In the wake of the recent Yahoo-Tumblr deal, armchair Internet pundits spent a lot of time pontificating about how Yahoo will monetize Tumblr's platform.
It's an admittedly interesting, if not exhausted, topic, but for all the talk about monetizing Tumblr, there wasn't much discussion about what powered Tumblr's ascent in the first place: the combination of consumer creative control and visual content. Tumblr married the two digital phenomena into a billion-dollar bargain and set the stage for a new conversation, one requiring almost of everything we think we know about marketing.
Tumblr wasn't a siloed phenomenon; it was a harbinger of things to come everywhere around the Internet, and the response from the brand marketing community will be fascinating to watch.
That the world of advertising, marketing, and PR is evolving at a rate that's faster than we can keep up with isn't news - heck, we barely know how to differentiate what PR does vs. marketing vs. advertising. One of the biggest factors in the changes yet to come revolve around the switch to a population in which nearly everyone has a mobile phone in his pocket that's connected to the Internet. Not only are they connected, they are ready to share any and all content, something that has shaken the foundation of our industry.
The single most prevalent social behavior in this increasingly mobile world is taking pictures, creating visual content with an intention to share it with a wider audience. That used to be the job of the brand. Today, consumer-generated visual content is king. Sometimes it's better than the content the brands produce. Most times it isn't. But it is almost always authentic, driven by real behavior that makes it appealing to an awfully big audience. There are a lot marketers who can learn from these photos shared on social networks. Tumblr is only one such social network. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, SnapChat and a lot of others are just as photo-centric.
So the question becomes this: If the way consumers engage each other has changed so drastically, why hasn't the brand marketing playbook changed drastically, too? From PR pros valuing traditional media impressions over photo expressions, to digital media buys still focused on text ads and banners, the response just hasn't been fast enough. Think about it - why is TV media the only thing we're measuring in terms of visual content?
The fact of the matter is that the infrastructure of brand marketing hasn't caught up with the consumer. Brands spend their dollars where their media buyers are able to spend it, and if media buyers aren't able to take advantage (at scale) of the visual-content-creation tsunami, they'll stick to their 15-year-old-plus ways of spending brand dollars –– on antiquated models chasing eyeballs that have gone somewhere else.
Make no mistake; the next big thing is going to be a complete re-conception of how marketers engage and advertise, and it'll all surround visual content, a behavior that clearly exists and is growing at an amazing pace. This will affect PR just as other marketing channels. The pipes will need to be redone, and the entire concept of relevance will fundamentally need to be rethought, but it will happen. It has to happen.
Soon, the issue of how to harness authentic and scalable visual endorsements will be paramount. And how to turn those brand-related moments into repeatable, commercial opportunities will become the key part of the equation.
With the sheer volume of visual content, it's impossible to manually take advantage of it. Tools, software, systematic integration of advertising technology, and potentially entirely new tech platforms will be needed for marketers and advertisers to find and engage with consumers on a (seemingly) one-to-one basis and at-scale.
Consumers will respond — and already have responded — to personalized, highly relevant conversations. Creating these conversations has become an imperative for brand marketers, with PR folks scrambling to find new ways to make them count and make them stick. But, it's not possible for brands to initiate or participate in these conversations on human-to-human to scale. The conversations will have to be machine-to-human and human-to-machine. For decades, scientists, and more recently tech behemoths, have been working on AI. From our experience and work with brand image recognition and intelligent, automated conversations around visual content, AI is ready to be a keystone in new ad-tech platforms, and it must be; the market demands it.
Because the conversation isn't just about how Yahoo leverages Tumblr to become profitable. It's about how an entire industry can tap into a behavior that has tipped the scales in favor of consumer-created visual content. Consumers created Yahoo-Tumblr. And they are just getting started. Brands, are you listening?
Jamie Thompson is co-founder and CEO of Pongr, a Boston-based company deeply immersed in using AI to provide more consumer-driven and authentic marketing services around photo behavior.