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Why Facebook Photo Tags Are The New (And Possibly More Powerful) Likes

The social network’s small new feature could have a big impact.

I Like You sidewalk graffiti

Yesterday Facebook rolled out a seemingly minor enhancement to their Photos feature. For a while now, users have been able to tag friends in their photos and have that tag link to the friends’ profile pages. Now, however, users can do the same with company pages (referred to in the Facebook lexicon as "Pages").

So, for example, if you take a picture of yourself with your favorite musician, and that musician has a Page, you can tag the musician in your photo and link it to the musician’s Page. Or, for example, if you’re wearing a cute pair of jeans from your favorite designer, you can tag them, and the tag will link back to the designer’s Page.

On the surface, this might not seem like a big deal. So you can tag a brand. So what?

Well, a lot.

Think for a moment about how powerful Likes are. Likes are currently the way that users express their support for a particular brand. They click on the Like button on that brand's Page (or musician's Page, or publication's, or politician's, or anyone else who has a Page) and declare that to the brand—and the world at large—that they think that brand (or musician, etc...) is worth taking notice of.

Which has been why there's been such a focus in the past year on getting as many Likes as possible. They're supposed to be a good thing. The more Likes you have, the better you're doing in the marketplace, no?

Well, not exactly. Social media experts have begun to look askance at the Like system. It's so easy for someone to "Like" something. What does it really signify? If you "Like" a kind of soda, for example, does that actually mean that you're buying the item? Or just that you like the idea of the item? How do you really know how engaged with the product any particular Liker actually is?

Now think about tags in photos. If you've tagged a photo in which you're wearing that cute pair of jeans, you don't simply like the idea of the designer. You've actually gone out and put down some of your hard-earned cash for their duds. Photo tags, then, become a much stronger signal of engagement.

The downstream implications are many—and important.

First, it will give brands a whole new set of raw material to work with to promote themselves. According to Facebook, any tagged photo that a user designates as visible to "Everyone" will appear on the brand’s Page. (On the other hand, in accordance with the company's privacy rules, photos that a user designates as for "Friends Only" will only appear to the user's network, tags or no tags.)

So now, a brand won't only have a bunch of Likes to work with. They'll have real photos of real people engaging with their brands. It's not clear what Facebook will permit brands to do with those photos, but given that the social network is currently enabling brands to surface users' Likes to friends in ads, it's possible that it will also allow brands to similarly leverage tagged photos to—as Facebook would put it—help users discover brands they might be interested in, based on their friends' interests.

But think of another way Likes are currently used. Today, advertisers can choose to display ads to users based on many factors—such as gender, age, or geographic location. But they can also choose to display ads to users based on specific Pages they've Liked. Last fall, for example, we wrote about how a former Philadelphia Eagles football player who was running for Congress in New Jersey was able to make strategic fundraising appeals on Facebook by specifying that some ads only appear in front of users who had Liked the Page for the Eagles' stadium.

Now imagine how advertisers could use the tagged photo signal. Let's say you're that same politician and you need to gather some volunteers to run a phone bank this weekend. What if you could target your ads to appear only in front of users who had posted a photo to Facebook in which they had tagged the politician's Page—because they'd been to one of his rallies, for example, or had a shot of themselves waving one of his re-election signs. Imagine how much more effective an ad asking for volunteers would be if you could target those specific Facebook users—people who are clearly already highly engaged with the politician—rather than simply anyone who had Liked the Eagles stadium, or even the politician himself.

Similarly, take the new Deals service Facebook unveiled two weeks ago. If you're a restaurant trying to drum up new business, and you decided to issue a coupon that gave diners a fourth entree free for every three at full price, wouldn't you prefer to make that offer to a user who had tagged a photo of themselves eating at your restaurant, rather than any old person in your general geography? The user with the photo would be more likely to be already highly engaged with your business, and so if they brought three new friends with them, isn't it more likely that at least one or two of them might turn into regulars, rather than the random person just looking for a deal?

We don't know whether Facebook plans to allow any of these use cases. (They might not even have thought that far down the line yet.) But given the directions the social network has taken in the past, and its mission to enable people to share and connect with the people and things they care about, it wouldn't be suprising if they headed in this direction, or one like it. All of which is to say that, if Likes were meaningful indicators of how connected a person felt with a particular brand, tagged photos are going to be that much more powerful.

Doubtlessly, some companies will initially regard tagged photos the way many view Likes today: as points to be amassed in volume. Some might even go so far as to try to offer rewards of some kind for tagged photos. (Though a Facebook spokeswoman tells Fast Company that the company will discourage this.)

The smart brands, however, will be the ones that encourage photo-tagging to happen organically—from fans who are already highly, and genuinely, committed—and then figure how to leverage those photos in ways that resonate with the fans' networks—on Facebook and beyond.

Final note: Facebook says it's currently limiting the rollout of the new feature to Pages from the Brand/Company and People categories. Later, it says, it will expand the feature to other Page categories.

[Image: Flickr user D.C.Atty]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter. Email.