Marketers Are Using Your Online Photos to Figure You Out

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Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty ImagesCute pic! (And now that you've uploaded it, a whole bunch of marketing firms know you're a hockey fan.)
Ever taken a selfie? If so, chances are you expected to share it with an audience of friends on Facebook (FB) or Flickr (YHOO), or maybe a small cadre of followers on Twitter (TWTR). But if your images are public, companies are peering over your virtual shoulder, too, hoping to see what they can learn about your relationship to their products, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Digital marketing companies have taken to scanning through massive numbers of images on social media sites, including photo-sharing services like Instagram and Flickr, where many users allow anyone to see what they post. They're looking for company logos, wherever they might find them.

Such businesses scan those photos using software that identifies logos on a hat or jacket or can of soda, for example. If someone's holding a can of Coke in your picture, or wearing Philadelphia Eagles gear, that data becomes part of the profile they're building on you. Then, some sell the information they've gleaned to marketers who want to target advertising to people they think might be most receptive to it. Others keep copies of all the images they find and then sell broader data about trending interests.

As the saying in the high-tech arena goes, "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product." And that's the case here. As The Consumerist notes, people often don't pay attention to the terms of service when they sign up for a social network. Those terms may include the right for third parties to use your photos for marketing efforts. Tumblr works with Ditto Labs to find and track users who display product brands, according to Social Media & Marketing Daily:

"We're able to find brand logos and patterns inside of public photos shared on social media," David Rose, Ditto's CEO, said on Monday. "We can also tell if people are smiling or not in a picture, as well as the type of environment a person is in."

Ditto also helps clients identify top brand affinities and relevant influencers in the photo-dominated social media ecosystem.

Critics say that the companies aren't being up front about images being included in consumer dossiers that companies keep, even though the services claim that they alert people. But any such cautions are included in general language the terms of service, which virtually no one reads when they sign up. And once someone's images are public, that person has already given legal permission for them to be used.

"Just because you happen to be in a certain place or captured an image, you might not understand that could be used to build a profile of you online," said Joni Lupovitz, vice president at children's privacy advocacy group Common Sense Media, to the Wall Street Journal.

Even if you don't post pictures of yourself, people you know might, The Consumerist points out. And if their pictures are public, that might work as well for marketers.

Image scanning joins other forms of monitoring and following people online under a set of technologies and methods broadly called behavioral marketing. The more marketers can understand how consumers behave when they're not aware someone is looking at them, the more effectively they can create and direct ads.

To give a modern twist to an older saying, this one from television, "Smile: You're on marketing camera."
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