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It’s Hard Paying Attention to the Gadgets

Three stats I saw last week got me thinking about our rising inability to pay attention to anything.

Empty Conference Room
(Photo credit: Tom Quinn/Flickr Creative Commons.)

One, while on conference calls, 60% of us report to multitasking and generally not paying attention unless we’re the ones doing the talking. (Nobody is paying attention to your conference call.)

Two, there were those stats about the abysmally low engagement rates for brands in Facebook. (Why brands are un-friending Facebook.)

“Red Bull’s main Facebook page has 44m fans. Maybe a lot, but by generating just 330,000 interactions last month, the brand managed less than 1 monthly interaction for every 100 fans…. Meanwhile, Coca Cola’s main page has a whopping 84m fans globally, but scored an engagement per fan 20-times lower than Red Bull’s. MAC, one of the digitally most sophisticated brands in high-end beauty averaged just one monthly interaction for every 500 fans. Same story with a top digital performer in the beer category- Heineken, earning just 1 interaction for every 180 fans.”

If you look at just those two stats, side by side, you might conclude that corporations produce really boring content, and when we’re at work talking about our corporations, we’re boring too. But I also saw this third data point: People reading on Kindles are much less likely to remember the plot of a story than readers who read the story in a paperback book. Digital readers experience comparable levels of “empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence” that are similar to physical-book readers, but there’s something about “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle [that] does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

I don’t exactly to know what to make of that. (To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what all those words mean.) But it does suggest that current digital reading experiences are less memorable, at least in some ways, because they ask less of some of our senses — the movement of eyes across the page, or the work the brain needs to do to place words in a specific place on a rectangle of white paper. When you consider the capabilities of digital reading devices such as phones, laptops, tablets and Kindles — which can integrate sound and motion and even limited touch interaction — it’s odd that paper still tantalizes certain parts of the brain better. I wonder if that edge will hold when we start reading stories inside a pair of VR goggles.

Facebook Ads, Now With Better Photos

Yesterday Facebook announced on its blog a new deal with Shutterstock that will give its advertisers access to millions of stock photos for use in Facebook ads. If that means I’ll never see Larry Ellison’s mug on my wall again, that would be fantastic.

Facebook Ads

The real issue Facebook wants to solve is advertiser performance. As Lauren Hockenson puts it in her GigaOM post:

We all dislike ads on (the right hand side of) our Facebook pages. Some of that dislike comes from them being just plain ugly and poorly retargeted. It is hardly a surprise that the click-through rates on these low-cost ads are abysmal. A study by AdRoll last year showed that traditional ad-retargeting nabs 40% more clicks than a Facebook ad.

If the Shutterstock deal leads to more visually inviting ads and Facebook users look at them and click on them more frequently, advertisers (and Facebook shareholders) will be thrilled.

Such a smart idea that you could almost call it obvious. Back in March, Facebook redesigned its News Feed to present larger photos, because, according to Facebook executives, 50% of News Feed posts are photos (March 2013), up from 20% a year earlier (November 2011). An acknowledgement, in other words, that photos are the universal language of Facebook. Maybe I’m asking too much to expect Facebook to give a photo-facelift to their ad products simultaneously with a similar upgrade other user features on the site. Maybe they need to stagger changes of this magnitude, and improving the ad products only a half a year after upgrading the News Feed is pretty good.

But I can’t help reading something larger into this. Part of the reason online ads stink — annoying consumers and disappointing advertisers — is that digital media companies treat advertising as an after-thought. The prevailing wisdom is: Launch the product, iterated until it’s awesome, and then build a giant audience. If all of that goes as planned, you can tack on some ads later. How do ads stand a chance of working (for consumers or for brands) if, on they day they launch, we already hate them simply because they’ve stolen pixels that yesterday were used to delight us with content or service that made the product awesome?

A Billion Photos Shared Each Day, Advertisers Nervous

According to Mary Meeker, we’re now uploading and sharing more than 500 million photos a day. By this time next year it will be a billion a day.

Daily Number of Photos Uploaded

Which is awesome — pretty soon I won’t need to feel self-conscious about sharing so many pictures of my kids on Facebook. (I’m pretty darn adorable, just for being related to them — right?!) My narcissism, at least on a relative scale, will experience a refreshing decline as greater narcissists outpace me.

