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The popularity of social media has drastically changed demands on marketeers: companies can no longer control what information consumers create. On the other hand, access to large-scale consumer data creates new opportunities. Lately, a new challenge has arisen in the field of social media, says marketing professor Willemijn van Dolen: the growing importance of images.

Willemijn van Dolen (photo: Jeroen Oerlemans)

‘Facebook and Twitter are being used less, while Instagram and Pinterest are on the rise, especially among youngsters. This means that marketing experts – within companies and scientists like myself – have to shift their focus towards images’, says Van Dolen, a full professor at the UvA’s Economics and Business faculty and one of the speakers at the Data Science for Business Analytics seminar on October 15.
Online listening, which enables organisations to gather information about their target groups and the way they view a product or a brand, is hardly a novelty, but in the past, the focus has been on text.  Recently, there has been a growth in the use of the information obtained from pictures posted on social media with accompanying tags. According to the 43-year-old Van Dolen, there is much to be learned. ‘We’re just getting to know our way around analysing online sentiment from text. Images are much more difficult to grasp.’

Social media
Flickr Creative Commons: Jason A Howie

Revolutionary at multiple levels

The growing relevance of images comes at a time when the impact of several other major changes will also be increasingly felt, predicts Van Dolen, a member of the scientific advisory board of Dutch marketeers’ platform NIMA.
In this ‘age of the social collective’ - a term coined by Susan Fournier and Jill Avery of Boston University - the number of people online and involved with marketing activities is unprecedented. Smart marketeers take advantage of that, says Van Dolen, citing the success of the Doritos 'Crash the Super Bowl' contest, an annual contest in which consumers can submit a commercial for the popular potato chip brand. The commercial that gathers the most votes is broadcast on television during this most-watched sports event in the US. This is user-generated content with a broad reach. Van Dolen: ‘A great way to create a connection with the brand, both among those who made the commercials as well as those who voted.’
Marketeers must also cope with the fact that nowadays transparency seems to rule (’the age of transparency’), airing of criticism via social media is commonplace (‘the age of criticism’) and online parodies can easily wipe out all gains of a campaign (‘the age of parody’). According to van Dolen, in this environment, a company can either sit on the sidelines or jump in with both feet - there is no middle ground.
Participating in social media must be done cleverly, because even though most consumers no longer find commercial posts on social media intrusive, that does not mean online banners are appreciated - on the contrary, says van Dolen, pointing to the popularity of ad blockers. ‘One could say it is indeed insane that a company thinks it is entitled to bother (potential) customers with banners no one asked for and which are often annoying. In fact, this is not how you want consumers to get to know your product.’

Two-way traffic

Regarding images, the flow of information can go in two directions.
Images are not only increasingly important because of the information they convey, they are also a powerful tool to pass on a message.
Getting people’s attention is easier using an image than using text. Earlier research shows that images are being stored in the human brain 60,000 times faster than text. Another pro, says marketing professor Van Dolen: people tend to perceive images as more authentic. ‘Despite all the ways that images can be manipulated, text still leaves room for interpretation.’
However, a message conveyed by a strong image is by no means a guarantee that the audience will view the company or brand as intended. ‘Online listening’ is therefore crucial in this case as well.
Organisations tend to be quite traditional in this area. They will, for example, monitor which of the pictures they posted gets the most likes. ‘It is more interesting to also watch what consumers themselves post and like’, says Van Dolen. She is currently doing research on pictures tagged #Rijksmuseum. Analysing 50,000  such pictures, selected from 100.000 #Rijksmuseum pictures found on social media, gives useful insights. Are the target groups identified by the museum the same as the people posting online? And how do people view the museum; does that match the way it is trying to profile itself? How can the museum use this knowledge?
Van Dolen cites the invitation that was extended to a number of influential Instagrammers to visit the museum after closing hours, which yielded a large number of pictures tagged #emptyrijks that were widely shared: ‘You have to think consciously about what your audience wants and how to use images to facilitate that.’
Companies should map out their clients and put them to work for their brand, Van Dolen advises. Some brands, including Doritos and Warby Parker, are doing this already.  At Warby Parker, revenue more than doubled following a campaign that encouraged people to upload pictures of themselves wearing different pairs of Warby Parker-glasses and asking their friends to vote for their favourites. Dove’s #LoveYourCurls campaign is also a good example, as are hotels that hang a picture frame in a strategic spot to get people to take a selfie.
Van Dolen, a member of the supervisory board of Amsterdam Marketing, urges organisations to capitalise on the information that comes with images on social media. ‘In the future, we may be able to make predictions about where they’ll go next based on the #Rijksmuseum pictures posted online.’

Looking ahead

There is more to come. Van Dolen, who is also director of Corporate Relations at the Economics and Business faculty, works with PhD students to compile an image database of well-known brands such as Starbucks and Heineken. A computer program is being taught how to recognise brands from these pictures. Meanwhile, the technology to decipher emotions and similar information from pictures is gradually advancing as well. The combination of social media and new technologies offers new perspectives to companies such as McDonalds and Starbucks, Van Dolen says. ‘In the long run, information from images on social media will enable us to find out and predict how people's attitudes towards certain brands evolve.’

More information? Email  w.m.vandolen@uva.nl