Visual content is not just a tool for increasing appeal of blog posts, although many solopreneurs in content marketing do use visuals to increment the attraction of any textual content they create. Visual content now has an appeal of its own, with increased curating and sharing of images, videos and infographics.
Mobile usage, and low attention spans for textual reading, particularly have engendered a mass-migration from “telling” to “showing”. So what is becoming amply clear is that brands without a “solid visual vocabulary” or an expertise for “visual storytelling” will be left behind. On the other hand, brands that are ready to embrace this new trend, in the Content Creation Process, have a huge opportunity to leverage the power of visual marketing. If they can learn how to use images, photos, video, and other visual media in their online marketing, they have a greater chance of reaching more people with their messages.
Finding the right type of still images and pics, and deploying them to great advantage is an art
Most of the visual content on sites is still pictures (static images). So let’s look at them in greater detail. Visual content marketing is a fine art. Many marketers don’t understand that not only should a lot of visuals be used in content marketing, but it’s important to use the right kinds of visuals. Visuals should not be so “complete” in that there’s nothing to think about after seeing them. Visuals should instigate viewers’ imaginations to come into play and complete the story. That’s the secret of success.
Visuals are extremely powerful ways to convey messages. It’s so true that a picture is worth a thousand words. But there’s a secret to adding the right kinds of visuals to your visual content arsenal to make the most impact on your target audiences.
Okay, so why do you need visuals to work very hard for your content? Firstly, visuals are eye-candy and eye-relief, especially since textual passages are heavy on the eye and the mind. Visuals create breathing spaces in content. Secondly, visuals can arrest attention and hold interest in the content a little longer than plain text can. So images are one of the time-tested ploys to make “bounce rate” less and page views longer during site visits by visitors. Thirdly, its the age of content marketing via story-telling, where visuals tell stories better than words.
When visuals are being chosen to enhance your content – and add variety and beauty and aesthetic superiority to your content – remember one golden rule: visuals that seem “complete” in their stories are seldom the most riveting ones. When someone sees a picture that seems “complete” there is nothing left to the imagination – whereas the human imagination loves anticipating and completing stories.
On the other hand, when there is something slightly “incomplete” about the picture and there is a hint of something more that your own imagination has to fill up (because it’s not shown!) your imagination gets all kindled and excited and starts getting into overdrive. That is the sort of picture you then linger over and want to keep looking at again and again.
5 insights from research about what kinds of images really work well for content marketing
In a small series of focus group surveys that I was involved in for a camera brand’s digital marketing, I was happily surprised to see five different kinds of pictures that absolutely delighted and resonated with all kinds of target audiences, whatever their age or demographics or psychographics. The findings of my small survey were really interesting so I wanted to share them here as my Golden Rules.
Golden Rule One: Use visuals that are “arrested in mid-action with intrigue”, rather than visuals that show full action
See these three images above, all taken from cross-country motorbike rallies. The one on the left is a piece of action that a newspaper may use to highlight the rally story. It’s just another image of an outdoorsy racy-pacy bike in action and there’s nothing about the image that makes your imagination wonder about anything.
Now, see the second picture of the bike and rider taking a really high jump. This picture would be tempting to use in your content because it looks so dare-devil and like a startling piece of action, right? Well, yes, it’s definitely better than the first picture, but still, where is the intrigue in the picture?
Now look at the last picture on the right. It’s a shot of a bike and rider seemingly precariously on one wheel in the middle of a stretch of city riding, and there’s this feeling as if the landing has been unanticipated by the rider or he has had to brake suddenly for some reason. He doesn’t look entirely in control of the situation, does he?
Now we begin to wonder … why did he have to make a sudden stop? He’s on the front wheel which must be harder to manage than being arrested on the back wheel … and he’s wrestling for control, so what caused all this? What happened? Did he make it safe? Did he prevent someone from injury? Was it an accident? Gosh … how many questions! The third picture scored heavily on both “action” and “intrigue” with the focus groups in my survey!
Golden Rule 2: Use visuals that tickle the senses of smell, sound and touch that are missing in pictures
In still imagery, some key human senses are incomplete. We can “see” the pictures, but we cannot “smell” the scene there, we cannot “taste” the image shown and neither can we “hear” the action. To be able to smell a picture, hear a picture or taste a picture is the way the human imagination completes a picture in its own internal multi-sensory world.
In the three pictures above, for example, can we get a hint of the woodsmoke and its smell in the first picture? Can we get a sense of the crunchy and the gooey medley of tastes from the eclairs in the second picture? Can we almost hear the deathly crash and crumble of steel and glass in the car accident from just seeing the mangled car?
These three pictures have scored with audiences because their own imaginations added the smell, taste and sound factor that’s missing in the pictures – and so gave the viewers a more all-rounded “feel” of the experience of the picture!