But here’s the rub. The vast majority of those photos are posted to ad-supported sites — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr — or apps that are free to consumers (such as Snapchat) and therefore will likely pursue some kind of ad model eventually. Advertisers almost always follow consumers to a new media property once the sheer number of consumers gets too large to ignore. Take the recent rise of WorldStarHipHop. According to American Public Media’s Marketplace:

In recent days, ads for Fiber One, Walmart and Bloomingdale’s have appeared on WorldStarHipHop. O’Denat [WorldStarHipHop's founder] says the site’s racier content used to be a problem for advertisers.

“Advertisers were afraid of us,” he said. “We were kind of risque. We had girls in thongs, fights. Not until later on they decided, well, the site is too big. We’re just gonna have to work with them.”

When Facebook landed in hot water this week, though, it wasn’t for thongs or fights. It acknowledged that its “systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work as effectively as we would like, particularly around issues of gender-based hate.” More specifically, as one advocacy group brought to light, Facebook ran advertising on pages with names like “Violently Raping Your Friend Just for Laughs.” Oy. I’m betting Facebook has already rolled out a solution to prevent this kind of thing from happening again — software has gotten pretty good at reading text on a page and understanding when that text is objectionable.

Managing brand safety is really hard to do, though, when it comes to photo content at enormous scale. It’s still a whole lot easier to flag the word “rape” than it is to recognize a visual depiction of the crime inside one of those hundreds of millions of new photos that its members publish to the site each day. Advertisers are more than eager to pitch their wares to the enormous audiences at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and Snapchat — assuming they won’t tarnish their brands in the process. Figuring out that last part, especially as it pertains to user-submitted photos, is fast becoming a ginormous marketing opportunity. A billions-upon-billions of dollars opportunity.

(Disclosure: Until recently I worked at Luminate, one company that’s working on aspects of image recognition, including a visual brand watch system. I hope they succeed, partly because the online ecosystem will benefit from happy, confident advertisers, and partly — let’s be honest here — because those cute kids you see too often on Facebook want to go to college some day.)

Smile, People Like Your Pictures More Than Your Words (All Things D Version)

On March 7, Facebook announced a major overhaul to its newsfeed, the scrolling page of friend-news where we spend the bulk of our Facebook time. The central change: Facebook is making room for bigger pictures.

It’s a logical move when you look at the data. In November 2011, one-fifth of posts uploaded to newsfeeds were photos. Today, every other status update is a photo. My math friends tell me it that it’s hard to meaningfully affect percentage gains when you start with a really big number. Even with my quantitative limitations, I have to believe Facebook qualifies. Last year it told investors (as part of its IPO roadshow) that users were uploading more than 300 million photos every single day, and from that very large starting point photo activity just jumped 150 percent in 15 months. So much for the law of large numbers.

If you’re a brand, though, it’s not the fact that photo-enabled devices will soon outnumber humans on the planet, or that we’re piping all those pictures into social media. The important trend is that consumers are looking at them. In other words, your art-directed fashion spreads have a lot more competition these days.

There was a time when professional photography had a monopoly on our attention. When mass media meant national magazines, TV networks and big-city newspapers, only deep-pocketed corporations could afford access to large audiences. Back then it made economic sense to build your story around professional-grade photography: A single print ad would reach millions of readers, so a few tens of thousands of dollars spent on art and photography chewed up only a negligible percentage of a campaign’s costs. And for a few generations, this approach worked great.

It turns out, though, that cost-to-produce and magnitude-of-consumer-delight don’t plot analogous curves in an Excel graph. In fact, it’s hard to find a direct correlation between the two. A photo that captures something important or interesting or timely wins our attention — regardless of who took it or how much it cost to make. It also turns out the spans of our attention are shrinking. Google economist Hal Varian observed as far back as 2010 — before SnapChat, and back when we uploaded a mere 30 million photos to Facebook every day — that we pay less attention to stuff when we consume it online. “The average amount of time looking at online news is about 70 seconds, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day.”

