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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.)

Luminate’s Imagesphere Summit 2012

On Tuesday we gathered 60 friends from the publishing community — execs from Conde Nast, Viacom, Thompson Reuters, Wenner, NBC, American Media, Time Warner, Getty, Dow Jones, Gannett, the IAB and others — for an afternoon deep-dive into the rising role of image content as publishing moves to digital and mobile platforms. Our first “Imagesphere Summit.” (Official release here.)

Our CFO suspected it was just an excuse to order Luminate-logo’d pillows. But most people, I think, actually came to learn from industry peers how to hone their image strategies. Given that more than a third of the web’s pixels are image content, 70% of social media activity revolves around a photo, and many of these publishers are seeing upwards of 60% of their pageviews coming from photo galleries, there’s an eagerness across the industry to figure out the image opportunity.

Steve Rubel, EVP at Edelman, kicked off the programming. He identified a schism dividing the landscape of digital publishers. On one side the “Continental Content Divide” publishers focus on ‘spreadable media,’ using infographics, lists and slideshows — short, frequent and easy-to-share content nuggets — to fuel success among social-media consumers. On the other side of the divide are practitioners of ‘drillable media,’ where depth, context and rich visual experience are designed to pull readers deeper into the story. At the center of both approaches (represented by the Play Button in his Media Cloverleaf) is content that directly addresses the visual culture. (More at Steve’s site.)

Paul Asel, managing partner at Nokia Growth Partners (and a Luminate board member) shared a global perspective: How mobile and touch screens are accelerating growth of the Imagesphere. Half the photos ever taken by humankind, he told us, were taken in the past 2 years. He also shared a prediction about the future of digital photos: Today if you hand a non-touch screen device to a child, she’ll ask, Is it broken? Soon all of us will ask the same question if we find ourselves starting at a static image.

Bob Lisbonne, Luminate’s CEO, presented a deck entitled “Welcome to the Imagesphere.” He posited a theory of photo evolution, where the Kodak Era has given way to the Imagesphere — a new phase in which technology has streamlined our ability to take, share and interact with photos. Members of Facebook alone upload more than 300 million pictures a day, and our sprawling social graphs mean that we each (on average) have access to nearly 100,000 photos shared by friends. Imagesphere technologies have enabled digital and mobile publishers to use photos in 3 new ways — as repositories of hidden information that can be revealed with the swipe of a mouse; as drivers or richer experiences; and as a new paradigm for navigation. An effective image strategy creates publisher value via more inventory, higher user engagement, and new monetization.

Bob also proposed that we borrow a concept from fighter jets, “heads-up display,” to imagine a richer experience for digital photos. Heads-up displays allow fighter pilots to watch their gauges without looking down at the instrument panel — relevant data appears as an overlay to visual content outside the windscreen. When an image has “stopping power” and sparks reader demand for more information, don’t force them to look down, look elsewhere on the page, or (god forbid) click off your site to get answers elsewhere. Interactive images can mimic the “heads-up display,” providing your readers answers right inside the image experience.

Rafat Ali, founder and former editor-in-chief of PaidContent (now doing the same at Skift), interviewed Steve Carpi, the global director of production Fantasy Interactive. They discussed FI’s partnership with Gannett around the recent re-design of USAToday.com. Touch screens are training media consumers to navigate by way of photos instead of headlines, Steve said, and websites that steal from tablet design will be better positioned for the next wave of mobile and desktop user experience. It’s an approach he called ‘tactile design.’ Rafat provoked an interesting discussion around two questions: One, now that every story is an image, are image galleries dead? Two, with images moving into such a central role in publishing, will important stories will be lost if they don’t have a compelling picture to pull in readers? (An audience member from Getty volunteered to help!)

Advice from Liz Coughlin, former head of the entertainment sites at Yahoo (now at Young Hollywood): You can either attempt to push your readers to content types that you know how to monetize (eg, articles with large IAB units) or you can figure out how to monetize the content they love, which tends to be your photos.

Brandon Whightsel, design director for WSJ Digital, started with a shot of the newspaper in 1889, the year it began publishing. Beyond turning a five-column format into six columns and the introduction of those iconic woodcut images, though, the paper’s look and feel evolved only gradually until 2003 when it introduced color photos. WSJ Digital, however, has evolved at a radically faster pace. A large photo element across the top of the website — the “Assassination Module,” he called it — was once reserved only for very, very big stories. The importance of images on the tablet experience, however, has changed the design rules. Large photos now anchor many digital and tablet stories, assassination no longer required. Whightsel tipped his hat to Rupert Murdoch as an outspoken advocate for the migration to a more visual approach to publishing.

Offir Gutelzon, business development VP at Getty, talked about the potential unleashed by image metadata. Once a publisher knows what’s inside each image, it can automatically deliver photos relevant to every story and can attach ads targeted by image context.

Luminate CTO James Everingham wrapped up the afternoon with a sneak peek at some products Luminate will launch later this fall — support for new content types, upgraded social features, new controls for publishers and users, and some snazzy functionality for tablet users.

Throughout the day there were more questions than the speakers had time to answer. I guess we’ll just have to do another one of these soon.

Ads Proliferating on Location-Based Services

Forrester analyst Augie Ray has five complaints about Starbucks’s approach to advertising on FourSquare, where Starbucks rewards its most loyal customers by giving a free coffee to the current “Mayor” of that Starbucks location. Among his complaints: Baristas employed by Starbucks who also use FourSquare are more likely to capture the Mayorship than even the most frequent customers. Another is that the reward-the-Mayor approach doesn’t offer much to traveling coffee drinkers who are making a one-time visit to a Starbucks that isn’t their usual branch.

It’s as if Starbuck was listening to Augie Ray, even before he published the above complaint. In Chicago this week, I checked in to a Starbucks and received this ad, even though I’m not the Mayor. No offer for a free coffee, but a nice touch anyway — a little thank-you note for my loyalty to the brand, even if I’m not a regular at this downtown Chicago location.

Starbucks in FourSquare

Back on the ground in San Francisco, Gowalla served me this ad from USA Today.

USA Today ad on Gowalla

I’m less impressed with this one. I use Gowalla and FourSquare to see where my friends are. Occasionally one of those friends offers me a tip on what to do the next time I’m visiting that location. If I follow USA Today, am I going to start getting alerts every time a USA Today journalist checks in somewhere? Or just USA Today tips every time they see me check in somewhere? It doesn’t line up with how I use Gowalla, so I’m giving it a pass.