Marketing Firms Aren’t Stealing Selfies, Just Analyzing Them

A recent Wall Street Journal article raised privacy concerns about photo analysis companies like Ditto Labs, which prompted sites like Valleywag to claim that Instagram photos are “being scraped and sold to brands.” But amid all the panic, the truth is that Ditto Labs offers a version of the same data analysis brands have been using on other public platforms, like Twitter, for the past seven years.

At its core, Ditto Labs is simply a tool for mining public photos from Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter for brand logos. According to Ditto’s chief marketing officer, Mary Tarczynski, “We look inside pictures to see part of a logo as belonging to a brand. We are focused on discovery, whether [a brand logo] is upside down or backwards or cut off. Our technology is very good at recognizing feature points within a brand logo and identifying that as the brand.”

Much of the press surrounding Ditto Labs focuses on user privacy concerns about pictures being stored by Ditto, but Tarczynski says that the company is “looking at public photos, so anyone who wants to keep their information more private certainly has ways to share things just with their friends without [the photos] being available to Ditto.”

Ditto uses the same type of targeting analytics that companies like Twitter-owned Gnip have been using for years. Gnip analyzes public text, like tweets, for brand mentions and sells the information back to marketers. “Advertisers have been looking at public text for a long time,” says Tarczynski. “Targeting based on text has been around for five to seven years.” Since Ditto is the first to use the same methods for analyzing photos, she says that many have played up Ditto’s brand recognition technology for “sensational value.”

But brand recognition is about more than scanning selfies for better targeted ads. Tarczynski says that Ditto’s main value is for qualitative insights that reduce a brand’s need for costly focus groups. “For a long time [marketing] tools were limited to focus groups or very expensive in-home ethnography. You had to wait on your data collection. Now, through social media, we have a window into the world of what consumers are doing every day. And the images that we’re taking as everyone walks around with their smartphone documenting their day and sharing with their network gives us really rich contextual stories about the brands they’re interacting with. Brands can tap into this information. Not collect this information. It’s the data that’s already out there.”

For example, Ditto’s photo analysis recently showed that many customers were posting photos of themselves eating Chobani yogurt in their cars. The photos offer insight into user behavior that could prove valuable for future packaging. “In the past, [Chobani] would have had to do a focus group or other longer lead time data acquisition methods.” Now the company can anticipate consumer needs “just by tuning in to the photos that are already out there.”

As photo and video sharing sites like Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine become more and more popular, Tarczynski believes that brands will have to use photo analytics to stay relevant across social media. “We’re communicating more with pictures and less with text, so it’s really important for marketers to understand how their brand is being depicted in images. These days, [photo data] is a must have for brand marketers.”

Image via Shutterstock.

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