Golden Rule Three: Use images with a potential to shake the viewer’s sense of congruence and comfort
In the three pictures above there are people meditating. The first picture is one of comfort to the mind, because the mind sees meditation as a serene activity and the backdrop of nature, the sands and the ocean support the act of meditating.
Contrast this with the other two pictures. A businessman in a formal suit is meditating in his office trying to catch a break from his laptop, his deadlines and his work pressure. But at least he’s alone in his room. What’s worse, in the third picture the man looks like he is meditating in a public space in front of an escalator.
The second and third picture shake the imagination because of their “incongruence” … and since the mind doesn’t like being thus shaken it returns again and again to the picture to “try and swallow the irritation”. Incongruence is also often referred to as the “creative burr” which grabs the mind through “discord”.
Did you know, a particular picture of a famous racing car driver snatching a moment to shut his eyes and ears from all the noise around him, as he prepared for the race, was one of the most shared pictures at the time it came out, not just because the driver was famous, but because the picture was so “uncomfortable” to watch – and we could almost identify with the man’s need for that one tiny peaceful moment!
Golden Rule Four: Use visuals that are framed with borders for they invite viewers into another world
One of the most interesting insights I got from my focus groups study on visuals in content marketing was this question about framing pictures. See the two images below of an identical picture inlaid into a patch of text. One has no border. The other picture is “framed”.
The second picture seemed to hold reader interest longer and the explanation that readers gave for this was that somehow the frame “draws you into that other world inside the picture and keeps you there awhile”. The picture on the left seemed to be part of the printed page, while the picture on the right seemed to be about another whole world nestled inside the world of the printed page, into which you feel beckoned to enter and spend a little time.
I can’t definitively surmise that frames always work positively in this way in holding attention a wee bit longer, but there is merit in the observation and I am looking for stronger evidence on this issue. Meanwhile of course, I am choosing to err on the side of belief in the readers’ viewpoint and have started framing all of my visuals in my content marketing.
Perhaps you all can take a long hard look at both pictures and tell me if this framing theory seems true for you? It does seem to isolate the world inside the picture from all the surrounding text and draw the eye in, doesn’t it? To me the textual part becomes a blur in the background when I focus on the framed image. And therefore the relief to the eye and the need to linger feels greater.
Golden Rule Five: Use visuals of people’s faces with a clear emotion and not an enigmatic expression that’s hard to decipher
This is an interesting point, and I am quite surprised by the findings of my small survey. I have read so much about Mona Lisa’s enigmatic expression being the reason she evoked so much interest that I always carried the idea in my head that inscrutable faces must be having some pull of their own on viewer’s imaginations.
But it appears that in content marketing, especially in the “social world” people want to see “social”. Straight-into-camera stylish poses are not as attractive as faces full of emotion, it seems. It’s my guess people like being pulled into other people’s emotions – and rather than feel intrigued by the non-expression on a person’s straight face, they are more intrigued by the reasons why someone looks so happy, or sad or angry or astonished.
Look at the pictures above. The face on the right tells a story … who can guess what was said on the phone to bring forth that smile? No matter how stylish the picture on the left looks (and a lot of cosmetic brands and fashion brands do use such enigmatic shots!), the picture on the right seemed to win with men and women of many age-groups. And it wasn’t just because of the happy smile. It seems to be the case with any strongly displayed emotion.
I think I’ll just have to go to Paris to see the Mona Lisa again … hmmm!?
9 ideas for using visual content with a great deal of strategic smartness
Apart from selecting the right kinds of pictures that have a pull on target audiences, there are 9 other fine points to consider when using visual content. You should formulate a “visual content strategy” if you don’t already have one. Key strategic decisions to make could include: what stories can to be told more visually; how can the brand image be consistent across content formats while also being interestingly variegated on visual exposition; and what kind of image archive needs to be put in place to gradually build a whole brand library of visual assets.
1. Don’t “tell” if you can “show”. Change your attitude towards information dissemination and advertising communication. Plan your messages visually and let pictures “speak”. Images can be of diverse kinds – pictures, videos, infographics, slideshows or animations. Use a variety of these to avoid monotony, and to add richness to messages. Look to sequence images, if you can, to string a brand story along.
2. Create original visual content. Think “viral” when you plan visual content. Visual social media thrives on the “sharing principle”. Only if your content is original can it have sharing value. Online it is believed that only 20% of all content is original and the rest of the 80% of content circulating is shared material. Brands that would like to succeed on the visual social media need to be part of the imaginative 20% that produce never-seen-before visual content. (If your images are original, remember to watermark them.)
3. Showcase your story. Since pictures are capable of individual interpretation, it would help immensely to ensure that your brand conveys to its viewers the “why” behind every image. People do not need a caption to a photo that simply states what is in that photo. They like to know what brought about that picture, what was the story behind it. Even purely business-oriented seemingly dull pictures of say, people in offices, could have an interesting back-story about the moment the picture was taken.
