Just Picture It: The Imagesphere

Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Bob Lisbonne, CEO of in-image advertising company Luminate. He was previously a General Partner at Matrix Partners, and worked at Netscape Communications, where he was the senior vice president and general manager of its browser division.

Images shock, delight, inspire and provoke. They grab our emotions in ways that text simply cannot. Would Facebook be Facebook without photos? You want to see what’s going on in the lives of your “friends,” not just read a status update. Images also drive the entire ecommerce movement. Can you imagine purchasing a sweater online without seeing a picture of it first? No matter how great of a description, it doesn’t make you click the “add to my cart” button – the photo does.

Images play such a crucial role in every part of our online experience, and yet, until relatively recently, remarkably little changed in how we view and use pictures. When I used to run the Browser Division at Netscape at the inception of the consumer Internet, pictures were mere accent pieces. For the first time since, images can now equal much more. People post more than 300 million photos a day to Facebook alone, and 70% of all actions on social media involve images. I think those numbers pale in comparison to where they will go when you consider what a highly visual society we live in and how much people love to share.

We’re in the midst of an image explosion. We now have the capability to share images (or even parts of images) directly from pictures themselves. For example, you’re reading an article and something you see in the accompanying photo jumps out for whatever reason. You feel compelled to share that photo with your friends immediately. Instead of opening up Facebook, Twitter, or sending (gasp) an email, you can click on the image and share directly from the picture.

This may sound like an incremental change, but in the current attention economy, increasing the ease of sharing exponentially increases the volume of sharing. That is just the tip of the iceberg. You can draw on images, purchase goods similar to those viewed in a picture, or find out every song a singer has ever recorded while checking out his photo from the Grammy awards. Genuine innovation is taking place with images, finally, because this medium enables an instant connection with the audience.

Kodak No More

So how did we move from the days of stashing our Kodak prints in a box to broadcasting, collecting, manipulating, and interacting with them on our computers and phones? As flat, static pieces of content, images proved difficult for search engines to index. It was as if search engines could read but not see. Finally, the proliferation of mobile devices really kicked image innovation into gear.

Now everyone has a camera at all times, and consumers look for something to do with their pictures so that they’re not trapped in their phones. Enter Facebook. Facebook provided a better, easier place to store and share those pictures than the original online photo sites, and Instagram took it to a whole new level.

Pinterest pushes images further. It’s not about sharing that picture you took when you went out last night. It’s about collecting, assembling, and remixing other people’s photos. This creates an entirely different kind of experience – an interactive one. And people love it. Pinterest touches people’s lives, whether it’s the woman planning her wedding or the teacher looking for ideas for classroom activities.

This is a breakthrough moment for digital images – the dawning of the Imagesphere. We’re entering a period where people crave and expect images to let them do unexpected things. The possibilities are truly endless as image application development starts to take off.

Good for the Consumer, Good for the Publisher

As meaningful as image interaction becomes for consumers, publishers also benefit. They can keep visitors on their sites longer. Rather than heading off to find related content, information and experiences, consumers find everything they need right within the image.

In addition, data emerges on which images users found most engaging and how. In the era of big data, this changes the activities of advertisers and publishers. Novel ad models will emerge and new revenue streams open when marketers take the latest image capabilities into consideration. Businesses will find themselves adding a “P” to the classic four “P’s” of marketing. In addition to product, price, placement and promotion, now pictures join the list.

I predict that the use of images will change so much over the next five years that companies now focused on social and mobile strategies will develop a sophisticated image strategy. If they don’t, they will fall behind, which in Internet time is usually the kiss of death.

When Steve Jobs gave us the iPhone in 2007, no one could have guessed that tens of millions of people would spend countless hours launching angry birds at evil pigs. Once clever people start viewing images as the platform that they can be, they will find uses that will surprise us at least as much. The Imagesphere marks the next great step forward online. Just picture it.