Updated March 30, 2022
Visuals are essential to creating content that will help your business stand out and draw in an audience. Not only does imagery help make text-centric content more eye-catching, digestible, and memorable, but it can communicate compelling messages that speak volumes without any text.
Visual trends and creative platforms come and go in the blink of a smartphone camera’s eye. Take a fresh look at how your brand’s photos, videos, and graphics can do the talking. This collection of best-practice tips comes from some of the industry’s most creative and design-minded content experts. It also includes best-in-show examples to inspire you to put your brand’s vision on display.
Visual storytelling isn’t just about the pictures. Visuals should enable a clear, consistent story from your brand. Even if each individual visual asset doesn’t tell an obvious story, your audience should be able to follow the narrative thread.
It’s a point CMI’s chief strategy advisor Robert Rose emphasizes in his detailed Marketing Makers lesson on the subject. His top-line advice: Think like a storyteller. Then plan your visual media to represent and relate the story across all your platforms.
It’s a lesson executed skillfully by the mindfulness app Calm. Whether viewing their ads in your Instagram Stories feed or scrolling the daily affirmations and meditations posted to its profile page, the cool blue color palette and serene background scenery create visual reinforcement of the brand’s overarching story of enabling people to find balance in their lives.
Posting a photo or video online and waiting for the business offers to start rolling in is not a strategy. Neither is hinging your visual content success on creating the next viral phenomenon. Like any content marketing format, you need a compelling rationale for visual storytelling and a clear plan for turning views into meaningful marketing results.
Before your creative team sketches any ideas, make sure they answer these questions:
To ensure your visual vision aligns with your marketing purpose, let audience preferences – not your gut feelings – guide the selection of themes, topics, and approaches.
For example, a current rule of thumb dictates videos should run between 30 seconds and six minutes. However, video pro Andrew Davis rarely creates videos less than seven minutes.
To find audience insights to guide your creative decision-making, Andrew suggests tracking:
TIP: If you’d like more guidance on building a strategic framework to support all your content efforts, this three-step content marketing strategy tutorial can help.
Your buyers are using digital content to discover, understand, and narrow their options before they make a buying decision. But, what makes content memorable?! Download the report.
Images might speak a thousand words, but those words do not necessarily convey the same message to everyone – especially those who aren’t represented authentically in your brand’s visual stories.
African-American Marketing Association founder Michelle Ngome implores marketers to consider diversity in their content creation. “What kinds of content are you sharing on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn company pages, and Twitter? What do your messaging and images look like? Is there a healthy balance of perspectives shared in [your] choices of topics and the [faces and voices behind] your messages?… Does it prioritize the experiences of some groups over others?” Michelle asks.
Michelle points to Rihanna’s lingerie brand Savage X Fenty as a shining example. She credits the brand’s broadly inclusive visualization model as a key reason it reached a $1 billion valuation just two years after launching. You can see evidence of that in a Valentine’s Day post shared on Instagram and Facebook emphasizing that sexy isn’t based on age, skin color, or sexual preference.
Keep in mind: Diversity doesn’t need to be the focal point of a visual story for it to play a key role. In fact, normalizing the representation of diverse communities as part and parcel of your creative process means you won’t have to think about it on an asset-by-asset basis. It will happen organically. That’s a goal GLAAD, Getty Images, and Ceros are working to further with their collaborative initiative Seeing is Believing.
A Getty Images’ Visual GPS 2021 Study found countries with greater representation of the LGBTQ+ community in their media and advertising exhibit less discrimination and less bias. The resulting partnership was forged to “elevate diverse narratives that can alter perceptions, evoke empathy, and build community.” The effort included a calendar of LGBTQ+ celebration days and a gated Visual Storytelling Guidebook to inspire increased inclusion and thoughtful portrayals of the LGBTQ+ community. Getty also compiled special collections of stock images emphasizing intersectionality and authenticity over the narrow, stereotypical depictions commonly seen in media.
Consumers love to snap pictures and share selfie videos with their friends. Instead of interrupting their experience with product shots and promotional pitches, why not include their creative work in your content marketing?
In a recent Teen Vogue article, Abercrombie & Fitch explains how it turned to the TikTok community for help shedding its early 2000s “preppy surfer” look. While the company ran sponsored ads and partner posts on the platform, much of the credit for its successful refresh is owed to the Gen Z consumers who posted their own videos tagged with #AbercrombieHaul and #AbercrombieStyle.
For example, Teen Vogue points to Andy Lobos’ TikTok video about Abercrombie’s logo-less hoodies, which earned over 1 million views. Once an Abercrombie product goes viral on TikTok, it typically sells out on the site.
@andy_lobosReply to @gunnawut surprisingly there is no logos on this just a good blank hoodie #fyp #abercrombie♬ original sound – led
Whether fans are involved in your imagery or not, take steps to maintain your brand’s visual identity, including the use of corporate colors and logos. Ideally, all your content assets feature a consistent visual design – one that viewers instantly recognize no matter where the content appears or who creates it.
