By Chuck Frey published June 5, 2014

Tips for Maximizing the Storytelling Impact of Visual Content

visual storytelling-eye closeup backgroundIn today’s high-speed, information-intense world, it’s getting harder to grab and hold the attention of potential customers and stakeholders. Visual content has quickly emerged as a powerful tool that can help messages break through the clutter, stand out from the competition, and persuade audiences — but only if it’s created and positioned correctly.

Content Marketing Institute recently conducted a webinar (sponsored by global “ideas shop” gyro) that highlighted some excellent examples of visual storytelling. Presenters Ekaterina Walter, CMO of Branderati and the co-author of The Power of Visual Storytelling, Cristina Heise, gyro’s Director of Brand Experience, and gyro’s Content Strategist John Cramer also discussed their recommended strategies for increasing your odds of success when working with visual content.

Data have shown that the average adult attention span is actually shrinking, with scientists estimating that it is currently around eight seconds. No wonder we have Vine videos that are limited to six seconds and Instagram only supports videos that are 15 seconds or less — they’re designed to grab attention in the fast-moving environment of a newsfeed.

So much information comes flying at us these days that our brains have developed sophisticated filters to process what we want to consume. One type of filter we use is advocacy — reading, viewing, or buying something because a friend recommended it. Visual storytelling is another type of filter. It works because it helps readers understand the essence of an idea much faster than they would with words alone.

Visual storytelling tips

During this information-packed webinar, Walter, Heise, and Cramer shared some excellent advice to help content marketers design effective visual storytelling content:

  • Stay on-brand with your visuals: Make sure your designs are brand-consistent, including the way you use corporate colors and logos. The best visual content has a consistent design motif — you can tell what brand it belongs to in an instant.
  • Keep it timely: For example, tie your visual content in with a holiday, or interpret a new development in your market in a way that’s useful to your readers. Help people understand emerging trends they should be aware of.
  • Customize your visual content to the platform it will be delivered on: Don’t just create one image and try to push it out to every platform. Each social media channel has different image size requirements. Also, the audiences of each network are unique, so content marketers need to respect the standards of communication everywhere their content will appear.
  • Add humor: It tends to perform well, as long as it remains tasteful and in alignment with the brand’s voice. For example, H&R Block ran a visual content program that uses a series of funny facts to “hipsterify” the dry topic of tax law.
  • Make your marketing personal: For example, last year, Walter tweeted a request to retailer REI in which she asked for holiday gift ideas. Within 30 minutes, the company responded to her question with a personalized video containing a number of excellent ideas. When she asked the REI team how they accomplished this amazing feat, she discovered that they have green screens in the back of their stores where staff members shoot the videos themselves. The takeaway, Walter points out, is asking, “How can you make a person’s day just a little bit brighter with your content?
  • Don’t be afraid to jump into a real-time conversation: Know your community, and make sure your input always adds value — not just noise.
  • Don’t think in terms of campaigns: Instead, build tribes and inspire movements. Participate in passionate conversations with people in an ongoing way.
  • Create images and graphics which spark curiosity, so readers will make the decision to learn more from you: Design your visuals to lead them down the path to a deeper understanding of your company, product, or service, and see how you are uniquely qualified to help them solve their problem or challenge.
  • Add images to your email newsletters to significantly lift click-through rates: But they must relate to the topic of the email and should tell a story (or contribute to the email’s main story).
  • Just as Copernicus revolutionized our understanding of cosmology by proving that the sun is the center of our solar system (not the Earth), marketing has gone through a transformation of focus. Historically, we placed our brand at the center of our marketing decisions, which resulted in a lot of wasted effort. Heise points out that we’ve now put the customer in her rightful place — at the center of the marketing universe. “Think about the human at the center and how to make it easier on them. Think about what’s concerning her, what’s troubling her, what excites her, what motivates her, what she wants to accomplish and how you and your brand can help,” she recommends.
  • Recognize that visual stories must have a shape: Keep this in mind as you craft your stories, and design visuals to support the flow of that story. For example, you can insert your brand into the “hero’s journey” — where the customer’s life starts out fine, but is soon disrupted by a problem or crisis. She selects your product to help her solve it, which enables her to arrive at a better place. This is the classic model of a case history: problem/solution/desirable result. The lesson to marketers is to pay attention to the emotion and the desired path you want your audience members to take on their journey toward a purchase, and to make sure your visuals reflect those elements.
  • When selecting images for your content marketing, give careful thought to the context and mental model your reader is likely to be in: You must appeal to both the emotional and rational sides of the brain. Emotions involved in selecting or purchasing a B2B product or service may include anxiety, longing for recognition, loss of credibility and risk aversion. Rational justifications may include decreasing downtime, increasing productivity, and protecting or growing the business.
  • Don’t forget about the visual experience of your website, which should tie in with the visuals you’re placing on your social media outposts, in your emails and other forms of marketing communications. Use the visuals on your website to continue drawing prospects in, using compelling information and graphics. This creates what Cramer calls “attention gravity,” which promises to reveal a deeper pool of resources and answers to their questions. Your website is also an appropriate place to explore longer-form and narrative storytelling that integrates both text and visuals. 

There’s still time to catch the webinar. Register today to view, “Make Your B2B Marketing Memorable with Visual Storytelling” on-demand. 

Author: Chuck Frey

Chuck Frey is the founder and author of The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the world's leading website covering visual mapping. He is also the former founder and publisher of InnovationTools.com from 2002 to 2012, which focused on innovation, creativity and brainstorming. He has extensive experience in public relations, online marketing, content development and visual thinking. He is an avid photographer.

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  • KristiGarrett

    On the subject of the H&R Block ads, I was so taken by one (a pop-over, for the record) that I captured the link and went out to Tweet about it manually. The company responded immediately, retweeting, favoriting and sent me a $10 Starbucks “card” by direct message!