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Published October 30th 2018

Decipher Your Audience’s Visual Language with Image Analysis

If you're not analyzing images, you're missing out on so much of the conversation.

Since the inception of the internet, English has been its de facto language. But that’s changing, and the driving force behind that change is one demographic: teens.

For them, the default language of the internet is the image. Evan Spiegel, who built a $25 billion company on this core concept, knows this:

“Photos are no longer just a means of capturing a moment, they are a means of communicating.”

When a teenager sends a snap to a friend, they aren’t just capturing a moment. They are telling that friend something about themselves. The place they take it, their emotion in it, the people and products they want captured in that snap are all communicating something about them and what they care about.

The same goes for Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, or any social media platform that is primarily visual. These aren’t just glorified photo albums—every day millions of teenagers are using them to tell people who they are, what they love, and what they want.

These stories, these expressions of interest and passion, are incredibly valuable to brands. If teens or other young consumers are a core part of your audience, you can’t understand them without understanding images. Literally. They are speaking a completely different language than you. To answer their needs, you need to decipher their language. The best way to do that is through image analysis.

How to translate a visual language using image analysis

Stats show the future:

  • 85% of teens use YouTube.
  • 72% of teens use Instagram.
  • 69% of teens use Snapchat.

Compare that with just 51% using Facebook and 32% using Twitter — both more text-based mediums. For teens, visuals rule.

And because these are more than just glorified photo albums, the visuals matter, the context matters. A 2018 University of California, Irvine, study showed that:

“Teens, who are developmentally able to perceive a situation from the third‐person perspective and who value peer approval, purposefully share content to appear interesting, well liked, and attractive…These findings suggest that perspective taking skills and need for peer approval influence self‐presentation online.”
Teens don’t just post whatever comes to them — they put a ton of thought into social media. For brands, this means if you are in a post you are, by definition, “interesting, well-liked, and attractive.” Your brand means something to the teen in question, and knowing what that is is incredibly valuable information.

But finding your brand in visual-only posts is a struggle. Whereas with text, you can easily search for your brand name; searching not just for images but specific components of images has been a challenge, until recently.

New technologies, powered by the ever-growing library of available data, have developed to find meaning in images. Image analysis uses computer vision to allow you to pick out components of a photograph or image that are important to you. People, a logo, an object, a scene, or a combination of all four:

Imagine you are Nike and want to understand whether the Colin Kaepernick ad has impacted your brand with younger demographics. If they aren’t talking about it on Facebook and Twitter, textual analysis could be overwhelmed by older cohorts.

But image processing of recent posts could show a truer trend. Nike could find young people happily wearing Nike clothes and sneakers:

Translating images into insight through image analysis doesn’t just have to be in response to a potential crisis. If a large contingent of your regular audience is teens or younger age groups, you can also use image analysis to understand general perception. As the 2018 UCI study showed, if you are in an Instagram post, you are probably doing something right.

Sneakers and athletic wear are good examples here. After food, shoes and clothing are where teens spend their money. The teen retail market is worth $830 billion, with clothing contributing 16% of that for males and 25% for females. Clothing companies will want to know if they are cool with the kids. For instance, this post from an Instagram celebrity doesn’t mention Adidas:

But you can be sure that any of the 500,000+ people who have liked that image recognize the Superstars on Maddie Ziegler’s feet. When your brand is used in visual social media by younger groups, they are saying something. In this case, it might be that Maddie just had her Superstars on when she saw the cool welcome mat. But if she had a less “cool” brand on, she wouldn’t have posted the picture.

Without digital image analysis, Adidas might miss this insight about the brand. With it, they know that her 12 million followers now also have a positive association with the brand.

How do you do, fellow kids?

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, but when old people try and mimic teen behavior, it usually falls flat.

A brand trying too hard to act like a teenager online is going to fail. But putting your brand in positive images online feeds this positive association circle.

Brands can do this in three ways:

They can create ads and visual posts on their social media accounts. The downside of this is the “fellow kids” problem.

They can interact with the audience directly, finding user-generated images that show the brand and amplifying them. In this way, they can become part of the pod of these teens and help both the individual and their brand.

They can use influencers to show the brand in interesting, well-liked, and attractive situations.

Maddie Ziegler may or may not be sponsored by Adidas, but Selena Gomez does have a partnership with Puma:

But only in these paid posts is she expected to highlight Puma. Selena Gomez is the most-followed celebrity on Instagram, so Puma will want to know when she might be promoting the brand more subtly:

The vast majority of Selena’s followers are going to be in younger age brackets (though she does have Friends on in the background, perhaps communicating something to Gen-Xers). Most will notice the Pumas she is wearing even though they are not mentioned alongside the other brands she talks about. Image analysis will allow the brand to notice as well.

In this way, Puma is talking the language of their young audience. They are effectively using Gomez as an interpreter. If they speak this language, the message may fall flat; whereas her fans think she is interesting, well-liked, and attractive naturally, and, by association, Puma.

If you can’t decipher these images, you can’t answer the needs of this audience. You have no idea what they are saying and can’t speak their language. And this audience is the future.

Image analysis allows you to translate their language of images into insights for your business that can tell you more about your audience, more about your products, and more about your brand.

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