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.

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  • atimoshenko

    Brands should serve users, users should not serve brands. And no - throwing a few scraps off your table to your vassals during a feast is not serving your vassals... This is the problem when the advertisers become the true customers of the media companies, with the 'consumers' or 'audience' serving as tradable goods for both.

    Sure, clever enterprises can do clever things if they kept in touch with the people who genuinely enjoy their products, but there is no need for companies to try to scratch their left ear with their right foot in order to do this. They can simply ask... and if they're too worried about excessive participation, test for interest.

  • Aaron Everson

    Great points here. There are several incredibly positive things this change can mean for brands, as well as a few potential pitfalls.
    On one hand, seeing your friends’ photos that have been tagged with a brand or product can be more influential than a simple “Like” as mentioned in the article. Plus, as a user, tagging your own photos creates an additional opportunity to interact with companies on Facebook and strengthen that relationship. The potentially negative impacts include the risk of brands being tagged in inappropriate photos or attempts to get more tags for increased exposure.

    The effects of this feature will be interesting to follow, both in terms of engagement for Pages and the impact this change will have if it is ever incorporated into Facebook ads in any way.

  • Chris.Q

    The real value in customers sharing their brand love, is in creating a way for the brands to see that love and reciprocate. With Groupon, RetailMeNot, FacebookLocal, LivingSocial etc.etc.etc. we are getting to the place where online shopping begins and ends with searches for a coupon deal. Coupons are marketing, not love. Photo tagging is a much more authentic way for a brand and its fans to have a relationship. More personal, more valuable and more honest. In relationship marketing it is important that the consumer has a strong platform to communicate, both good, and bad back to the brand, and this is clearly a sage move by Facebook to play a role in facilitating that relationship. The question is will Facebook allow this relationship to grow, or demand “three’s a crowd” control over these relationships?

  • Jessica Obermayer

    Clever ideas - use cases - put forward by E.B. Boyd in this article, but I agree with Paul Carney's comment : Without controls in place for brands to approve the tagging, there's a strong possibility that brands will be tagged with inappropriate photos. (Having lived through two teenagers and what they posted in Facebook - and their tagging mischief - I can only imagine the potential for havoc.) Even if brands are allowed to un-tag themselves, does this mean they will need to monitor Facebook more closely - have somebody watching it?

    Meantime, will Facebook users really understand what the tagging means - that their photos can be seen by anybody and be used/displayed by that brand? Let's get real here: Most Facebook users probably think that their information is secure - and it's not. Most Facebook users have no clue as to how their data - friends, demographics, game info, friends of friends, etc. - is being used/sold by Facebook to drive revenues. That their information and the information of their friends is accessible via third-party developers and games, for example - without even getting into what data is provided to advertisers I've worked with numerous people who thought their Facebook settings were secure and then were appalled to see what was viewable by others.

    So, leveraging the "like" and photo "tagging" may help some businesses, but I think it's perilous on both sides - for the brands and for the users. The only one who benefits is, as usual, Facebook - for now.

  • Paul Carney

    While it seems like a great idea, and I love how companies can be in real conversations with their followers, I caution that letting anyone post a photo that is directly linked to a Page/Brand is a bit dangerous.

    What if people take photos that are not appropriate for that brand and tag them? The brand's page could now include a lot of garbage or worse, photos that do not belong with the brand. I have not heard if the brand will be able to "untag" a photo, but even if they can, I believe it is better if a brand can "approve" the photo tag first.

    I know that allowing a company to "approve" something seems to go counter to the social media currents right now, but giving too much power to the masses to control a brand's identity will backfire at some point and could drive businesses away from social media if we are not careful.