What do Facebook, Buzzfeed, and Pinterest have in common besides keeping us from getting actual work done?

Each of them is powered by pictures. That’s right: jpegs, pngs, graphics, photographs. Facebook’s April acquisition of Instagram and more recent launch of its camera app announced to the world what it’s known for a while.

That the best way to keep users engaged is to give them lots and lots of images to view, post, and share. This will be among Facebook’s greatest successes.

You don’t have to be a $100 billion dollar company like Facebook to train your business focus on images and execute actionable insights. Smart marketers can take a page from the playbooks of image-based businesses to enhance any brand.

Let’s take a look at four different models in the field right now – ranging from the very hyped to the lesser known – and see what we should all be trying to emulate:

1) Follow the buzz

Buzzfeed has put an ostensibly simple product – ready-to-go-viral photo galleries – at the center of a Web and mobile entity that’s pulling in something like 25 million unique monthly viewers.

Buzzfeed’s model relies on compelling image content, crafted into “sponsored stories” for brands that performs better than display ads. This is music to the ears of tuned-in marketers tired of .01% CTRs. Thanks to its ability to break through the chronic “banner blindness” plaguing brand advertisers, Buzzfeed gets high marks for visibility and engagement.

The bottom line: Sponsored image galleries are the latest iteration of “ads as content” or native advertising. Brands can rise above the ad fray to engage audiences in a new way by providing content that’s smart, entertaining, and shareable.

Bonus point: Buzzfeed president, Jon Steinberg, says his sponsored galleries deliver on mobile, too.

2) Explore the new user generation

Call it the Instagram model: Click on a friend’s photo on your “news feed” right now and you often get served an ad. Facebook’s entire value proposition is based on User Generated Content (UGC). Now the company’s aiming squarely for mobile success, with Instagram plus the Camera app: moves designed to get more photos onto your Facebook wall.

The bottom line: While UGC may not be for everyone, it makes good sense for brands to dip their toes into the photo pool – for the sake of both scale and engagement. Brand safety concerns are starting to dissipate thanks to improving filtering technology, and risks can pay off.

We’re betting that we’ll see others follow the example of Imgur and Lipton, who recently rolled out a pretty edgy campaign tapping some of the site’s billions of UGC images.  

3) Get in the picture

Why sponsor images when you can brand them? In-image advertising is fairly new, but has been embraced by major brands including Chrysler and Nikon, who are attracted to high engagement rates and the ability to drive back-end results.

Vibrant Media is a pioneer in this space, and we have seen that of the half-minute in which viewers are typically spending on a page, a full third of that is spent focusing on one picture. In-image ads are a breakthrough placement: they’re contextually relevant and appear on the page, in the content, where users are focused.

The ads are attractive to brands because people actually want to see them – the in-image ad renders as a small, branded overlay on the bottom of a publisher’s brand-safe editorial image.

The bottom line: In-image advertising is worth exploring for major brand marketers who want to attract consumers with ads that are relevant and perform – in a trusted environment and with a qualified engagement.

4) The next great curator

We couldn’t very well discuss image-powered marketing without mentioning the photo site du jour, Pinterest. It has been hot for a while now and is starting to show some leg with brands. However, as countless others have already said so much about Pinterest, I’ll spare you my two more cents.

The bottom line: Like some of the other models above (viz UGC), the future of photo-pinning – its shelf-life for consumers and its relevance for brands – is not clear. However, the concept of User-Generated Curation is compelling and brands’ barrier to entry is fairly low. The Pinterest model is certainly a surer bet for online retailers who want to monetize affiliate traffic from product images.

As we’ve seen, the world of images is enormous and growing. There’s no end in sight for our collective desire to document and share the captivating and minute moments of our lives. Smart marketers should embrace the opportunity and seek to engage people where their wants and needs converge.

After all, we should always aim to create advertising in the interest of consumers, and consumers are clearly interested in pictures.