Allison Shragal, 28, of Chicago, isn’t a model, or Internet famous — she’s an administrative assistant for a general contracting company. But almost every day companies pay her to snap photos of herself engaging in routine activities — brushing her teeth, eating breakfast, cleaning the bathroom.
If Ms. Shragal takes enough selfies with her smartphone and uploads them to a special app, she has “an extra $20 to go get my nails done,” she said.
Her seemingly mundane images, when combined with thousands of others, contain insights that companies like Crest are eager to mine. They are using a Chicago-based company called Pay Your Selfie to gather those insights and present them in reports on consumer behavior that are meant to go where focus groups and surveys cannot.
Among the tidbits that Crest, owned by Procter & Gamble, learned from its recent month long quest for selfies: There’s a huge spike in brushing from 4 to 6 p.m., probably tied to a desire for happy-hour fresh breath. That knowledge could be useful when Crest decides which times of the day to start future social media campaigns.
Users of the app receive anywhere from 20 cents to $1 for each “task” completed — in Crest’s case, a snapshot taken “while brushing your teeth with your favorite Crest product.” Users can’t double-dip; the app allows only one selfie per task.
The selfies are a good way for companies to obtain information that people can’t or don’t articulate in focus groups or other traditional research methods, said Ravi Dhar, director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management. For example, they could lead to an understanding of which rituals go along with certain types of consumption, he said.
Pay Your Selfie, which has been in business since last September, doesn’t require participants to have followers on a site like Instagram. In fact, users don’t have to share their images publicly at all (although they can). That makes it different from a company like Popular Pays, which offers Instagrammers the chance to post about brands like Nike in exchange for giveaways or cash.
The option of privacy suggests a greater possibility for authenticity, said Aparna Labroo, a professor of marketing at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management. “If the task comes up when a person is naturally engaging in a relevant activity and it’s minimally intrusive to take a selfie, they might actually capture some authentic moments.”
About 11 percent of the men in the Crest photos were shirtless, a level of comfort the brand rarely sees when it uses other tools in its research arsenal, said Kris Parlett, a senior communications manager for P.&G. Oral Care. Other research methods include recruiting volunteers to record videos of their oral care routine in their bathrooms or to brush their teeth in “insight suites,” mocked-up home bathrooms with mirrors that allow analysts to observe them.
“It’s not data you could get through Nielsen,” said Michelle Smyth, a founder of Pay Your Selfie, referring to the bare-chested photos. “It’s one-of-a-kind research.”
Companies set a target number of selfies to be collected, in the thousands or tens of thousands, and give Pay Your Selfie at least $2 per usable image, a portion of which goes to the selfie taker. A computer scans the photos to make sure that there’s a face and that the shot isn’t too dark.
App users, who must provide some basic biographical data like age and city, receive payment only for “validated” photos, and can cash out at $20. Eight Pay Your Selfie employees pore over the photos to produce reports on their findings.
The results are eye-opening, said Alex Blair, who owns four franchises of Freshii, a Toronto-based chain of healthy fast-food outlets. It has sponsored two tasks on Pay Your Selfie.
In one, the company asked participants to provide selfies with “healthy on-the-go” snacks. For some people that meant Snickers candy bars.
“We focus on organics and cool new macronutrients, and our consumers are into quinoa and kale and bean sprouts,” Mr. Blair said. “But some of these photos were so far from that wavelength, it’s really helping us kind of realign with the mass market.”
Mr. Blair said the selfies could be used to help determine whether stores should focus more on smoothies or prepackaged snacks. (The selfies leaned toward the latter.) The images also might identify neighborhoods to place new stores in, based on whether people are in their offices (suggesting a financial district opening might be a good bet) or on the couch at home in their exercise clothes.
One problem with traditional consumer research is the gap between what people say they do (or would like to think they do) and what they actually do. Selfies would seem to have the same problem, as anyone who’s ever posed for one and decided it was too embarrassing or revealing to share knows.
But Ms. Shragal, for one, says she’s become so accustomed to the app that she doesn’t scrutinize the photos.
“In the beginning I focused on trying to do a cool picture,” said Ms. Shragal, who used to make aesthetic adjustments like wiping the toothpaste off her mouth before taking the Crest image. “But after doing it for so many months, I kind of just focus on doing the task correctly and getting it done.”
Often tasks don’t require owning or buying a company’s product. But Lakeshore Beverage, a Chicago distributor, asked users to snap a selfie with a Goose Island 312 ale, and learned which stores people visited to buy the beer.
“It was interesting to us because the user base on the app is a little more general than the beer-specific buyer that we target through our marketing,” said Matt Tanaka, who was until recently Lakeshore’s head of digital marketing. “It helps us when we’re talking to retailers where people took a lot of selfies to say these places are top of mind.” (In the case of 312, the places were Target and Walgreens.) Pay Your Selfie would not reveal how many clients it has worked with.
The company also conducts its own research — partly as a way to attract new business. “What are you eating for breakfast?” was a recent task it asked its users to complete. For millennials, top choices were Pop-Tarts and Froot Loops, the photos showed. (Pay Your Selfie’s founders said they later had a meeting with a “major cereal brand.”)
Even tasks not sponsored by individual companies “are a fast and powerful way to share what seems uninteresting information to consumers but critical information to marketers,” said Jean McLaren, president of Marc USA, an advertising agency whose clients include Rite Aid. She said she was considering working with Pay Your Selfie.
Ms. McLaren said she liked the idea of recreating a person’s pantry by stringing together multiple seemingly random selfies from the same users — a cheaper, faster way to get information that once could be obtained only through lengthy in-home interviews.
“It’s like automated voyeurism,” she said.