So corporate storytellers need to master a new narrative technique. It’s as if they need to shed those florid sentences that played so well in Victorian novels and dial it down to the Hemingway-esque. The good news: This new approach to storytelling still employs a language in which brands are fluent: Photos. There are three ways that brands should modify their visual storytelling.

One, feeds move faster than print magazines, so you need to tell your story in a series of frequent episodes, anecdotes and updates — not the grand gestures of Ogilvy or Draper. Photos are the currency of social media, but it’s a currency doled out in nickels, not twenty-dollar bills.

Two, let photos do more of the talking for you. Humans process visual information much faster than we process text. And when we’re online (remember those stats from Hal Varian), we navigate more quickly from story to story. If you’re going to capture attention in a digital landscape, you have to do it fast. So steal a page from the playbooks used by Pinterest, Flipboard, USA Today’s new design or the NYT’s TimesCast: Use visual content instead of words to invite consumers into the story.

Three — need I say it? — let them interact with your story, let them re-mix your assets and choose their own adventures. Let them steal your photos so they can more easily share them with friends. Let them explore inside your images to find links to products, deals and related links. And let them contribute their own. If the Web conversation is going visual, encourage them to talk to you in the local dialect — images snapped on their phones looking for a place to be uploaded.

(This post was originally published at All Things D.)

Moving Pictures: Can Companies Create Engagement from the Exploding Imagesphere Online?


(Graphic by Shaw Nielsen, Adweek.)

Let’s officially call 2012 the Year of the Imagesphere. To review: Facebook says its users upload more than 300 million photos per day (up from 31 million in 2009). To support this massive interest in photo sharing, the company acquired Instagram in April for $1 billion.

Meanwhile, Pinterest leapt out of the shadows to become the third largest social network (valued at $1.5 billion by investors in May) because of its unique and popular spin on photo curation. Almost exactly a year ago, Twitter launched its own photo sharing, and earlier this month it rolled out photo filters in a bid to steal usage from Instagram. Within days, Instagram responded by disabling integration with Twitter cards and erecting a wall between the two networks that makes it harder for consumers to share Instagram photos via Twitter. And a few weeks ago, the original photo-sharing giant, Flickr, jumped back into the battle with its own sharing app.

The Internet titans are placing big bets on the future businesses that will be built on the 3 trillion (and growing) online images. The unanswered questions: How will publishers, image repositories (such as Flickr or Facebook) and brands capitalize on the imagesphere opportunity? How will content creators turn the act of flipping through galleries and photo feeds into deep engagement? How will advertisers adjust from a marketing rhythm where they produced one beautiful photo every 13 weeks for a print campaign to one where they need 13 photos a day to feed a Tumblr?

And what’s in all of this for consumers? After a decade and a half of presenting consumers with online photos that they can look at — kind of like we look at photo albums at our grandmother’s house — will the Internet finally bring some interactivity to image content and turn photos into a stepping-off point for a richer experience?
It’s clear that consumers are itching for more. They want more depth, interactivity and the opportunity to explore more images beyond those the editor picked to populate a particular gallery. Publishers who want their attention will need to upgrade the photo experience, and advertisers will need to figure out how to tell their stories inside these photo experiences. This means one thing for sure: Brands and publishers need to figure ouhow to extract precise, granular metadata from the Web’s 3 trillion pictures.

Only when publishers know what’s inside images in their archives can they serve readers with additional relevant content from inside each gallery. Every image, then, will launch dozens more galleries — more Angelina Jolie images here, more pictures of fabulous shoes there. They can also monetize photos with precisely targeted ads, just like they do around other content on their sites.

Without image metadata, photos are the dark matter of the ad-server galaxy. Unlock this metadata, and brands will step into the imagesphere as sponsors. Turn those rectangular clusters of pixels into keywords, and ad budgets will support photo content as enthusiastically as they support keywords found in text. Hiring agencies and art directors to produce hundreds of new photo assets each month would break the bank. But attaching a brand’s message to thousands of photos snapped by fans could deliver the same results at a fraction of the cost.

Clearly, this is an emerging trend that Facebook, in particular, is betting on. It ignited consumer hostility by changing Instagram’s terms of service, raising concerns that the new rules would allow the company to license member photos (your personal photos!) to brands or other corporate entities. Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom responded on the company’s blog that it merely plans “to experiment with innovative advertising,” but will not license user photos to outside parties. It’s not our images Instagram wants — it’s the metadata.

