John Kerry shows his support for the Typhoon Haiyan relief effort in the Philllipines with an unselfie.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shows his support for the Typhoon Haiyan relief effort with an unselfie.

You’re either for the selfie or against it. By naming “selfie” the International Word of the Year 2013, Oxford Dictionaries stands on the pro side of the debate, along with Instagram junkies and tweens in search of self-expression.

In just a few short years, the selfie – a self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website (thanks Oxford) – has moved from trend to full-blown social phenomenon.

Today, their omnipresence across social networks means marketers can use selfies in a host of clever and creative campaigns. And while selfies might not stay relevant forever, their popularity speaks to the growing influence of photo sharing and messaging.

The selfie through the internet ages

Robert Cornelius is hailed as having taken the first-ever selfie in 1839. Image via Wikipedia.

Photographer Robert Cornelius started the trend in 1839 with this self-portrait. Image via Wikipedia.

While self-portrait photography has been around as long as cameras have, Social Media Today attributes the birth of the selfie to MySpace, which requested that users upload a “MySpace pic” to their profiles in 2006.

As Facebook and the iPhone 4’s front-facing camera emerged, the selfie matured. When Instagram and filtered photos hit smartphones in 2011, the selfie exploded across social networks.

For now, the relevancy of the selfie is age dependent. In the U.K., 75 percent of self-portrait takers are between the ages of 18 and 24. It’s no coincidence that this age bracket is also the most social and among the most likely to own smartphones.

The selfie meets marketing

Sure, the culture of selfies sometimes encourages social narcissism, but for the savvy marketer, it’s also a means of brand promotion. Just ask the marketing team behind Turkish Airlines’ “Kobe vs. Messi: The Selfie Shootout” video, which has garnered more than 74 million views in less than a week.

Beyond harnessing the power of celebrity selfies, marketers should pay attention to the fact that selfies are inherently social expressions – camera-enabled smartphones let users quickly snap photos and share them on social channels. As social media strategist Macala Wright put it in Medium, selfies are a “marketing and expression tactic within the social sphere.”

That’s the case for AMC’s popular television series, The Walking Dead, which introduced a branded camera app called Dead Yourself that lets fans zombify their selfie pic and share the scare online using the hashtag #deadyourself.

The Dead Yourself app includes a “Bite a Friend” feature, which lets users turn a friend’s selfie into a photorealistic zombie. It also includes a gamified element – contestants can upload their self-portraits for the chance to have them shown on TV.

By enabling fans to find a new means of self-expression and express their love for the show, the app went viral. As of April 2013, the app has been downloaded 3 million times, more than 100 million photos have been viewed in the app, and it was ranked first among free entertainment apps in the iTunes store.

AMC's Dead Yourself app is one of the most popular free entertainment apps in iTunes.

AMC’s Dead Yourself app is one of the most popular free entertainment apps in iTunes.

The unselfish selfie

Whether you’re an independent marketing consultant promoting a client or a marketer advocating a charity, a selfie campaign can make a positive difference.

Johnson & Johnson is using selfies for social good with its “Selfless Selfie” campaign. Participants subscribe to its free Donate a Photo app and for every photo uploaded via the app, the brand makes a $1 contribution towards a charity of the user’s choice.

And Johnson & Johnson isn’t the only brand using the selfie for social good. Brands as varied as Toyota and The New York City Public Library have launched cause marketing selfie campaigns.

What makes these campaigns successful is that they combine the urge to selfie with the positive vibes that come from doing a good deed. People enjoy affiliating themselves with social causes online, which makes it easier to encourage people to spread awareness, as demonstrated by BBDO Guerrero’s #unselfie campaign, which seeks provide relief aid to the Philippines.

Yes, selfies are undeniably self-centered, but when done right, a selfie campaign can be a trendy and relevant tactic with far-reaching, social potential.

How do you selfie?