• July 31, 2015

Why Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest Matter to Brands

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More than half (58 percent) of the top 50 brands post an average of 5.6 times a week on Instagram, according to Forrester Research's Social WebTrack study. The average engagement rate reported through that channel is 4.21 percent, compared to a mere 0.07 percent on Facebook, which is piquing analysts' interest.

"I don't think this is temporary," says Allison Smith, a customer insights analyst at Forrester. "Everyone has a camera in their pocket now and will be using visual social media more and more in the future."

It's not news that customers are turning to image-based social media sites such as Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest to document their lives, and, by extension, the products and services they use. And while it's generally accepted that customers are quicker to act on social media trends, brands are also taking to these sites. A great number of retailers and consumer packaged goods manufacturers are realizing that stories are being told through pictures. For example, if a couple is preparing for a new baby, the expectant parents might take a picture of the name-brand mattress they just bought for the crib—arguably an effective form of advertisement for the mattress company.

Analyzing social visual content can also give brands opportunities to act. If a company sees that its products are being used in novel ways, it can tap into that information and redistribute it through its own channels. Likewise, if it sees one of its products being used irresponsibly—like a liquor company spotting a case of underage drinking and a photo tagging its product—the brand can turn that into an opportunity to act responsibly and preserve its image.

But it's not just retail brands that have a stake in visual social media. "Compared to Facebook and Twitter, there's still not that big of an audience driving [visual] channels outside of retail," says Brent Leary, cofounder of CRM Essentials. "But I think as people get more beyond Facebook and Twitter, you'll see more business models depend pretty heavily on Instagram."

Many brands are failing to prepare for these shifts and aren't paying as much attention to visual social media sites as they are to text-heavy ones. Those companies have not worked out a sophisticated method for visual listening, Smith suggests, either because they have not developed a compelling visual brand or they simply don't understand just how widespread the medium is among customers.

But even the "unsexy" companies whose products don't possess a clear visual quality ignore visual social media at their peril, Smith says. Even if an industry doesn't lend itself easily to visual representation, opportunities still exist for brands to listen. "If an insurance brand advertises in a sports stadium, and someone uploads a picture of the stadium which includes their logo, the visual mention can be documented on Instagram," Smith says.

And as more companies attract mentions on these sites—whether on purpose or by accident—they need to begin to embrace ways of collecting data from them. "Sharing is caring—whether sharing is positive or negative," Natalie Petouhoff, a principal analyst at Constellation Research, says. "There's so much info you can learn about products and services that it's crazy not to look at [visual] social data."

Smith suggests that these less visual brands take lessons from retail and CPG companies that have begun listening. This involves getting to know how customers use social media through online research, Smith suggests. While a company might learn that its customers are not big on visual social media, leading it to conclude that such an investment is unnecessary, the exploration is still worthwhile.

As technology becomes more sophisticated, opportunities will likely exist to drive commerce through visual social media, Leary maintains. "As these systems make it easier for e-commerce [to be] worked into Instagram, the majority of companies will see how they can leverage these to get customers to the store," he says. —Oren Smilansky

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