The explosion in the image-based Web isn’t just an issue for brands. Publishers are experimenting with photocentric, responsive-design-oriented tablet sites. They’re also tinkering with images loaded with interactivity, whether as part of editorial or within ad units.

But it’s still early for applications and for ad products associated with images. The big headline in 2013 will be the evolution from photo creation and sharing to getting inside those images. Will you be camera-ready?

(Originally published as a guest column at Adweek.)

The Year In Pictures, In Review

Luminate CEO (and my boss) Bob Lisbonne debuted his Forbes column, Visual Approach, with a look back at “the most widely photographed year in history” and the major developments across the imagesphere in 2012: The Year In Pictures, In Review.

The year in images dawned with an explosive start when Facebook announced it would acquire Instagram. While many fixated on the $1 billion price tag, implications for Facebook’s mobile strategy, or whirlwind negotiations, I found it fascinating that a company whose essence revolved around relationships between friends, would find irresistible a network whose connections centered on pictures.

It was a year of significant hardware innovations, pictures from Mars, break-through interactive galleries and the first skirmishes in a battle of the Internet titans over who will dominate the future of photography. Full column here.

We Dislike Mobile Ads, But They Are 4 Times More Effective Than Online Ads

The latest study from Millward Brown, AdReaction 2012, finds that only 9% of American smartphone users have a favorable or very favorable disposition toward mobile ads. (More at Mediapost.) That’s about how much they like emails that they didn’t opt to receive (ie, spam), and less than half as much as they like online display ads. It’s a sad state of affairs when you can win a popularity contest against banner ads, eh?

Meanwhile mobile ads are working exceptionally well.

Prior research by Dynamic Logic’s AdIndex brand metrics system has shown that mobile ads are approximately four times more effective than online ads at increasing brand awareness, message association and purchase intent.

At first blush it sounds like two points of data that contradict one another. But that’s not really the case. It’s evidence of two factors that have played out across the history of advertising. One, when people actually look at ads, they tend to work. Mobile ads are more invasive and harder to ignore than online banners — there’s no AdBlocker Plus or Tivo for smartphones yet, and the narrowness of mobile screens means ads aren’t placed in that easy-to-ignore right rail — so they work better. Two, when asked directly consumers will always tell you they hate ads. Almost two-thirds of us dislike or strongly dislike ads, and yet we continue to pay a premium price to buy the stuff we see advertised. In other words, if we fail to shield our eyes from an ad — like it or not — it’s going to make an impression.

Visual Storytelling for Brands in the Facebook, Pinterest, Insta-gallery Era

In November 1995 I had a job selling ad space for tech magazines. One afternoon the office fax machine scrolled out 12 pages worth of insertion orders from a software company I’d been pitching for two months, and I did a happy-dance in my cubicle. With those orders, the company had committed to running a full-page ad in every issue the magazine would publish in all of 1996. I called the client to confirm the mailing address for our traffic coordinator and the creative instructions — right-reading film, emulsion-side-down — and got the further good news that the ad creative was already on its way in a FedEx pouch. The ad creative. A single photo with ad copy that would serve as the campaign’s creative all year.

I don’t miss the inky mess I’d make of my hands when I had to change the cartridge on that fax machine. But they sure were simpler times in the world of advertising and publishing.

Back then the brands on the other end of those fax machines could afford to sink significant time and resources into the production of each creative unit. Hiring a renowned photographer, a model, a team of set designers, makeup artists, art directors and post-production editors might set them back $25,000 for a single photo for a single print ad. But given the enormous role played by that one photograph — it would likely anchor a $15-million national ad campaign across many magazines for months — the time and dollars invested in getting it exactly right could fairly be called a rounding error. Twenty-five thousand dollars in creative development divided by 15 million in media spend is less than two-tenths of a percentage point.