For example, Planters decided to sit out the 2021 Super Bowl ad frenzy in favor of a cause-based play to promote “little acts of extraordinary substance that make the world a better place.” But despite benching its ad, the brand didn’t bench its signature colors or its resurrected mascot in its videos and social media posts about the campaign:
For example, embedded links can be problematic if not used appropriately. Visual content strategy expert (and avowed comics geek) Buddy Scalera says a platform’s native tools might pick a less-preferred image from the content to display as the thumbnail or preview, or they might crop it in a way that robs some of its resonance and branding elements. As a workaround, he suggests using Open Graph tags – a piece of code that gives you greater control of the visual experience you’re trying to create.
TIP: Don’t forget to add your logo to original images and tag them with relevant keywords, categories, hashtags, and metadata. This helps your fans find your content even when shared in unfamiliar contexts.
You also need to consider each sharing environment to determine how well the visuals fit the conversational context and audience preferences. Of course, with the right insights, your visuals can find an audience in places you wouldn’t expect to be a good fit.
For example, the Instagram audience might not seem like an obvious fit for the long-form literature at The New York Public Library. But its content team translated a series of text-heavy content into snackable visual segments that deserve a special place on its shelves of great works.
Insta Novels visualizes five iconic novels as Instagram Stories. Each edition includes the full text along with illustrations and an animated intro. It even includes a place to pause on every frame for those who aren’t skilled at reading in the platform’s 15-second increments. These visualized novels gained more than 300,000 views and added more than 140,000 followers to the library’s Instagram account.
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Some of the most memorable visual experiences tap into the power of emotion. Need proof? I challenge you to watch this emotionally charged video from Oreo and not get a little misty-eyed at the display of fatherly love and acceptance:
This level of deliberate planning also helped the U.S. Humane Society catch the eyes of the 2021 Content Marketing Award judges, which recognized All Animals as a finalist in the Best Feature Design and Best Use of Photography categories and the winner for Best Nonprofit Publication.
Famed photographer Pete Souza captured plenty of posed snapshots while documenting the presidencies of Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. Yet, in his keynote address at Content Marketing World 2021, Pete shared his most enduring images that say something essential about the person behind the institution.
He included many of those photographs in his two best-selling books, Obama: An Intimate Portrait and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidencies. “The way [Obama] interacted with other people showed what he was like as a human being,” Pete told the crowd.
A stock-image service can be a viable alternative when cutting-edge equipment (and the talent to operate it) is out of your price range. The key? Put your brand’s spin on the images before you publish them.
You also can “skin” your brand’s content without going the stock route, many of which might offer a stronger balance between cost-effectiveness and audience impact.
For example, in a content partnership with Quartz, Deloitte Global enlisted its creative services studio to help turn its lead-gen white paper on the millennial work experience into a highly immersive interactive version anchored by vibrant full-screen illustrations.
The cast of characters for The Resilient Generation was established with a drawing of an apartment and its inhabitants. Then, artist Paige Vickers created lush, individual scenes with whimsical details. She depicted three typical young professionals at home mid-pandemic — working next to a roommate, taking a mental health break with the dog, and preparing for a climate protest.
The original artwork might have been more expensive than stock art, but the investment paid off. A week after launch, Deloitte’s page visits grew approximately 964%, and white paper downloads increased 33%. It was also a hit with the 2021 Content Marketing Award judges, too, capturing the win for Best Use of Illustration.
A wealth of DIY design tools online and on social media gives almost anyone the ability to produce visual content. However, those tools still require some design chops to create clear, compelling, and readable images and videos.
That process can be simplified with design templates. That was the idea behind a holiday email campaign from Adobe Creative. It offered its newsletter subscribers intriguing ugly Christmas sweaters Photoshop templates. Customers could turn their favorite images into a virtual sweater pattern with just a few clicks.
Sharing visual content that helped Adobe’s audience create their own was a smart marketing play. It got creators to experiment with Photoshop’s tools and features while providing step-by-step instructions and delivering a free holiday gift of surprise and delight.
Audiences love free things – templates, tools, and images make great #content and great #email subscriber gifts. See examples from the @AdobeCreate newsletter via @joderama @CMIContent @corpv Click To Tweet
Of course, when working with templates isn’t a viable option, your best bet is to default to the basic principles of good design. Here are a few to keep in mind:
TIP: Don’t forget to get your visuals shared as far and wide as all your other assets. Influencers can be instrumental to this goal, especially on social media. Make it easy for them by offering multiple options – such as tagging them on social media or providing direct access to the raw files for download.
Of course, these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find more image-centric inspiration in CMI’s content hub on the subject. We also would love to hear how other businesses are painting pictures of marketing success. Tell us about your favorites in the comments.
All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute