As you obsess over link profiles and link-building to boost SEO, another form of search marketing has been quietly rising in importance. It’s not complicated. It’s not technical. And technically, it’s not even about search optimization.
It’s about brand signals.
Brand signals are becoming one of the foremost ways that a business builds trust and visibility on the web. Content marketers are the ones responsible for pushing their preferred brands to grow trust and authority.
In this article, I’ll explain what brand signals are, how they affect search marketing, why visual brand signals are essential, and how to implement a visual brand-signal strategy for your business.
What are brand signals?
Broadly speaking, brand signals happen when your brand is mentioned and discussed online. But it’s more than that.
In 2011, Rand Fishkin of Moz conjectured how Google’s brand-signal algorithm might function:
Some of the main categories that comprise brand signals include:
- Mentions on the web – Your signal relates to where and how frequently your brand is mentioned. For example, if it is identified (but not linked) in a high-profile publication such as The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, your signal is stronger. The more your brand is discussed on the web, the greater the brand signal grows.
- Verifiable identity – With more opportunities to legitimize your brand, the stronger your signal is. Features such as business incorporation listings, a comprehensive contact information or About page, and a network access point (NAP) all are part of creating a verifiable identity.
- Activity on social accounts – Both presence on social platforms and social buzz by users (“likes,” shares, mentions, tweets, etc.) enhance brand signals.
- User queries – If a lot of people search for your brand name, Google and other search algorithms may adjust your brand’s visibility based on its popularity. Obviously, click-through rates and other user metrics would play into the event. For example, let’s say that your business has little presence on the web (few brand signals). You buy a Super Bowl ad. After it runs, your business’ brand signal jumps because viewers are searching for your brand. Or if your brand is consistently associated with certain keyword queries, Google may create a strong link between the keyword and your brand name.
While building brand signals is a whole new way to conceive of search marketing, I want to specifically address how visual content plays into the growth of brand signals.
Why start with visual content?
Visual content is remarkably powerful in attracting viewers, which in turn create the necessary brand signals. Here are a couple reasons why.
Visual content can be immediately identifiable
Why do brands create logos with color, shape, and images? It’s because images connect instantly with the brain. They are memorable. Done well, logos also can permeate the company’s branding.
You don’t need to read the company name in text. You may not even need to see the entire logo to recognize the brand:
Know what the brand is from this logo peek?
Visual content can be customized without significant resources
Small changes in visual content can produce a big impact without major cost or time commitment. Visual content also gets more attention from users on your social media channels, amplifying your brand’s reach.
Visual content dominates the web
Research emphasizes the value of visual content for users, particularly for millennials for whom “reading is no longer fundamental.” Social Media Week references it as a “shift to visual vocabulary where our streams are flooded with gifs, Instagram, emojis, and bitstrips. We’re moving to a very visual marketing period, and it’s driven by millennials.”
Want proof? Head over to BuzzFeed, which is bloated with gifs, lolcats, and picture lists, and has the biggest reach with millennials.
Click to enlarge
How does visual content build brand signals?
Brand signals aren’t just about mentions. They are about mentions that people see, recognize, and identify. Brand signals are for users, not algorithms. (Ultimately, though, algorithms factor in how users act on the web [i.e., how they follow your brand signals].)
When users see visual content associated with your brand, the signals are more likely to connect with them in a deeply memorable way. Your brand’s visual message is communicated to the brain in the fastest way possible. (Our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text.)
If my words aren’t communicating this concept sufficiently, maybe this visual content will:
Clearly, our minds are primed for visual content. That’s the No. 1 reason why visual content can build brand signals. It’s about the user, not just web crawlers that are locating and indexing.
What impact does this word have?
How much more powerful is this?
Transforming a word (a brand name) into a visual by adding shape and color creates a more authentic brand experience.
Now we need to get down to brass tacks. How can your brand build signals with visual content?
27+ Handy Tools for Better Visual Content Marketing
A Visual Strategy How-To
Nothing in this section will blow your mind. In the interest of being as helpful as possible, I’m going to be as direct and simple as possible. These are the things you should be doing with your brand to expand your visual strategy and improve your brand signals.
Include custom images in every blog post
Does your brand’s blog content have a visual flair? Some of the most successful blogs create custom images for the posts. If you’ve ever been on Buffer, you probably recognize the title images for each article – a dark gradient image overlaid with the title. The consistent design creates a visual brand voice, boosting the brand signals.
Add unique images and customize brand on social media
Since social media is a search component and your brand communicates through social media, it’s only logical that your brand should have unique images on these visually dominated channels.
Gatorade does a great job of creating brand signals with its social media visuals:
— Football University (@FBUcamp) July 20, 2015
Almost all Gatorade’s Twitter content is visual, and it all contains that iconic orange.
If “visual content” and “brand signals” hung out, they would do it on Pinterest.
Building brand signals on Pinterest is huge. Take a look at how West Elm has optimized its Pinterest channel. Today, if you search for “West Elm,” the second organic result after its home page is www.Pinterest.com/westelm.
West Elm defines its brand on the visual content platform, developing a highly curated visual appeal for which the brand is famous.
Brand signals happen in a big way on Pinterest. (And you can make a heck of a lot of sales, too.)
Instagram is another one of those intensely visual social media platforms where your brand can develop its brand identity and the signals that make it memorable.
GoPro has equated its brand with strong visuals and its powerful Instagram presence proves it:
Create infographics regularly
Today’s web users crave visual information, not just dry text:
One of the most appealing and viral forms of visual content, infographics also should include your logo to further your brand’s visual signals.
Use big images everywhere you can
Adweek opines that since the web is visual, brands should be too. They point to Omnicom, a prototypical stodgy corporation, which has embraced a visual approach to its branding.
Today’s popular brands have a strong visual flavor, regardless of their products or services.
Spotify sells music, but it has a strong visual approach to marketing as a quick glance through its website will reveal:
An engineering brand, an unlikely niche for visual content and brand signals, also is using big images in its approach:
Big images are where it’s at. They have the power to communicate big concepts in a powerful, visceral way – strengthening your brand’s connection with users and subsequently growing your brand signals.
Make your brand stand for something, and make it visual. With every image Tweet, Instagram upload, and Pinterest pin, you’re advancing your visual content marketing strategy and building your brand’s visual signals.
The more you do this, and the better you get at it, the more powerful and popular your brand signals will become.
How are you using visual content to build brand signals?
Looking to score big points with your target audience? CMI’s 2016 Content Marketing Playbook has tips, insights, and ideas that can help increase your success with 24 of the top content marketing tactics.
Cover by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute