Using social media pics in marketing offers opportunities and perils

Retailers have long used professional models in glamorous locations to promote their products, emulating the fashion industry and glossy print mags.

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But online there is a growing trend towards using pictures of normal people taken from social media sites. Urban Outfitters and Under Armour are just the latest retailers to do so, testing a platform from analytics firm Curalate – called Fanreel - that pulls in user-generated content from Facebook, Instagram, mobile phones and desktop PCs.

Yet they certainly aren’t the first. A range of services that use curated customer photos are now on offer, from the likes of Olapic to Needle, all hoping to tap into demand from brands for faster and more cost-effective ways to recruit online advocates.

There are big advantages to retailers in getting fans involved in marketing. Firstly, using regular folk means that customers can see the clothes on people that look like them, rather than glamorous models. There’s also the opportunity there for word-of-mouth marketing, still the most trusted ad format in the UK according to Nielsen data.

It also gives brands the ability to connect with their fans via social media with the aim of boosting brand loyalty. Plus its cheap. No more paying for expensive models, studios and photographers.

There’s a big opportunity here as well for brands to get hold of key analytics data on who is talking about them on social media and what they are saying. This should all help to drive up revenues, which in the end is what this is all about.

The move by Urban Outfitters certainly got a ringing endorsement on Twitter. The comments were almost all positive, with users describing the move as “smart, real and cheap” and a “great example of a company connecting with customers via social”.

But there are pitfalls. Many of these brand advocacy channels, like Needle, pay consumers to participate, raising ethical questions if it isn’t clear to other customers that money is changing hands.

For those that don’t, customers may get annoyed, questioning why they should offer up their photos for free for big retailers to use in their marketing.

Plus, brands need to make sure they explain fully how people’s photos will be used. Facebook faced a backlash when it started putting users’ comments in sponsored ads because many didn’t realise they had agreed to such usage.

There are further issues around privacy and rights as well. One consumer might have given permission to use their photos, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the picture has. Most people would find it weird to think their face could be getting used to market a brand’s clothes without them even knowing.

Pulling in Instagram and Facebook photos is the next logical step for brands online as pictures increasingly become the way people communicate online. But marketers must make sure they are aware of the issues and communicate clearly to their customers if the practice is to boost brand perception, rather than weaken it.

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