Stipple Builds Out System to Help Publishers Profit from Tagged Web Images

6/28/11Follow @wroush

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have product makers themselves handle image tagging. Explains Flemings, “At the end of the day, who has the greatest motivation to tag, and who knows what’s in the photo? Is it the publisher? The person who took the photos? No, it’s the company that made the dress.”

All of the fingerprinted photos in the Lens collection are made available to brands, who use Pipeline—a Web-based image tagging platform—to attach dots with product descriptions and links for consumers. As soon as an image gets tagged, the dots show up with every instance of that image, even if the tagging occurred after the image was published. (And in a neat bit of digital magic, the dots stay intact and show up in the right locations even if an image gets resized or cropped.)

Publishers are still free to add their own dots to images—but by handing over most of the tagging work to manufacturers, Stipple hopes to solve the problem of inaccurate, inconsistent product information in images. “It’s extra work for brands, but with a high-value payoff,” says Flemings. “We started the [Pipeline] effort a very short time ago and we have been literally inundated with inbound interest from brands, who indicate that it’s a capability they’ve wanted for a very long time.”

Network, the third piece of Stipple’s ecosystem, is basically a rebranded version of Stipple’s original technology; it’s the system that ties together photo agencies, brands, and publishers. It ensures that “stippled” images selected by publishers and bloggers show up with the freshest tags; it also records all user interactions with dots and tracks the commissions due to photo agencies and publishers when dots generate affiliate revenue. Publishers don’t have to do much to activate Network—they just supplement their website template with a bit of code that calls Stipple’s system whenever a user’s browser loads a page with stippled images.

Finally, there’s Want, the only part of Stipple’s system focused directly on consumers. It’s a bookmarking service that lets Web surfers build a wish list of information about products in stippled images. Most product dots now include both a “shop” link that goes directly to an e-retailing site and a “want” link that adds the product to the user’s wish list. “There are clearly examples when a user doesn’t have the time to buy something right now; they want to keep moving,” says Flemings. “When they press ‘Want,’ it’s like a universal shopping cart.” Importantly, affiliate revenues on purchases from the wish list get credited to the original image publisher, even if the purchase occurs months later.

It’s still early days, but Flemings uses adjectives like “massive” and “staggering” to describe the rates at which users click Stipple’s want and shop buttons. (He declined to share exact percentages.)

Other companies offer systems for attaching product tags to Web editorial images, but Flemings says Stipple’s advantage, reflected in the high engagement and conversion rates, is in the accuracy and relevance of the information added by brands. “Engagement and accuracy are heavily related,” he says. “Our competitors have chosen to provide a different kind of experience. They’ll show a picture of Kristin Bell in a gray knee-length dress and they’ll include a link to a gray knee-length dress, but it’s not the same dress.” The logic is that the average Web surfer probably can’t afford Kristin Bell’s gray dress, so the link should lead to a less expensive knock-off. But Stipple’s philosophy is that “you may not be able to afford that red Ferrari, but you are free to aspire to it,” says Flemings. “We believe that when you mouse over a photo, that is a ‘tactile search,’ and the user should have the same expectation of accuracy as when they search using a keyword.”

Flemings says Stipple is still lean, with just six employees including business development exec Paul Melcher, a veteran of the image licensing industry. But expect to see Stipple’s ecosystem of services keep growing—Flemings says a big announcement is coming late next month. Already, 20 to 25 percent of all new editorial images are captured by Stipple’s system, “and that number is growing every time we add new agencies,” Flemings says. “It’s our goal to close out the year with a very high penetration of the images that matter [in the product merchandising area]. And you will see our product diversify quite rapidly to other populations of images.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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