Users of Instagram, the image-sharing platform, have tagged 14 million photos with the #vacation hashtag -- a number that's grown by 4 million since the start of the year, according to digital service Websta.
Most images on Instagram and other social media platforms do a better job of capturing the essence of travel brands than what's often used by travel brand managers to illustrate their websites.
An image of happy kids jumping on a hotel bed says so much more than stock photos of a hotel alarm clock.
Yet major travel brands face a practical problem in cost-effectively soliciting, sorting through, and publishing such images on their websites.
Enter, Olapic, which is perhaps the largest visual marketing company worldwide.
In the past five months, Olapic has begun pitching its products to travel brands, having already built up a list of about 150 retail clients, such as superstore chain Wal-Mart, footwear brand New Balance, and handbag maker Coach.
Olapic's first travel clients include JetBlue Airways -- on its So Fly page; Hard Rock -- on its Social page; and Texas Tourism -- on its homepage, in the #TexasToDo photo gallery.
These brands use the startup's technology to solicit, filter, and re-purpose for marketing efforts any voluntarily shared user-generated image of their travel services.
How it works
Brands solicit users to upload relevant images to their sites, such as by creating photo contests for followers, with images captioned with a hashtag created for the contest. (Olapic offers advice on coming up with a popular hashtag.)
Images can be uploaded by consumers from any major social media platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, or Vine, though it says Instagram images often provoke the most engagement.
Olapic then collects the photos and videos for moderation by the travel brand's managers, who can make sure they don't get punked or pranked.
Since last month, its algorithms predict which images will prove most popular with users.
The startup's software pairs images with relevant transactional information -- so, if an image is of a particular hotel property in Bali, Olapic will pair the image with a link for booking a stay there.
It provides brands with analytics on how many inquiries and transactions result from user engagement with the visual galleries, which can be filtered by various attributes, such as location (like a particular resort), interest, or room type.
CEO Pau Sabria says that brands automatically have rights to re-use the images at will because they're inviting users to contribute, which is a voluntary opt-in. That spares brands from the trouble of having to request rights permissions.
Best practices in visual marketing
Sabria cites retailer West Elm as an example of best practices in visual marketing.
The US retailer is using photos from customers of how the customers are using their products and posting the images on the individual product retail pages, such as images of a coffee table as it appears in real people's homes.
"While structure of an ecommerce site is quite different from that of the hotel, there are some parallelisms about how hard it is for the brand to shoot that on its own without looking like a dull stock image.
Hotels also need to visually communicating how their customers use their properties, instead of generic images of hotel room coffee pots and alarm clocks."
Not alone in offering these services
While other companies, such as Social Annex and Candid, offer similar services, Olapic is the first to land major travel clients.
Olapic says that its clients see a 4% conversion rate when customer photos are present. New Balance, for example, saw an impressive 39% increase in sales over the course of a recent campaign it ran with Olapic.
Every day, tens of millions of the more of the 1.8 billion photos shared every day on average across all digital platforms are of travel experiences, but without any identifable hashtags, according to Mary Meeker's 2014 Internet Trends report.
Olapic, which was founded in November 2010 and has raised $6 million in funding, is hoping to make money by helping travel brands make the most of their share of that visual flood.