, Facebook also announced that it will soon roll out 15-second video ads that automatically start playing in users’ News Feeds. The jury’s out if there will be a consumer backlash at these mini-TV commercials, as they are 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.

Jamie Thompson 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 at @Jamie_Thompson.

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