4. Crowd-source visual content. Image-based social media networking need not be a one-way street. Brands that have been immensely successful in the visual social media are those that have kept their audiences participative in the image-sharing process. Setting up a brand-related theme or contest and crowd-sourcing images around that topic can be a great way to attract audience engagement while also making people conscious of the brand’s values.
5. Add back the words. Images can tell a lot by themselves but if you’d like to add words to enhance the effectiveness of the images, be careful how you do it. Captions, descriptions, or image titles need not be staid, they can be humorous, dramatic, evocative, thought-provoking, tug on the heartstrings, or even be a call-to-action, depending on what kind of emotional response your brand wants to achieve. While you are at it, remember to add hashtags to keywords for greater impact.
6. Mix it up. The whole idea behind visual storytelling is to make the pictures themselves very innovative in their treatment. You should try to work on raw images to “soup” them up if that sort of creativity can lend some zing to your brand. Pictures can have textual overlays, filters, treatment with textures or imaginative cropping. Sometimes montages speak better than individual pictures. Some of the best advertising photography over the years has always included some form of “flavor” added to raw pictures. Sports brands add “movement” to their images, perfume brands add “atmosphere”, health brands add “aliveness”. Pictures do not have to look like they have been taken by amateurs, they can have all the hallmarks of sophisticated brand photography, if that will help your brand stand out in the crowd.
7. Video thumbnails need special attention. Many people who use videos as visual content believe it is a vastly different topic to using still pictures. But is it? The mistake video content marketers make is to worry more about what’s in the video, rather than which still picture they use as the thumbnails before the start of videos. Unless the thumbnail pictures are beckoning, the videos themselves are seldom clicked on and watched. So you have to be uber-careful in your choice of video thumbnails. Use them to represent the video content accurately, and also to make the video attractive enough to click on.
8. Infographics too need attractive images as mastheads. A lot of infographics are shared on the social media. But notice how it’s tough to show the whole infographic on a social stream? Infographic mastheads are often all you see when you see infographics on a social update! That’s why it’s very important to focus when you are creating the masthead of an infographic. Think of the masthead as a mini-advertisement for an infographic. It has to capture the flavour of the infographic as a whole, but also act on its own as a click-begetter! Marketers also often use infographics as linkbaits to get backlinks. Here again, it’s a great idea to send bloggers a small image of the masthead of the infographic on your blogger outreach emails, because a picture speaks a thousand words and beckons greater exploration.
9. Bring brand alignment to curated charts, graphs, diagrams. Some visuals are right as main pictures of blog posts. Some other are great for explaining points within a post. The problem with most marketers is that while they are very careful about the kinds of visuals they select as the main pictures for their blog posts, they are a tad careless about how they sprinkle in the charts and graphs and diagrams that sometimes are needed to explain the points on their posts.
You may pick these charts or diagrams from varied sources (with credits!), but since they tend to all look different from each other in treatment and tone, you have to do something to bring them all “on brand”, so that the look and feel of your posts does not feel like it’s a hotch-potch of stuff from other sites.
Encase pictures with frames using your brand colour, or standardize the sizes in which you present them, or create headings for pictures which match your brand. Look at your post as a whole, instead of in parts, and see if all images look like they are in a format aligned to your brand and its projection.
How to ensure that images are clear but optimized in file sizes so page speeds are not affected
When discussing visual content, notably images, it’s important to also know how best to optimize images file sizes, so that they do not affect page load speeds and Google rankings of your blog posts. There is a very simple way to ensure that images are perfectly clear and of pristine quality, while also being of the smallest file size possible. For this, it would be ideal if you have Photoshop (the large professional Photoshop software, or at least Photoshop Elements, the smaller software for amateurs).
Here’s how to minimize file sizes with Photoshop Elements, for example. Open an image in Photoshop. Let’s assume we want to reduce this picture to its least size, while also preserving its quality (without pixelation or blurring). With the image open in Photoshop, click “Save For Web” on the left menu bar as shown below.
You will then be shown two images. The one on the left is your original image, which in this case shows me a size of 396K (file size circled in blue). The image on the right size shows me a size of only 27K (circled in red), but I can increase or decrease the quality/size of the picture by tweaking the settings on the right hand side panel (indicated by the red arrow).
Always choose “JPG” as your file format here, and tick the checkbox for “Optimized”. Then use the drop-down menu to choose “high”, “low” or “medium” settings, checking if the picture on the right is losing quality as you lower the settings. Use the settings at which the picture is intact in quality, but the file size is much lower than before. Then save the picture, and use it for your blog post. That’s it. In this case we’ve brought the file size down to 7% of its original size, without any loss of quality, using a “high” setting! How’s that!
So what are your thoughts on this topic? Do share!
This post is incomplete without your input. The community of aspiring digital solopreneurs would feel galvanized to hear from you … so do share your thoughts on this topic with us in the comments field below this post.
Other articles in our series “Content Creation Process”:
- The Best Strategy You Can Use To Do Outstanding Content Curation!
- How To Kickstart Your Content Marketing With Total Confidence!