While the math still works for brands advertising in glossy fashion magazines, there is trouble in paradise. Or rather, paradise has moved to the Internet. If brands want to engage with consumers online (which, more and more, is where their consumers spend time) they need to compete with publishers and social media sites that refresh their bins of eye-candy every few minutes. By the time they’ve art directed, developed and shipped a piece of right-reading, emulsion-side-down film to a publisher, Gangnam Style has been replaced with parody videos of Gangnam Style.

The digital landscape changes fast, and pictures are a main catalyst. Netscape released the first commercially-available web browser in 1994 and fewer than 15 years later Flickr housed more than 6 billion photos — more than 450 times the number of photos held by the Library of Congress. In 2009 more than 2.5 billion camera-enabled devices were in the hands of would-be photogs and in the course of a year would go on to take ten percent of all photos ever taken by humans. Instagram, the photo-sharing apps for smartphones that Facebook bought earlier this year for $1 billion, measures its customer engagement in uploads-per-second; 60 uploads per second, back in the quaint old days of December 2011, pre-acquisition, and before comScore released data showing Instagram’s daily usage is now greater than Twitter’s. By early 2012 Facebook members were uploading to the site more than 300 million photos every single day.

This slurry of data signals “the end of the Kodak Era, where we took photos birthdays and vacations, and shared them only with a small group of friends,” says Bob Lisbonne, CEO of Luminate (my boss) and former SVP for Netscape’s browser group in 1990s. “We’ve now entered a phase in which visual communication is supplanting the written word — what some are calling the dawn of the Imagesphere.”


(Source: 1000 Memories Blog.)

But it’s not taking or uploading pictures that should worry marketers. It’s the fact that there are consumers on the other end of these photos — viewing them, engaging with them, and generally spending more time with images they see on Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest than they used to spend reading glossy magazines that arrived on the newsstand once a month. comScore’s Mobile Metrix 2.0 survey says Facebook users are spending more than seven hours per month visiting the site by way of mobile phones alone. Om Malik, founder and editor in chief of GigaOM, asserts that photos are the fuel driving the mass migration to social media:

Malik writes, “Photos are the reason many of us continue to engage with Facebook. Facebook has tried many verbs to increase and maintain our engagement with the service — read, listen, watch. But in the end, it’s the photos that work wonders for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based social-networking giant.”

Research from a team at Harvard Business School supports Malik’s claim. A 2009 study finds that 70% of all activity inside social networks revolves around photos. Keep in mind, that was in 2009 — when Facebookers were uploading a mere 31 million photos a day, and My Space was still relevant enough to be included in a study of social-media sites.

These millions of new photos — or at least those shared by friends and organizations we choose to follow — are pushed to us each day in an unending, ever-updating stream of visual storytelling. We watch our friends’ kids grow up, in near real-time, and news stories unfold throughout the day as fresh photos replace those from hours or minutes before. Publishers, too, are responding to their readers’ growing appetite for image content with larger, high-res photography and the gallery-ification of stories as disparate as celebrity news, travel destinations and business analysis.

Roughly one-third of pixel real estate on the web is image content, according to the Wall Street Journal, and those images get old fast. In its first three days on the Internet, the average photo has attracted half the total views it will ever attract. If you look at content shared via social media platforms rather than the entire web, the half-life for content is measured in hours not days.


(Source: Bitly Blog.)

And there lies the rub for brands. The changing dynamic of media consumption has changed the rules of marketing in three fundamental respects.

One: “Professional grade” doesn’t get the mileage it once did.

Sure, the list of most-viewed clips on YouTube includes Justin Beiber music videos, but it also includes quirky independent interviews of people waiting in line for iPhones and home-movie sensations such as ‘Charlie Bit My Finger… Again.’ The same goes for photos. Consumer interest no longer tracks with traditional definitions of “photo quality.”

There was a time when all media was professional media, created and distributed by large publishing companies. It only made sense, then, for advertisers to polish their creative units to a professional, high-production-value shine. Good advertising should always seek to imitate the editorial content around it; ‘native advertising’ has been around long before the Internet. There’s mounting evidence, however, that recall rates for TV spots and display ads in magazines are declining, despite the professional expertise that goes into their creation. Nowadays relevance trumps production value.

