We've all heard the term before, generally in a positive light - viral marketing. Wikipedia defines viral marketing as "marketing techniques that use pre-existing social networks to produce increases in brand awareness or to achieve other marketing objectives (such as product sales) through self-replicating viral processes..."
Most individuals, companies or websites would generally want their online content to "go viral," meaning, spread across the internet and seen by many. That is indeed, the general idea behind using social networking for marketing to begin with - if the content is well-done, you hope it will be read and then shared across networks in a very quick and profound way, leading to brand awareness or sales. For example - my "brand" is known for panoramic photos such as the one below.
Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus are all very good at spreading content very quickly if the content is well-done and published on those networks in a strategic way. For example, Facebook users will often share a photo, link, or story that they really like so that others in their network will see it and comment on it. A perfect example of how this happens every day in a very successful fashion is George Takei. George Takei has over 2 million people that "like" his page and when he posts items there, it will get over 20,000 likes and thousands of shares in a matter of minutes. Usually, he will post funny pictures he has curated from other sites such as reddit, making his "brand" very recognizable and consistent. His content is almost always funny, and as a gay man and activist, it often has a political bend. He is very successful at this game of viral marketing.
In regards to viral marketing and photography, many photographers are looking to use social networks to build their customer base, and these methods can be quite powerful. Indeed, there are several examples of photographers that have been very successful by being very strategic with their social networking presence and getting a lot of exposure through the use of social networks. A few examples that come to mind are Trey Ratcliff, Colby Brown, Zach Arias, David Kingham and Randy Halverson. I think as artists, we all want to ensure that our work is widely distributed and seen by the world and attributed to us. The unfortunate downside to this wide-spread exposure is that work is often used without permission, shared without attribution to the artist or confused as the work of the person that shared it. This is especially the case on Facebook, where items can be shared from any page without the people viewing the shared content knowing where it originated unless it came from the original source. Often times, people will re-share something as a new post or an upload from their computer, and people will think that the work belongs to them.
Users of Google Plus do have an advantage here. Google Plus has implemented an amazing tool called ripples. Ripples shows you who shared the content and how prolifically it was shared from there. There's never any question or wonder about who shared it or where it went. For an example of how powerful this is, take a look at the ripple chart for David Kingham's photo of the Milky Way that received 487 shares over there.
There are countless examples of this unfortunate occurrence happening on the web. The most well-known case that I recall is a case where a photographer put his image on Flickr, where it was ripped-off without permission by the City of Austin, Texas and printed for display inside the airport, with the only attribution made in small print to the artist's Flickr user-name.
To get around this unfortunate side-effect of social networking, some artists will watermark their images, often quite distastefully, to prevent the work from being re-used without people knowing where it came from. While the use of a watermark can be effective, it also "cheapens" the image and often renders the work to look somewhat unprofessional. I generally do not watermark my images, for the most part; however, I have begun to change that habit as of late, and I will explain why.
On Saturday June 23, 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire broke-out in near Colorado Springs, where I live. At first, the fire was fairly well contained to the west of town, but soon, evacuations happened across the western side of the city and panic began to set-in around town. By Monday, the fire had caused several evacuations and city parks were closed, ordered unsafe due to the high fire danger. Twitter was the place to be for updated news about the fire. Locals used the hashtag #WaldoCanyonFire to tag their posts that were related to the fire so that people could keep tabs on what was happening. Now, I want to preface what comes next with a fact - Twitter is not my area of expertise. I admit it - it has never been my social network of choice; however, for this event, it was lightning fast, engaging, and very exciting to be a part of. So I of course, jumped in.
On day one, I knew this event was going to be huge, I took several photos each day when I could. I shared those photos on Flickr, Facebook and Twitter (where I also used the #WaldoCanyonFire hashtag).
Naturally, because the engagement around the fire that was happening on Twitter was so prolific, my tweet was retweeted over 40 times and it got several thousand views on Flickr. Great! This is what you want to happen.
Seeing the success of this first attempt at using Twitter to showcase my photos, and knowing that one of the potential areas impacted by the fire was the Garden of the Gods Park, I thought I could put up the last photo I had taken inside the park, before the fire, and share that I hoped it was not the last photo I took there. In fact, the photo I shared next on twitter was taken during the Venus Transit (you can make out Venus on the sun in between the Kissing Camels). I never said the photo was from the fire, and if you looked carefully, it was pretty obvious that it was from the Venus Transit. Apparently many people mistook the orange hue of the clouds to be smoke. Here is my tweet:
The tweet was only retweeted a couple of times and I went to sleep, not knowing what would happen next. The version of the photo I tweeted was a link to my Flickr page for the photo. That version of the photo was not watermarked.
As the fire raged on, more and more people grew concerned about our city and its famous landmarks, including the Garden of the Gods. This is when my photo went viral for all the wrong reasons.
It would seem that my foolish use of the #WaldoCanyonFire hashtag caused people some confusion, despite my post being fairly clear and the description on Flickr being very clear that the photo was taken much earlier in the month, before the fire even began.
I began getting emails and messages on Facebook from friends that they were seeing my photo all over the place. It got out of hand really quickly, and I was rendered powerless. For one thing, I never shared the photo on Facebook, so the originator was not even me (at least on Facebook). So it was always being linked back to other people. No watermark existed, so people did not have any idea who took the photo. People started using it as their profile photo. It was crazy.
I was able to track down one of the main culprits - a local chiropractor. Before I knew it, the photo was shared over 1,000 times just from that person alone.
The following days consisted of a lot more drama for the fire - many more evacuations, burned homes and all-around insanity. The city was shocked. A huge swath of town was on fire. 30,000+ people were evacuated. 346 homes burned to the ground and hundreds more were damaged.
Then, media outlets starting sharing my photo on Facebook, attributing it to various people on the web. How frustrating. Worse yet, even the media was saying the photo was from the fire, when in fact it was not. Not only did this spread false information about the fire's location, it showed just how irresponsible the media can be during a disaster. Knowing they are thirsting to get images out quickly, I understood that many media outlets did not screen content carefully at times. Regardless, this was frustrating. When I contacted the media outlets to credit the image to me, they instead just took it down, without any comment back to me. Even more frustrating. Not only was my image being seen by thousands of people with many praises for the photo's quality, no one knew that it was me that took it. This was the worst possible scenario.
An image search on google revealed that my photo was being used on over 15 websites, none of which were saying it was my photo.
In summary, social media can be a very powerful tool to get exposure for your photographic work; however, if mis-used, it can lead to some rather disasterous results. It is important to think about how you use each social media platform to share your work and it may be wise to watermark your work if you are ever concerned about it getting shared or used without your permission.
Lastly, if you want to truly protect yourself, you may want to consider formerly copyrighting your images with the U.S. Copyright office. This process is not as difficult as you think for photographers. While photographic work is copyrighted the moment the shutter is released, it is very difficult to pursue legal action if your photo is printed or sold without your permission unless the photograph is officially copyrighted. For a great read on how that works, you should head on over to this excellent article which speaks to the finer details on this topic.