SAN FRANCISCO — When Kristyn Fernandez uploaded a photo of herself with her arm slung over a guy in a Jack Daniel’s t-shirt, it caught the eye of more than just her Twitter followers.
Software that scans millions of photos on social media flagged the image, operating on the principle it might hold value for Jack Daniel’s or its competitors. Such a photo could show the kinds of customers who favor Jack Daniel’s, reveal how consumers interact with the whiskey brand or even inspire future advertising campaigns.
Brands covet such information, but it doesn’t come cheap. Social networks can charge millions for easy access to user photos and information. Increasingly, it is part of the social media business model, analysts said.
But what makes this service so appealing to businesses also raises concerns among privacy advocates and the consumers who happen to find out. Fernandez had no idea that Ditto Labs, based in Massachusetts, scanned her photo – the company does not inform social media users of its actions.
“Without letting me know wherever they took the picture from, it’s kind of creepy and a little inappropriate,” she said.
Ditto scans publicly shared images on Twitter and Instagram and recently added Tumblr. It says it does not need to notify consumers their images are being sent to its clients because the pictures can be viewed by anyone online. Ditto says it abides by social networks’ terms of service, and insists its software is less invasive than search-based ads, which track users’ e-mail messages and web-browsing habits. The firm doesn’t pull images from Facebook because many users only share photos with friends.
“It’s not based on what you’re searching, it’s based on what is on your public social channel,” said Mary Tarczynski, Ditto’s chief marketing officer.
Ditto has collected data for brands such as Kraft Macaroni Cheese, Coca-Cola and Nissan. Its software identifies products within photos and can tell when people are smiling or frowning. The company says its findings help brands understand how people use products, whether it’s the surprising number of people who put Chobani yogurt in the cup-holders of cars, or the fact that some people top broccoli with French’s mustard.
“It’s a real-time focus group,” said Ditto’s CEO David Rose. “This is evidence-based marketing.”
Ditto’s software operates by scanning for logos. When Ditto finds a match, it stores the image and adds the user’s social media account to a database, which is available to clients starting at $2,000 per month.
Each day, Internet users share more than 1.8 billion photos, according to venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byers. For advertisers, the social media posts that include those photos are more valuable than those with just text because pictures reveal how consumers act “in the wild.”
“You have a window into their world,” said Duncan Alney, CEO of Firebelly Marketing in Indianapolis, which uses Ditto Labs’ service.
Alney, whose firm represents a beer company, learned from Ditto that people drink beer not just with pub grub but also with healthier snacks like hummus. And that consumers who favor mainstream beers also consume craft brews.
Other companies use it to interact with fans. Nissan North America found a photo on Twitter of a baby peeking out from behind a cardboard cutout of a Nissan racecar driver. Nissan got the Twitter user’s permission and reposted the photo on the company’s account.
“It’s showing us opportunities where fans are expressing their passion for our brand and excitement,” said Rob Robinson, a senior specialist in social communications at the automaker. “We can harness that energy and share it with our fans.”
Ditto Labs has what’s called a “firehose partnership” with Tumblr, an industry term that generally guarantees access to all publicly available user content. In such deals, third-party companies typically pay social networks for access. Those third-party companies hope to make that money back by analyzing the data and selling it to other businesses. Ditto has more limited deals with other social networks, and pays a different third-party company for access to Twitter content.
Ditto isn’t the only company that tracks public data on social networks, said Rob Enderle, a principal analyst with Enderle Group. Most social networks allow such arrangements, and inform users of them in their terms of service, Enderle said.
“If you are a user of a free service, you have to understand how that service is generating revenue and generally they are generating revenue on you,” Enderle said. “If you’re not (comfortable with that), you shouldn’t be using that service.”
The problem, according to privacy activists, is that some consumers don’t know it’s happening. “It sounds to me like yet another way the digital world is spying on people,” said John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project. “(It’s happening) in ways that the average consumer does not understand.”
Ditto and its rivals insist consumers will benefit from their photos being shared with brands – they argue the service will someday result in more relevant advertisements, and perhaps improved products — say a yogurt container that perfectly fits in a car’s cupholder.