Now that amateur photographers have gained access to distribution — Google might lead you to an independent photoblog, Instagram might introduce you to some great photos from an excellent hobbyist — consumers are dividing the world of photos into ‘interesting’ and ‘not interesting,’ not ‘professional’ and ‘amateur.’ Interesting no longer requires the talents of a professional.

Two: Attention Deficit Disorder has become a lifestyle choice.

A trend that’s probably as old as the publishing industry has achieved fever pitch: Content miniaturization. Articles get shorter and shorter, and readers still can’t get to the end of them. I mean, who has time to read the entire tweet anymore? Audience ratings seem to suggest that frequency and freshness of content are trumping quality and depth. In a world where tapping our thumbs on the Instagram icon on our iPhones unleashes an endless stream of photos taken in the last four hours, looking again at last month’s print ad for Prada strikes many modern consumers as boring.

Three: Consumption is giving way to interaction.

There’s something that’s even more popular than posting pictures: Liking them and commenting on them. It’s a sign that we define ourselves not only through our own pictures, but also through association with the pictures of others. It’s this instinct that explains the growth of Pinterest, the social network that rocketed to 10 million users faster than any social network before it. It’s not built on photo-sharing in the sense that Instagram or Facebook are (“Hey, check out my pictures”); it’s about photo-assembling (“I’ve collected these pictures so you understand who I am and what I care about”). Forty-one percent of us, says new research from Pew, find photos and videos online and re-post them on sites designed for sharing with others. It’s one of the most popular things we do on the Internet.

In order for brands to embrace these new platforms for photo mixing and mashing, they need to get comfortable with their images being separated from the carefully assembled context of yesterday’s print ad or the Spring catalog, and being extracted from the traditional models that protect ownership rights and pay out talent royalties. Your customers want to befriend you and play with you, but that game is going to be on their terms.

So what’s a brand to do?

The creative departments at traditional agencies simply can’t adapt to this new world, says John Battelle, founder of Federated Media (disclosure: I was his co-founder there) and the first managing editor of Wired Magazine. The old rhythm of branded storytelling — devise the Big Idea, take a month to convert it into an art piece of advertising, and then enlist the media department to implant it deep into the skulls of consumers through mass media — is losing its efficacy. Agencies will continue to find success producing professional-grade assets and distributing them around tent-pole events, but they’re ill-equipped for the in-between times, the 363 days a year that don’t feature the Super Bowl or the Oscars. The beefy muscles built up over years of pumping out thirty-second TV spots and full-page print ads aren’t well suited for the marathon running required by lasting social-media conversations. “Brands need to catch up to media,” he says, and they’re going to need some help.

“Most creative agencies don’t see themselves as ongoing, real time publishers — that’s the business of, well, publishers,” Battelle continued. “I predict the two will merge over time — agencies must become more like publishers, and publishers are going to have to learn how to service brands like agencies do.”

Federated Media says the solution is a distributed, crowdsourced model for branded content creation. It invites advertisers to tap the talents of “the world’s largest creative department,” the 30 million some-odd bloggers affiliated with FM, from the vast army of small WordPress publishers to large-reach sites such as Boing Boing or Notcot.


(Source: Tom Ryabo, featured on Intel’s My Life Scoop.)

Three years ago, David Veneski, Intel’s director of US media, took FM up on the offer for a program called My Life Scoop. While the site features periodic updates on products like Intel-powered Ultrabooks, the bulk of the content is created by a broad array of independent content producers who speak the native language of Intel’s customers — those young, affluent people who seek out cutting-edge tech gadgets to enhance their lives. The imagery that accompanies the site’s content is not highly produced. Instead the emphasis is on fit, tone and relevance — photos and videos collected, curated and presented to My Life Scoop readers at a fraction of the cost associated with a professional shoots. The content is on-message (‘Sponsors of Tomorrow’ and ‘Ultrabook’), it’s frequently refreshed and it’s inviting social amplification. Nearly 50,000 Twitterers are following the My Life Scoop feed, and 100,000 Facebook members have Liked it.

“It’s important to us that we provide an authentic and compelling brand story for our target audience,” says Veneski. “We find that visuals and imagery, both photos and video, alongside written content, offers a way of telling a story that is more interesting to the people we want to reach.”


(Source: GE’s Tumblr.)

