April 23, 2014

Fast-growing visual social networks like the digital scrapbook Pinterest, photo-sharing service Instagram, or microblogging site Tumblr — where, if you’ll pardon the pun, image is everything — certainly can’t boast the sheer visitor reach of Facebook with its more than 1.3 billion active monthly users.

But retailers and big consumer brands are flocking to them for one big reason: refreshingly high engagement rates, especially among millennials and their younger siblings in so-called Generation Z.

Beverage maker Red Bull, for example, has garnered 10 times as many likes for its Instagram activity than for its Facebook (FB) presence. Yet it has just 1 million followers there, compared with 40 million on the more mature social network, said Nate Elliott, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research.

“Mostly, big brands are interested in these visual networks because Facebook isn’t working well, they are looking elsewhere to find the sort of engagement that Facebook hasn’t delivered,” he said. Aside from Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr (YHOO), niche social networks and commerce sites where shoppers are curating wish lists include The Fancy, Houzz, Polyvore, Wanelo, We Heart It, and (aptly) Wish.

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The challenge is that it’s still difficult to keep tabs on the performance of videos, photos, and other visual content across more than one of these platforms. The challenge has set the stage for an emerging group of analytics and marketing technology startups peddling dashboards designed for this task. The best known of the bunch is Piqora, which so far has raised $11 million — including a new $7.7 million round of Series A funding announced this morning. The round was led by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and included Freestyle Capital, Baseline Ventures, Lazerow Ventures, Firebolt Ventures, and Altos Ventures.

The 23-person company will put its new capital toward expanding its content marketing capabilities to other social networks, adding deeper visual analytics and doubling its U.S. workforce over the next year.

“The power of the visual web is an enormous opportunity for the next iteration of consumer discovery and engagement,” said Mohanjit Jolly, DFJ Partner, in a statement about the deal. “The Piqora team is executing extremely well on this huge vision.”

Piqora’s technology currently supports Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram. It works with more than 300 brands and retailers, including Crate & Barrel, Zappos (AMZN), Sephora, Orbitz (OWW), and Steve Madden (SHOO). “We are helping them manage their communities, identify influencers and advocates, score their images, and determine what is working on their feeds,” said Sharad Verma, co-founder and CEO of the San Mateo, Calif.-based company. “This helps them become better publishers of images.”

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Piqora’s service uses image indexing technology — its chief architect worked for both Google and Yahoo — to track content and the influencers sharing it, so marketers can see how certain photos or videos travel, even if their brand isn’t specifically mentioned or tagged. “Human beings are better at processing images,” Verma said. “Discovery is shifting to the visual channels.”

Pricing for its service depends on how many products, images, and networks are monitored, ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 per brand per year, he said.

Each visual network has a different role to play. While Pinterest is used by 21% of the U.S. online population, according to Pew Research Center, it skews heavily toward women. A survey conducted by Piqora in October 2013 found that, on average, each “pin” drives two visits to the referring site and six page views. Orders driven through Pinterest visibility peak on Mondays, not really surprising given that weekends are the busiest time for the site.

“While Instagram might be about sharing life’s moments, on Pinterest people are plucking products from [retailers’] web pages and putting them on their boards, so they can buy them in the future,” Verma said.

Piqora isn’t the only game in town. Philadelphia-based Curalate this week added support for Facebook along with the other three networks managed by Piqora. It counts Under Armour (UA), Campbell’s (CPB), Gap (GPS), and Neiman Marcus among its 400 customers. Curalate announced $3 million in Series A financing from First Round Capital and MentorTech Ventures in January 2013.

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