Thursday, December 20, 2012
In addition to writing here on the ExactTarget blog, the good folks over at MediaPost let me wax poetic about travel marketing on a monthly basis. This month, in an article called The Social Photo Wars and You, I tackled a subject that warrants a bit more analysis--especially after this week's hubbub over Instagram's revised terms of service. The subject at issue is the battle royale brewing between Facebook/Instagram and Twitter over digital photographs.
Why digital photographs? Why now? Well, to answer those questions, I give you the words of legendary Scottish rock n' roll philosopher, Rod Stewart:
Every picture tells a story, don't it?
Both Facebook and Twitter have realized that photos are the lingua franca of social media. They generate the most engagement (likes and comments) from users, and that translates into increased site/app traffic which, in turn, translates into increased opportunities to generate advertising revenue. Photos also so something else, however. They tether most users to favor one social network over another because our photos are in many ways our lives--digital files floating in a cloud somewhere that help us remember and reminisce.
Facebook built its kingdom largely on photos. In fact, for years industry insiders joked that Facebook was little more than a photo gallery with some chat functions. Facebook, of course had the last laugh (or, more accurately, the most recent laugh since this story is far from over) by using photos as a springboard to create higher levels of engagement with users and brands alike. Facebook's subsequent purchase of Instagram for a purported $1 billion dollars both served to confirm the continued importance of photos to social's bottom line and suggest that Facebook realized the future of social photos was mobile.
We're now learning, however, that Facebook was not alone in this realization. Reports indicate that Twitter offered to acquire Instagram for over half a billion dollars some three weeks before Facebook made an offer. As reported by The New York Times, the entire episode is now the subject of legal scrutiny as Instagram's CEO testified under oath that they had never received any formal offers or term sheets prior to Facebook's offer.
Setting aside the he said/he said, we're left with a jilted Twitter, a Facebook desperate to capture Instagram's mobile momentum (and ad dollars), and a consumer base that is sharing more photos than ever thanks to smartphones. It is no wonder then that Instagram cut off direct photo sharing in Twitter, and that Twitter has rolled out its own photo filters (powered by @Aviary).
The real surprise, however, came this week when Instagram announced its new terms of service that claimed to give Instagram ownership of user photos and the ability to use them in any advertising they so desired. Instagram's co-founder, Kevin Systrom, has since written a blog post to clarify that Instragram users still own their photos and that they are going to remove the clause allowing them to use photos in advertising. Still, the initial policy was so onerous, so one-sided, it has caused many users to rethink their dependency on Instagram. This self-inflicted wound has opened the door for Twitter and others. (@Aviary saw 2 million downloads of its photo app this week.)
Over the course of the next few months, I suspect we'll see Facebook and Twitter push even harder to win the photo loyalty of their users. I also suspect we'll see Google and Yahoo enter the fray since they have legacy properties (Picasa and Flickr, respectively) that still could own a slice of the photo pie provided they embrace mobile and differentiate their services. And don't forget about our new friend Pinterest. Thanks to the goodwill and loyalty they've built, they could be positioned for a late game surprise.
The "net-net" for marketers is that the social photo landscape is fragmenting--much like television, radio, news, and one-to-one communications before it. Gone is the share-and-share-alike mentality of the early social pioneers whose open APIs made for easy, one-touch sharing to all of your social networks. Marketers now have to evaluate on which social photo networks their consumers live and shift their resources there if they want to see and be seen.
The good news--if there is any--is that consumers are going to vote with the pictures. Over the coming year, as the services and their policies mature, I think we'll see consumers gravitating to a primary social network for their photos--with secondary distribution where it makes sense. For instance, you may reserve Facebook for pics of friends and family but leverage Twitter for your pics of great meals, parties, etc. I think the deciding factor for most consumers will be trust--which social network do you trust with your photos.
And thanks to Facebook/Instagram's self-inflicted wound this week, I think that remains an open question.
Every picture tells a story, don't it?