General Electric has taken an even more stripped-down approach. On Tumblr they’ve created (with help from the Barbarian Group) a corporate site that is nothing but photos. You’ll only find text only where it’s used to caption or hashtag a photo. What’s initially surprising is that airplane engines, smart LED bulb testing facilities, and gardens decked out with PulseArc Multi-Vapor metal halide lamps are quite photogenic, especially when they’ve been dolled up with an Instagram filter. Without set designers, models or professional photographers, GE is telling its story with frequent, low-cost iPhone pictures. More importantly, GE fans are spreading this story to their networks, with comments and hashtags included.

And the ‘interactivity’ isn’t just something that occurs after the brand unleashes the content — GE uses Twitter to invite its social-media followers to pick the locations of future photos.


(Source: GE’s Twitter Account.)

Without breaking the bank or getting reckless with its brand, GE found a path to social-media relevance. The brand is leaning into the consumer acceptance of spontaneous, inexpensive photo storytelling, which isn’t just reducing production costs either. It’s giving GE a stream of highly sharable content nuggets to satisfy the short-attention-span types and the sharers.

In other words, they’re speaking our language — the one in which every missive is worth a thousand words.

(This article first appeared on iMediaConnection under the title Why Visual Storytelling is the Future of Digital.)

What’s Next After Taking and Sharing Photos?

In his recent article about Facebook, Instagram and the future of photos, Ad Age’s David Teicher remarks that “there’s more to photo innovation than filters.” Now that we’re taking all these pictures on our phones and sharing them across our social networks, what’s next? Adding functionality that will turn each photo into rich consumer experience, he says.

David interviewed me for the article, and asked me why images aren’t more interactive already:

Luminate CRO, Chas Edwards, notes a few obstacles to making this vision a reality. First is the work that goes into it. Right now, these services either rely on people-powered tagging, image recognition, or both, but the ability to scale this functionality — to make it easy for people to accurately tag the products or outfits in photos, were they so inclined, is not an easy endeavor. Secondly, there’s a reason people tag other people — they get paid, not in money, but in social currency, through ‘likes’ and ‘shares.’

Facebook is the leader when it comes to paying us in social currency for tagging images: There’s no better way to increase your “Like” counts than tagging others in the picture. But there isn’t a similar reward for tagging things in the image other than your friends, and Facebook’s brand tagging product hasn’t experienced popularity anywhere near that of friend tagging.

A few new startups (such as ThingLink) are hoping publishers will start tagging products and brands inside their own images. It’s still early days, but my hunch is that publishers don’t have the spare cycles necessary to add image-tagging to their queues, especially when you consider the enormous (and growing) volume of images posted each day by large publishers. Our bet here at Luminate is that publishers want (need?) to give their readers a richer image experience, but that we need to help them with the tagging. Image recognition gets us part of the way. Human assistance — communities of people working on top of crowdsourcing platforms — gets us the rest of way. Once we know who, what and where we’re looking at, we can deliver image apps that make a photo more delightful for almost anyone.

Facebook, GM and the State of Social Advertising

I sat down with Digiday’s Brian Morrissey on Tuesday to talk about social advertising, native creative formats, the GM-Facebook dustup, and the future of advertising around images. Excerpts below. Full story here.

Brian: GM is pulling its Facebook ad budget because it says advertising there doesn’t work. What do you think?

Chas: That’s a preposterous claim. I can’t imagine the first year that GM was buying TV commercials it was able to ascertain what was working and what wasn’t. It’s taken a generation to perfect and understand how to measure success in TV. For it to do that after three years seems premature to say it works or doesn’t work as a global statement. Facebook as a consumer experience and an advertising platform are both relatively new.

Brian: Why do you think images need a native format?

Chas: Right now… everyone is getting hip to images in a bigger way. Publishers are coming clean and saying 60 percent of their page views are image galleries. We’re seeing that in the growth of Pinterest and the acquisition of Instagram. It’s giving everyone permission to say images matter. There are a variety of companies saying images are yet another piece of real estate we can slap ads on…. There’s no content, just ads. We [at Luminate] are trying to do something different. If we can create applications that augment the image experience with content and services, then publishers and users will like the experience, and then we can think of the ad experience that’s native to that experience.