Visual social media has been one of the biggest marketing shifts in the past couple of years. Consumers are taking to Instagram, Pinterest and other social-media platforms to talk about and share things they love in pictures.

As brands rush to embrace this shift and use images to make an emotional connection with consumers, one sticking point has been the ability to track what people are saying about your business when they are communicating with images, not words.

One way to better understand your brand's reach over visual social sites is by using tools like Curalate, a Philadelphia-based startup launched last year. Curalate uses pixel-based image recognition software combined with sophisticated statistics to find, match and remember images that are about your brand. It can also help you make decisions about what is selling and what is being talked about and shared on social media.

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"One of the things you find in this environment is that what the consumer cares about is frequently very different to what the brand thinks the consumer cares about" says Curalate chief executive Apu Gupta. "The vast majority of conversations on Pinterest start with the consumer finding the things that they love, saving it on Pinterest and sharing it with other folks".

The ability to track and measure images on the visual web has largely relied on single-platform tools like Nitrogr.am or PinLeague, and has been restricted to text-based analytics -- URLs, keywords and hashtags. This can be problematic when few visual conversations (as low as 10 percent) actually mention the brand.

Curalate provides high-level data across Instagram and Pinterest with the added ability to track images using pixels alone. Piqora also announced image recognition capabilities for Pinterest several months ago, and just recently revealed hashtag tracking for Instagram and Tumblr analytics.

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The Grommet (formerly the Daily Grommet) uses Curalate to track image-based conversations since its website launches and promotes undiscovered products -- called "Grommets." Being able to use image-level analytics allowed The Grommet to condense multiple Pinterest pins into a single graphic. This eliminated the need to track through hundreds of links and helped its team to see what was popular with consumers and how they were categorizing images onto boards.

Such actionable insights are allowing brands to understand what imagery consumers are engaging with organically, and to make marketing decisions across websites, brand pages and social networks. This includes e-commerce, promotions and even in-store displays.

Other Curalate clients include Sony, Gap, and Better Homes & Gardens magazine.

"Images unlock an emotional response in people faster than any other medium", Gupta says. "The Holy Grail for a marketer is not a transactional relationship, but an emotional relationship with the consumer. If you have an emotional relationship with the consumer, you don't have a customer, you have a friend in that person, and that means they are willing to tolerate your faults, stick with you longer and in the end they are willing to pay more for what you do."

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