By Ryan Farrell published August 11, 2014

Visual Content: The Key to Effective Brand Storytelling

eyeball closeupMy parents (like most people who came of age in the 1960s) were pretty huge fans of the musical movement now known as the “British Blues Invasion.”

The vast bulk of my formative years were spent in a household where the sounds of Delta Blues-infused Rock and Roll swirled around the sonic atmosphere like so much incense wafting lavender-scented smoke from the end of a smoldering stick.

I can remember many a night when my Dad would invite me into his office, put on an old Beatles or Rolling Stones record and then launch into some really good stories. Stories about seeing both bands live: their personalities, their individual stage presence, and the respective “larger than life” liveliness that belonged to each band member. It was “Rock and Roll History 101″ at my father’s knee, ad infinitum… and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Tragically, many of the conversational specifics of those nights will forever be lost to history; I simply cannot remember every detail of it all. However, in keeping with the “classic rock household” motif, my parents also hung a large print of Bruce Burton’s Family Tree of British Rock right above the living room television. Needless to say, I looked at it a lot.

tree shaped from band names

In spite of all the music my dad played, in spite of night after night true-to-life stories he told me of actually “being there,” and in spite of all the words and the sounds and the anecdotes I was exposed to, the Burton poster is the one hallmark of Rock and Roll history that my memory has glommed onto so tenaciously that I can virtually recreate every detail of it in my mind when I concentrate hard enough.

Hours of storytelling accompanied by transformative personal journeys through genres of music with my Dad; and yet the reason that I know for a fact that both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were heavily influenced by the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf is primarily the result of a poster that my parents hung above the living room TV — not because of any of my father’s imparted wisdom.

In the immortal words of Fats Domino, “Ain’t that a shame?”

For better or for worse, this is exactly what a powerful and influential piece of visual content means to me: I will always find more power within the context of what I have seen than from what I heard or was told regarding music’s history. Appropriately, the proof of this fundamental fact about human comprehensions lies in the meticulously-enumerated and data-driven pudding:

 

Visual-Learner-Types

In his book Visual Impact Visual Teaching, Timothy Gangwer cites evidence that 90 percent of all data that the brain processes is visual. Additionally, it’s commonly held that 65 percent of people are visual learners, and the human brain purportedly processes visualization 60,000 times faster that it does written content.

However, when you think about it, the fact that we are visual learners first and foremost makes perfect sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Human beings were able to articulate thoughts through visuals long before the invention of the written word. People love visual content, and the more enriching the content, the deeper and more impactful the impression that your content will make. Additionally, given the fact that your average user will only give you about 10 to 20 seconds worth of a page visit to make an impact with your content, it follows that you had best make every single solitary second count.

But don’t take my word for it. In fact, don’t even take the word of these scientists, with all their “super-sciency-sounding” percentages and numbers. Let’s listen to the people themselves:

Some of you may be familiar with a Twitter sentiment analysis tool called Topsy, which was acquired by Apple late last year. Topsy used to be one of the very few software-as-a-service (SaaS) systems with access to the full indexation of all tweets (aka, “the Firehose”), going back to the inception of Twitter, as well as the ability to search them based on terms. Prior to its acquisition I had access to that Firehose, and wanted to do volume/sentiment analysis of tweets surrounding a few visual content terms because I was interested in seeing if the real-time sentiment would sync with the science.

The results were conducive to the scientific hypothesis that people tend to love visual content, and also apparently love tweeting positively about it. Fantastic!

Here is the volume and sentiment analysis of the Twitter mentions of the term “data visualization” from January 1, 2007 until December 1, 2013.

bar charts-data visualization figures

Here is the volume and sentiment analysis of the Twitter mentions of the term “Infographic” from January 1, 2007 until December 1, 2013.

bar graphs-infographic mentions-twitter

And, as a reference point for how the “tweet sentiment” score actually matters in the real world, here is a graph with the average sentiment score of three relatively common terms that have been popular topics of debate online.

bar graphs-tweet sentiment examplesSo what does this all mean to you, the content marketer, looking to gain that competitive edge over any and every competitor?

Put simply: It means you need to put visual content at the very top of your design hierarchy.

For example, are you building a website landing page? Got accurate funnels and smart snappy copy? Wonderful! Just add some iconography over each silent usher and you will be all set.

Here’s an example of a landing page from Xero.com that executes this principle pretty darn skillfully. It filters the interests of several people that could potentially land on this page, while using simple flat icons to aid the decision-making process:

example-xero.com-landing page icons

A central tenet of website usability (and usability in general) is to reduce the amount of decision-making that a potential customer has to perform that is not part of the buying process. “Which button do I press?” “What does this button do?” “Why should I ‘click here?’ I don’t even know you!” are all questions that, once asked, distract from the thought process that leads from “Should I do business with these folks?” to “I wanna do business with these folks, sign me up!

Simply put: More accurate and powerful visuals within your content means your casual visitors don’t have to work quite as hard to become your regular customers. Don’t make people struggle to give you their business.

Capture attention with captive illustrations

Here’s a real-world example of a piece of content marketing collateral I picked up from Whole Foods this morning while buying cold brew coffee in the checkout aisle:

whole foods-content marketing example

whole foods-lunchbox food choices

Why did I instinctively grab this magazine from amongst the maelstrom of other point-of-sale knick-knacks? Because there’s an absurd picture of a tomato and an onion paddling a canoe on the cover, and I love making my own pasta sauce. And now I have a bunch of coupons to Whole Foods along with some random recipes. 

