Some companies have tried to sidestep the problem by tapping the
so-called metadata around an image such as captions and article
text to understand its contents. But that's not always reliable or
as useful as knowing what a photo actually contains.
"We've done some research and found that 85% of the time textual
data does not support the actual brands that are showing up in an
image," said Ophir Tanz, CEO of GumGum, an in-image ad company.
That's why companies like Google and Yahoo are beefing up their
ability to tackle the problem. This year alone Google, Yahoo,
Pinterest and Twitter have each acquired companies that have
developed technologies related to image recognition.
Google and Pinterest declined to comment for this article.
Twitter did not respond to requests for comment.
Facebook, which bought facial-recognition firm Face.com in 2012,
isn't applying its technology to ad targeting but is using it for
content curation, like whether to show "meme" images (like a cat
photo overlaid with text) in someone's news feed if that person has
shown an interest in memes or considers them spammy, according to a
Yahoo -- which has been able to use its photo-sharing site
Flickr to hone its image-detection chops -- is able to pick out and
categorize specific objects like a pair of boots in an image or
video in order to provide more context about a page's contents for
ad targeting, said Alex James, director of research at Yahoo Labs.
Yahoo's technology can also help to refine search results, like
determining whether an article about a jaguar refers to the luxury
car brand or a big cat.
Image-based ad targeting has come to Twitter through an outside
party. Image analytics firm Ditto Labs is able to pick out photos
posted to Twitter -- either directly or through Instagram -- that
contain a brand's logo and collect the Twitter handles of the
people posting those photos into a list that an advertiser can then
submit to Twitter as the audience it would like to show ads, said
Ditto Labs CEO David Rose.
While unlocking images' data is becoming a reality for these
tech companies, for marketers it remains a fringe issue. But that
doesn't mean marketers' agencies don't see the potential for
image-based ad targeting.
"Our clients have never given it much thought. But as soon as
it's available at scale, it's going to be huge," said Doug Kofoid,
president-global solutions at Publicis Groupe's VivaKi.
Pinterest is talking with agencies like Horizon Media and Starcom MediaVest Group about how its
image-recognition technologies can help their brand clients.
"When we are talking in theoretical terms about [Horizon Media
client] Weight Watchers for instance, we can identify who is
pinning Weight Watchers specific materials -- food, recipes -- but
also any type of food content that we think would be a qualifier
for a potential Weight Watcher prospect. So it becomes very clearly
about the actual content that's pinned," said Horizon Media Chief
Digital Officer Donald Williams.
"The biggest surprise I had was the richness of those images and
how much personal information is coming across in the richness of
those images," said Starcom MediaVest Group's global research lead
Kate Sirkin. "It really does start to give you a good flavor of
interests and lifestyle and passions of the consumer."