How Imgur is taking on Facebook and Twitter as 'geek culture' goes mainstream
More than 900 billion images were viewed on Imgur in 2015 alone and now the site is talking up its scale and its unique proposition to advertisers as it looks to convert those views into serious revenue.
Steve Patrizi, Imgur's vice president of marketing and revenue, told Business Insider how 2016 is setting up to be a big year for the company as advertisers begin to realize the platform's ability to help them overcome the rise of ad blocking and its ability to tap into the increasing popularity of "geek culture."
"If you look at the comments, there are people who are literally begging for more [ads]"Imgur only began testing ads in 2015, but they've somewhat surprisingly gone down a storm with its user base, 70 to 80% of which are males between the age of 18-to-34-years-old - the exact demographic that is usually cynical of advertising and are the biggest users of ad blockers.
The cost for a Promoted Post (so far, Imgur's only ad format) varies, depending on the advertiser's overall commitment, but Promoted Posts tend to reach a CPM (cost per mille/thousand views) of between $30 and $40.
That might seem high, considering the average CPM on photo-sharing app Instagram, for example, is reportedly between about $3 and $6, but it's the hard-to-reach audience that raises their pricetag. Plus, on Imgur, the advertiser owns almost the entire page (apart from the comments, a small square display ad, and an image gallery that allows users to navigate to other photos) meaning the ads are not competing for attention with too many other things on the screen. Plus, Imgur images and animated GIFs are easily shared, which can help them go viral on other sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.
Imgur has tested around 60 promoted posts over the past six months for brands including Old Spice, PlayStation, MTV, and eBay.
With Old Spice, Imgur's team helped the brand tailor its existing content to the Imgur audience. The brand asked users to vote - using Imgur's upvote mechanism - for their favorite GIFs as part of its "GIF Off" campaign.
Patrizi said: "If you look at the comments, there are people who are literally begging for more. They are pleading at Old Spice not to stop their ad campaigns - these are the people who go out of their way to block ads and here they are saying: 'Please, give us more ads!'"
Imgur's big sell to advertisers: "Geek culture at massive scale"
Imgur's go-to-market strategy is that it's not like other platforms. The sell to advertisers is "geek culture at massive scale."
Patrizi describes the audience: "These aren't necessarily people who are really excited and into sports, or golf, or boating. These are people who are into video games, science, technology, movies, and internet culture in general. As you know, that's becoming mainstream. What used to be seen as being on the fringe is now becoming incredibly popular. So whether it's that video games now make more money than movies, or if you look at all the recent blockbusters and how they're all populated with movies about science fiction, fantasy, dinosaurs, superheroes - and now we have Dr Who merchandise on sale at Target, which years ago would have been unheard of."
The same too could likely be said of Reddit - which is an investor in Imgur and is also a platform where many Imgur photos go viral - which notches up far more visits: 234 million uniques in December. And while sites like Facebook have all-encompassing userbases, its many layers of targeting options mean advertisers could simply opt to target millennial males with an interest in comic books, for example, into their ad buys.
But Patrizi said there are three things that separate Imgur from the rest:"Authenticity" - Unlike other platforms where you have to give your real name and real identity, people can be anonymous on Imgur, which allows them to be themselves. "With this group of specific and nuanced people, they feel like the internet was really supposed to allow them to be themselves but so many services today require you to authenticate and share your real name and they feel like: 'Wow, that really does suppress my ability to be who I am. Now I feel like I'm in a world where I have to almost kind of curate a certain persona."
"A shared experience" - Unlike other social networks and platforms, the feed on Imgur isn't personalized to each individual user. People see content at the same time as other users.
"Democratic programming" - There's not a follower model on Imgur. So whether you post a photo, or Oprah Winfrey does, you have an equal chance of it being seen by millions of people.
There's still some way to go
While Imgur has a big community of 150 million active users and $40 million in funding from VC firm Andreessen Horowitz and Reddit, the company itself is still small-scale and has a long way to go before it can reasonably compete with the likes of Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for ad dollars. Patrizi won't comment on Imgur's revenue figures.
Imgur's staff grew from under 20 people in 2014 to more than 60 in 2015 - although the sales team is staffed by just two people. Patrizi says that will change this year, as he looks to recruit more sales people, strategists, and data analysts.
Unlike other platforms, Imgur doesn't offer the kind of granular targeting and measurement which is increasingly demanded by advertisers. However, it is exploring using its upvote/downvote method to determine what types of advertising and content users like, with the potential to open that up as a targeting option further down the line.
Patrizi said: "Right now we are not going out to the market suggesting we have great targeting capabilities. There are some other options out there on the internet if that is what you are after, but what we are offering is an audience that in many ways is already a targeted audience, but is at scale ... if you're looking for a very specific, finite targeting, right now that's not something we're going to be able to help out with."But while Imgur might be behind in some areas, Patrizi thinks it is leading other digital platforms in another respect: "We believe the presence of advertising on Imgur can make Imgur better."
He added: "We want the user to feel like they are missing out [if they turn on their ad blocker.] You see buttons [elsewhere on the web] almost apologizing that there is an ad - 'you can skip in 15 seconds.' It's like we are saying: 'We know you hate it, so we are apologizing up front.' We want to be part of an environment where ads add value for the user. They're not deceptive, and they add value ... and we hope that bleeds out to the entire industry."