"We were never born to read,"[1] said literacy academic Maryanne Wolf. So it's a good job that the web has become such a visual space. With 80 million photos uploaded to Instagram every day, and 350 million to Facebook, Pinterest is in a good place where the visual consumer appetite is concerned. It's not surprising therefore that in September 2015, it hit 100 million users.

Yet while Instagram has conventionally been most closely associated with the visual web (at 92.4% of respondents, it's about 10 percentage points ahead of Pinterest, the latter could now be closing the gap with the introduction of its new visual search tool.

This tool enables users to zoom in on a specific object in a Pin's image in order to find aesthetically similar objects, patterns, or colours - using deep learning to identify visual features, and unearth related images from Pinterest's indexed database of Pins. At present, Pinterest has indexed approximately 1 billion of its 50 billion images on the new search engine[6], and eventually hopes to index all of them.

The scale of Pinterest's ambition is larger than we might expect; it acquired VisualGraph as early as 2010, a start-up headed by Kevin Jing, who previously worked on image search at Google. But Pinterest's visual search differs from Google in that it's more of a 'discovery engine' than a 'search engine', encouraging serendipity, and leveraging the fact that its content has already been curated by its users to suit their own tastes. If Google is the world's library, then Pinterest is your bookshelf at home.

And while Pinterest has a smaller audience than Facebook or Twitter (47 million users against Facebook's 1.4 billion, and Twitter's 302 million), the platform is far more product-focused, suited to showcasing visual content and shortening the journey from 'see' to 'buy'.

The commercial remit of the tool is in line with Pinterest's overall objective to monetise entirely with ads, but what makes Pinterest unique is its positioning at the tipping point between consideration and point of purchase. In fact, e-commerce company Shopify reports in-platform order value on Pinterest as higher than any other major social platform, with 93% of Pinterest users accessing the platform to plan purchases.And not only is the user in 'consideration mode', but they are also in 'active inspiration-seeking mode'. According to Pinterest's General Manager of Monetisation Tim Kendall: "We're the first digital medium where people are consuming content and promoted content of equal value." This makes it ideal for connecting relevant visual content to an already engaged user-consumer hybrid.

That said, the tool is still not perfect; the accuracy of pinpointing the item you're trying to click on isn't spot on, and with Buyable Pins still only available on iOS in the US, there's some way to go before we might expect consumers to intuitively redesign their homes or wardrobes from a few clicks on Pinterest. But the depth of consumer interest at the point of clicking on a visual search item makes it worthy of consideration as a shortcut for collapsing content consumption and purchase into a very short journey.

Pinterest's move is part of a broader movement of online platforms developing visual web tools for affinity and recognition. As of 30th November, you can now star and bookmark images directly from Google's image search on mobile, and in the same month Facebook Messenger began to test a new tool called 'Photo Magic' in Australia, which uses facial recognition to remind you to send photos to friends after you've taken them.

With better content curation capabilities on the visual web, the consumer journey – and therefore content marketing – has an increasingly non-linear trajectory as traditional phases of the journey such as 'consideration' and 'preference' blend.. And while visual search is great for connecting consumers to content, and drawing affinities between visual content, it has no inherent allegiance and could leave brands open to unwanted affinities.

On the one hand, brands will need to deal with lots more fragmented channels of communication, but on the other they can potentially enter into and influence conversations legitimately at many more touchpoints than before. Where brand safety and hygiene is concerned, brands will need to be increasingly vigilant when it comes to visual affinities, and to monitor them to make sure that the connections drawn are the right ones for them.

By Chrystal Ding, Strategic Innovation Director at Carat

[1] Wolf, Maryanne, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, 2007

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