(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.)