Introduce data visualization into your content wherever and whenever possible

This is one thing that I am a huge proponent of, have written about in the past, and am a fan of for a very good reason: because it really works. Any time you find yourself writing out a piece of content or poring over a pivot table and you tend to notice an excess of numerical data points popping up here and there, tap your graphic designer on the shoulder (or fire up the graph function in Excel if you’re DIY) and have them craft you a first-class data visualization from those digits. Why do this? Because, which of the options below do you think tells a more easy to digest story: 

This?

example-dense excel data chart

Or this?

example-clear, colorful graphs, charts

If you said the first option tells the more compelling story, then you are either lying or are a complete and total glutton for punishment (Excel spreadsheets just may be the devil incarnate). Data visualizations, charts, and infographics are all visual content media that are designed to accurately distill massive amounts of data and then simplify them. Having so many numbers that you feel like you are drowning in them all of sudden will coalesce into serene charts that miraculously tell a single cohesive story.

By the way, the above sheets actually do represent the same exact data (I should know — I had to make those cursed things).

There is no substitution for a strong visual story. That age-old platitude “A picture is worth a thousand words” has continued to be proven true — even in the age of big data.

The symbolic “visual content train” left the proverbial station a long time ago, with the larger ether of the great wide-open Internet being its ultimate destination. If you aren’t on board, you will likely watch that train depart without you. And, in the immortal (paraphrased) words of legendary Delta Blues guitarist Robert Johnson: “You will (probably) feel so lonesome you could cry.”

For more visual content inspiration, check out CMI’s Visual Content Marketing Look Book: 25 Ideas.

Cover image by Petr Novák, via Wikipedia

Author: Ryan Farrell

Ryan Farrell is the Creative Director at integrated online marketing agency Wpromote, a former professional musician, and an extremely amateur chef. You may follow him on Twitter, but just be prepared for a lot of tweets about food and punk rock music.

Other posts by Ryan Farrell

  • http://www.activelivingsolutions.net/ Gail McGonigal

    Love the article! I thought I am dumb just not being able to cope with so much information on the internet – as they say information overload!
    I live in the past for my music favourites and my nostalgia of each decade in life lives on through my music.

    • http://Cartoonfood.com/ Ryan Farrell

      Hi Gail,

      Thanks for reading. Yeah some of those stats about how much “data” there is in existence today can boggle the mind. But any tool that we can use to distill the volume of information we are forced to deal with day-to-day (whether it be a relatively simple tool like a pie-chart or a relatively complex tool, like a search algorithm) is worth taking time to explore

  • Kostas

    Hi Ryan, this is a great post. I am really into infographics at the moment for this very reason – the visual impact! I enjoyed reading more about that.

    • http://Cartoonfood.com/ Ryan Farrell

      Thanks Kostas,

      Infographics are super effective in that (when executed tastefully – of course) they make for easily digested and shared visual content that leaves a more impactful impression than a large block of text.

      If you wanna get really nerdy on the subject of data visualization (the backbone of good infographic creation) Check out Edwin Tuft’s book “the Visual Display of Quantitative Information”

      Cheers!

  • http://radix-communications.com Emily King

    One thing people don’t keep in mind enough when putting together visual content like infographics is that they should avoid mixing visual metaphors. Too many metaphors in that space and things begin to get confusing and may distract away from whatever message/s the infographic is meant to be conveying.

    • http://Cartoonfood.com/ Ryan Farrell

      Absolutely agree Emily,

      Every piece of visual content should adhere to a strict storyline. The best Infographic producers I know are exceptional writers.

      Thanks for reading!

  • http://www.marketingtechblog.com Douglas Karr

    No mention of conversions? While aesthetics are very important to attraction, memory and explanation – many times people convert well with outstanding prose and little imagery. I think both are essential to a balanced content strategy.

    • http://Cartoonfood.com/ Ryan Farrell

      Hi Douglas,

      Thanks for reading and I challenge your question with a (well meaning.. of course) question in turn.

      What would you call my snatching up a coupon book from point of sale while waiting in line at Whole Foods?

      I would call that a top of the funnel conversion, any way ya slice it. The imagery grabbed me, but the content kept me.

      And (for the record) Yes… I have since used the coupon :)

      • http://www.marketingtechblog.com Douglas Karr

        My point isn’t to argue with the importance of aesthetics – we’ve expanded our use of video, infographics, diagrams, photos, etc. significantly given the demand for that content. My point was simply that it’s not enough and some testing has proven that great content that lacks imagery performs better at times with image-rich content that lacks a documentation. In other words – visuals are incredibly important for attraction – but may not be AS important as the accompanying documentation when you hope to convert the visitor.

        • http://Cartoonfood.com/ Ryan Farrell

          Excellent point Douglas, but I suppose that’s a much larger conversation about what works best industry to industry.

          One thing that can’t be argued is that imagery without rich context is pretty much a waste of time, so you’re absolutely right in that respect.

  • http://www.weboutsourcing-gateway.com/ Web Outsourcing Gateway

    Thank your Ryan for this great post. Indeed, people today are more on visual data. Images give great impact especially in content strategy. Thank you for the statistics and facts that you have presented. It gives a lot of learning for us.