Apu Gupta is CEO of Curalate, a two-year-old Philadelphia company that helps major brands make sense of and leverage social media sites such as Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. Neiman Marcus, GAP, Rebecca Minkoff, Starkist, and Under Armour are among the 450 brands that benefit from Curalate’s “smarter marketing through imagery” approach.
Software developed by Gupta’s cofounder, CTO Nick Shiftan, helps those companies determine if their social media marketing efforts are having an impact on their business. Gupta says Curalate’s software lets brands analyze and track the behaviors of fans on Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr, and grow their presence on the networks.
And though few small businesses can afford Curalate’s services, Gupta says the same keys to image-marketing success apply to little brands. Yahoo! Small Business asked him to share his insights on what small business owners need to know about image-based marketing.
YSB: Why do small businesses need to pay attention to Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram?
Gupta: Small business owners finally got their heads around Facebook and Twitter, and then things changed. Over the last few years there has been an amazing rise in sites like Pinterest and Instagram, and Tumblr became visual.
Consumers are communicating in a visual manner. They’re taking images of products they bought or want to buy and sharing them with their social networks. These are marketing conversations being initiated by customers. It’s an important concept for small businesses to grasp. Marketing is no longer about pushing out your message, talking about yourself, and seeing how consumers engage; now it’s about encouraging your customers and fans to talk more about you and to participate in your brand.
YSB: How do you encourage that?
Gupta: It’s a mindshift for a lot of small businesses. We work with large organizations and large marketing teams who get the idea. But small businesses have been left behind.
For sure, it’s easier to compose a Tweet than to [express] your brand in a visual way. But images create emotion in people and that can lead to a powerful relationship with a brand. How do you encourage photos to be taken around your brand? It’s hard for small businesses that don’t have resources.
Think about what your brand stands for and how you can encourage your fans to help out. Let’s say you’re an outdoor supply store. Traditionally you might say, “I need to target men, ages 25-40, with a certain level of income, who live in areas where people are more likely to be outdoor enthusiasts.” On Pinterest, your approach is to ask, “Who has ever pinned a tent?” Who cares about demographics; this is what they enjoy doing. It’s a very different way of thinking about marketing. It’s based on interest.
YSB: But isn’t the typical Pinterest or Instagram user younger than that ideal consumer with the high income?
Gupta: Absolutely, but some of today’s small businesses are going to become tomorrow’s big businesses. And small, nimble brands can compete with large brands on these large social platforms.
And think about coffee shops, restaurants, and real estate agents: younger buyers matter a ton. Some brands are entirely focused on an aging demographic, but your days are numbered if you don’t appeal to today’s younger audience.
We did an interesting study with Torneau. Their watches are pretty expensive. Their core buyer is in their mid-to-late 40s. That buyer is not doing selfies. But Tourneau was astute enough to realize that they need to start appealing to 25-year-olds who are really into watches and are influenced by what hip-hop music is saying about watches. On Instagram “#tourneau” only shows up in 4,000 photos, but watches are in 4 million. You’re seeing really big watches on wrists on young hands driving Range Rovers. Young people like to show status. It’s about reframing your brand to appeal to these emerging audiences.
YSB: So you’re promoting your brand to get people to dream of the day they can afford your product?
Gupta: Branding is about making a promise. It takes time to create that loyalty, but it’s much cheaper to do it on social media. Traditionally, to invest in an audience that’s not ready to buy from you would be a fool’s game. Now you can form brand awareness and opinion and affinity early so that when they’re ready they come to you instead of some other person.
This is about building relevance with hundreds of millions of consumers who are choosing to communicate in pictures rather than words.
YSB: What’s an example of a small business using customer-generated images for marketing?
Gupta: The Commons Chelsea is a one-location café in Manhattan. They’ve got folks coming in day in, day out. They posted a photo of a cup of coffee with their hashtag on a handwritten card and they asked customers to show it in the store to get a free cup of coffee. They got more than 900 new Instagram followers. You’d be shocked how powerful the ask is. Most brands fail to ask their customers for help. You can offer incentives, such as. “We’re going to choose folks at random to receive a free coffee.” If you can get them back in the store, they come and buy a pastry.
We saw a running gear brand called Janji do something innovative. They held a scavenger hunt around Boston and posted the call to action on Instagram. People had to go run to a location and post a photo to show they went there. The first person to get there and take a photo would get free gear. They won nearly 1,000 new followers.
There are interesting opportunities to do things that are educational in nature, too. Say you’re a small business that offers photography lessons. Go out in the world and take some beautiful photos. Help people understand how to take better photos in a location. It builds authenticity and doesn’t cost a lot.
Federal Donuts in Philadelphia posts photos of different new donut flavors and asks people to “like” their favorites.
Or let’s say you’re a small apparel maker. When you get swatches of different fabrics in, Instagram pictures of them out and ask your fans, “Hey, which ones do you like the most?”
A lot of small business owners say, “I don’t know what to do,” but there is so much you can do. You need to be creative. Give your fans a behind-the-scenes look and ask them to celebrate you.