Stipple Builds Out System to Help Publishers Profit from Tagged Web Images

Between 30 and 40 percent of all files on the Web are images, and even pages dominated by text usually have a few photos. Yet most of these photos aren’t linked to anything interesting, the way text can be. San Francisco startup Stipple sees this as a waste—and an opportunity. Last fall the company rolled out a system that allowed publishers to add a new layer of information to online photos: “dots” that reveal details about people, places, or things when you touch or mouse over them. The details can include links, and if those links lead to e-retailing sites, the traffic they generate can turn into affiliate commissions—-creating one more much-needed revenue stream for publishers.

But as it turned out, there were three problems with Stipple’s original system, CEO and co-founder Rey Flemings told me recently. First, the publishers who adopted it weren’t always willing to put in the time to tag new images with useful information. Second, the tags they did create weren’t always accurate or consistent; the same black chair might be identified as one model in one picture, and as another model in the same picture on a different site. Third, publishers didn’t always have the proper licenses to use the images they were tagging—and while publishers might be able to get away with posting unlicensed images, the copyright holders are likely to come calling once they start make money from those images.

So Stipple, which has venture funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Floodgate Fund, Parkview Ventures, Quest Venture Partners, and a number of prominent angel investors including singer/actor Justin Timberlake, went back into the darkroom to develop some new features. Late this spring the company introduced a “2.0” version of its system, divided into four components to solve the problems publishers were encountering and to get a new faction directly involved: namely, the makers of the products shown in Web images. Now Stipple comes in the form of products aimed at different audiences; Flemings calls them Lens, Pipeline, Network, and Want.

“I believe this new suite of products finally creates an image ecosystem,” says Flemings. “We think there is a great business to be built in providing accurate information to users when and where they want to see it.” And so far, Web users seem to be eating up the information on Stipple-enabled sites. When there’s a “people dot” on an image, about 5 percent of all visitors touch it, Flemings says, and when there’s a “product dot,” 12.5 percent of visitors touch it. Those engagement rates far exceed the fraction of people who click on traditional banner or text ads, which is typically below 1 percent.

Flemings walked me through a basic description of the startup’s new products and how they fit together. (You can see the system in action at Stipple’s blog.) It starts with Lens, an ever-growing collection of licensed editorial images from many of the country’s leading photo agencies and ad agencies. “The purpose is to assemble all of the editorial images that matter—the ones with really large audiences of people concerned about who’s in them and what’s in them,” says Flemings. For each incoming image, Stipple creates a permanent digital fingerprint. That way, dots created for a given image—say, a dot describing the dress Katy Perry wore at the Grammy Awards—will stay associated with the picture wherever it ends up on the Web. The idea, over time, is that publishers who subscribe to Stipple’s service will get more and more of their images through Lens, solving the unlicensed-image problem.

The second product is Pipeline, where the dots actually get created. Basically, Stipple’s solution to the workload problem is to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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