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Picture Perfect: The Sales Science of Instagram

A new study delves into what drives engagement, purchases.

NEW YORK — There’s a difference between photos that elicit engagement online and those that drive sales, according to a new study of Instagram photos by technology firm Olapic and marketing professors at the University of Wisconsin.

This story first appeared in the January 24, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“If you look at traditional advertising, the pictures that draw your attention are not necessarily the information one would look at once deciding to purchase,” said Pau Sabria, Olapic cofounder. “If it was all about the engagement, in the end we would suggest just posting pictures of puppies. But that doesn’t sell.”

Sabria — who is looking to shed light on “this big black box of visual communication” — wants to help brands use a more analytical or scientific approach to take advantage of user-generated content across social media.

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For instance, the color green in images fosters engagement, while yellow or blue tends to drive purchases. (When the user is the variable, it’s high-volume sharers who drive the most engagement but low-volume sharers with a lot of followers who influence the most transactions.)

Accordingly, Instagram’s 20 filters, which let users tweak colors or add in a vintage feel, impact how photos are received.

“The pictures that are filtered don’t really seem to help [in terms of engagement or sales],” said Purush Papatla, associate professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin. “Filters aren’t really helpful.”

Lo-Fi — a filter that intensifies bright color and mutes dark color — does increase engagement, but it’s the nonfiltered pictures that are best for optimizing e-commerce. The research showed that the Hefe and X-Pro II filters both have negative effects as far as boosting e-commerce goes.

Two-and-a-half-year-old Olapic allows a brand to take user-generated pictures or videos shared on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or direct upload, group those images and then publish them on its Web site, directly linking to a point of purchase, or product page. Clients include American Eagle, Gilt, Coach, Lancôme, Bumble and bumble, New Balance, Steve Madden, BaubleBar, Dannijo, JetBlue, Alex and Ani, Bebe, Vineyard Vines and West Elm. In July, the company received $5 million in Series A funding led by Fung Capital USA, the private equity arm of the families of Victor and William Fung.