Newspaper article International New York Times

On Social Media, Retailers Redefine User Engagement

Newspaper article International New York Times

On Social Media, Retailers Redefine User Engagement

Article excerpt

The intersection between brands' trying to capitalize on social media activity and people's expectations of some privacy has grown increasingly murky.

Shereen Way did not think twice about posting a photo on Instagram of her 4-year-old daughter wearing a green dress and pink Crocs sandals.

Crocs, which Ms. Way had identified with a hashtag, pulled the snapshot from Instagram and featured it in a gallery of user- generated photographs on its website. The company had not asked Ms. Way for permission, and she was not aware that Crocs had used the photo until a reporter contacted her on Instagram.

"No one reached out to me," Ms. Way, 37, of Pearl River, N.Y., said in a phone interview. "I feel a little weirded out."

Much later, Crocs sought her permission.

Instagram and other social sites like Pinterest and Twitter have long been sources of selfies and candid shots that retailers and other companies mine for "consumer engagement," a broad industry term that can mean anything from Facebook likes to hashtags for brands.

But as the practice of promoting user-generated content has intensified, the intersection between brands' trying to capitalize on social media activity and people's expectations of some privacy (even as they post personal photos on public platforms like Instagram) has grown far more murky.

No one, it seems, wants to actively police traditional rights issues like those presented in Ms. Way's situation. Using photos like her daughter's generally requires getting the consent of the person who posted the original content before it can be reused elsewhere.

"This is a new area, and we want to make sure our customers are dotting the 'I's' and crossing the 'T's,"' said Sharad Verma, the chief executive and co-founder of Piqora, which helps brands curate user-generated content from sites like Instagram. "It's important for brands to be very upfront and transparent about how the photos are being used."

For its part, Instagram, which has about 300 million users, says it is responsible only for how brands use consumers' photos posted on its site.

The United States Federal Trade Commission, which polices unfair or deceptive practices, could step in if Instagram violated its own privacy policy or promises made to consumers in its terms of service. But consumers have little recourse on their own, other than pursuing costly legal action.

The lack of oversight comes at a time when brands and social media sites are strengthening their relationships in efforts to generate ad revenue and lock in loyal consumers. Instagram, in particular, has been working to open its photo feed to all advertisers, big and small, across the globe.

Privacy groups and consumer advocates continue to voice concerns about how companies use data culled from social media to endorse or sell products. In 2012, Facebook, which owns Instagram, reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit over its "sponsored stories," or its practice of turning a users' likes into ads tailored to their friends. The court approved the settlement in 2013, but it is currently being appealed.

Still, in the age of the selfie, many users enjoy getting a broader audience for the photos, opinions and tastes they share online.

"I'm always really excited," said Liza Day Penney, a 23-year-old from Dayton, Tenn., whose photo appears on American Eagle Outfitter's website. She estimated that the company had used more than half-a-dozen of her photos, and even once sent her a $25 gift card.

"That was one of the things, too, that really encouraged me to continue to post and continue to tag and hashtag them as I wear the clothes," she said.

In many cases, getting consent from a user can be as casual as a comment underneath the photo itself.

"We love your pic!" the Crocs Instagram account writes on many of the user-generated snapshots featured on its website, followed by a request to feature the photo elsewhere. …

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