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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:



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 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: 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: 


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.”

Want to take your storytelling efforts to new levels of success? Get help creating stunning visuals with these 27+ Handy Tools for Better Visual Content Marketing.

Cover image by Petr Novák, via Wikipedia