September 23, 2014

Social Media Science: How to Use Facial Recognition to Your Advantage

Is it important to show a person’s face? As social media increasingly becomes more visual, I’m constantly challenged with this question. For clothing and hair products, it seems natural. But if a brand sells a product or service that can be seen without the presence of a person, especially his or her face, why bother?

In a recent behavioral study, Japanese macaques were raised without exposure to faces. (Their human caregivers wore masks.) During their first experience with faces, the monkeys showed a preference to look at photographs of faces over photographs of other stimulating images (e.g. cars, food).

This primal instinct is what I consider when I concept an image. The viewers will follow their instinct to see if the face photographed is familiar. Whether or not it is, that face now has their attention.

How does facial recognition work?
I can pick a friend out of a crowd, despite the fact that my friend has hundreds of potential variations of facial expressions and appearance details. This is because the human brain processes a highly complex form of pattern recognition. As humans, we can identify others and also pick up information based on body language and expressions. This is most clearly identifiable in people’s faces.

However, memory is not like pulling an exact copy of a file. Recognition is reconstructive, not reproductive. People can’t fully remember the exact replica of a face. Instead, they piece together certain aspects of the face.

How can social media strategists use this to their advantage?
When choosing a photo, here are some key facts to consider:

1. Faces are easier to identify when upright instead of upside down.

2. If you know a person, you’ll focus on recognizing inner face regions over external regions, such as hair or ears. When observing people you don’t know, the process is the opposite.

3. Women spend more time studying facial features, making them better at remembering faces than men. (Ladies, perhaps this is why the men in your life never notice your new haircut.)
4. It is harder to recognize half of a face if it is aligned with the other half of another face.

5. Upper facial features (e.g. hair, eyes) are easier to recall than lower facial features (e.g. mouth, chin).

What kind of face should you choose?
I have a friend who works in casting commercials, and his approach is something to note. While models, our society’s definition of ultimate beauty, are good for exclusive or luxury products, they aren’t ideal for everyday products. Instead, an everyday brand should cast someone who looks like your next door neighbor–the neighbor you ask, “Hey where’d you get that? I want it too.”

In the realm of social, this is where things get tricky. Instagram is very much a visual network, so stunningly beautiful people capture attention and inherently gain more followers.

Recently someone approached me and asked why a person they knew had so many Instagram followers without ever posting a single photo? My response, “Were they hot? Because they were probably tagged in others’ photos, and people went to their page to follow them.”

Facebook, on the other hand, I consider to be more of a network for normal looking faces. The people we know in our everyday lives probably do not look like models. To blend in with the conversation, your promoted posts and ads could benefit from that everyday look.

However, if your brand is more exclusive, attractive faces are the way to go here as well.

Regardless of network, I often see the strong value in a brand mascot. See how Little Bites, a Likeable client, uses a dog to enhance the recognition of its branded images?

A face, even animated, has a unique mixture of visual traits that make a bigger impression than your brand’s name or logo.

How can it help conversions?
Once the face has grabbed the user’s attention, how can you turn it into a conversion? Simple: Use the eyes.

First the user will look to the person in the image, and then he or she will follow where the face is directing its attention. In the case above, the user is drawn to then look at the featured product, a mobile phone. But copy and CTAs can also be used with this technique.

So always use the face?
No. As someone who believes in A/B testing, I don’t believe a theory should ever be absolute. That being said, this is an approach I strongly encourage brands to try out. And if you see increased engagement, continue down that path of creating a face people can put with your brand name.


Tags: Best Practices, Social Media

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