Editor’s note: Updated February 2020.
What do the first two minutes of Wall-E, an infographic about hangover cures and the following GIF of Matthew McConaughey experiencing all the feels have in common?
They use visual media to show a lot of information in a little bit of time.
For context, here’s the Wall-E intro:
And here’s a snippet from the hangover cure infographic (courtesy of Fix.com):
Digital marketers need to earn their audience’s attention, and that’s not easy given the insane amount of competition. Every day,
- Tens of thousands of new websites go live.
- Millions of new blog posts are written.
- Tens of millions of photos are uploaded on social media.
- Hundreds of millions of emails are sent.
Sometimes the best way to cut through the noise is to not say anything at all.
Visual storytelling, literally the act of telling a story or communicating information with visual content, is a powerful content marketing medium. It has unparallelled potential to generate traffic and convert leads at every stage of the sales funnel. No content marketing strategy is complete without it.
Visuals speak volumes: It’s science
According to MIT researchers, the human brain is capable of processing an image in as little as 13 milliseconds. To give you an idea of just how little time that is, here are really fast things that are slower than your ability to process an image:
- Sunlights’ journey to Earth (8 minutes).
- The blink of an eye (300 milliseconds).
- Usain Bolt’s reaction time off the starting block (155 milliseconds).
- A single rotation of a 3000-RPM car engine (20 milliseconds).
In other words, this is your brain on the influence of images:
Why does this matter? Because your intended audience hasn’t got all day, and a lot of content creators are vying for their attention. If you want to get there first, you’ll need to master the art of making an impression on your audience in a short amount of time.
Visual storytelling is economical because you can convey more information in less time, hence the “picture is worth a thousand words” platitude. Imagery has the ability to capture attention quicker than text, at which point you have a platform to communicate your brand message, either entirely through visual storytelling or through a combination of visual, audio and textual content.
In addition to its ability to wrangle in users’ attention, visual storytelling adds value to a content marketing strategy in the following ways:
- Helps generate interest at the very beginning of a buyer’s journey by luring readers into top-of-funnel blog content.
- Makes copy feel more lively and engaging.
- Allows for passive ingestion of a message, for instance, through video or animations.
- Boosts readability by making long-form content seem less cluttered. (Ever hear of the dollar-bill rule? It’s more applicable to print, but If you can hold a dollar bill vertically and horizontally on a page without hitting an image, block quote, subhead or bulleted list then you need something to break up the text.)
Visual media also leaves a more lasting impression on the audience. About 65 percent of people are visual learners, meaning for most of us, the message is more likely to stick if we see it. And in marketing, visual storytelling is the best way to help your audience see what your brand is about.
How to use visual storytelling in content marketing
A visual story, or a visual narrative, is told primarily through visual content. Emphasis on the primarily, otherwise you’re left with photography and silent film.
Some of the more visual-heavy examples in content marketing include photo-based case studies, videos and 2D and 3D animations. In general, though, online visual stories typically weave imagery and narrative together to get the best of both worlds. An online photo essay will usually have text captions to add context. Videos will often incorporates text and/or voiceovers.
What’s more, video and text help each other out. A short, keyword-rich blog post or concise landing page will make your new video easier to find on the web. Conversely, your text-heavy white papers, case studies and eBooks will rely on visual media to help tell the story or accentuate certain aspects of the information.
The key to creating strong multimedia content is to understand the impact that different visual mediums have on your audience, and how and when to use each:
Photos might be used as part of a visual case study on your website or blog. They could be used in a Facebook album to document your company’s recent attendance at a conference. They can be a literal interpretation of something described in accompanying copy, or they might symbolize a concept (e.g., “Is your vendor’s lack of attention making you feel like the man on the moon?”). Alternatively, a single photo could stand alone on a visual social media platform such as Instagram. Heck, you can even use an embed of an existing Instagram photo within a blog post.
Many people will not relate to this particular meme, which is fine, and it’s sort of the whole point of a good meme. It takes a recognizable visual aid (Boromir from LOTR) and then makes it relatable to a specific audience, in this case someone who might be trying to set up a PHP server.
This GIF admittedly makes very little sense. But it’s somehow mesmerizing, and in context to an article about proper cat care, it might actually be appropriate. There’s a whole world of GIFs out there that express all sorts of sentiments and ideas. Embed them into your 1,500-word blog posts, share them on your social media channels, maybe with a sentence or two of context that ties it to your brand, or maybe not. Sometimes taking a break from business boosts engagement.
The purpose of a custom illustration or custom image is to combine a small amount of text with a photo or graphic in such a way that they complement each other and get a clear point across. Case in point, eliminating the copy or the photo from this image would kill the effect. You need them both to see the humor. Granted, the example above isn’t actually selling anything, but it still illustrates the dynamism of an image that’s been doctored through graphic design.
Custom illustrations are great alternatives to stock photography. Design them with your brand colors and visual aesthetics to really tag your content and make it stand out from the crowd.
Graphs and charts
The above is a great example of using visual media to convey information in an organized manner. It’s informative (tells us what America’s favorite type of pie is), entertaining (because it’s a “pie” chart) and also just aesthetically pleasing. This would go great with a blog post about people’s pie-eating preferences and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Video is a great way to demonstrate the value of your products or services. Getty Images’ short video, “Nosferatu, the Nonsilent Film,” dubbed original footage from the silent film “Nosferatu” with stock music, sound effects and voices. Essentially, they gave us a humorous product demo in video format. Cleverly done.
Rather than spending money on filming and editing original video content, you could work with graphic designers who have the wizardry to create an immersive visual world using nothing but software, brand guidelines and their own imaginations. Or if you want to get real creative, you can even take a page out of A-Ha’s book and do an animation-video crossover. The beauty of animation is that it can be highly stylized. Every detail, from how you portray facial features, to the proportions of your newly created world can be used to say something about your brand.
Last but definitely not least, infographics are highly shareable, engaging assets that belong at the top of the funnel in any content marketing strategy. They come in all shapes and sizes and use a variety of clever techniques to visually represent information. The example above correlates cigarette length to federal tax collections in billions of dollars. The one below (a snippet from a bigger graphic by movehub, available here) uses a map, colors and a legend to show cost of living throughout the world. (Who knew Greenland was so expensive?)
How to become a better visual storyteller
Visual storytelling can seem daunting at first, which is understandable. To do it right, you have to deftly weave together different media formats and communicate with your audience sometimes without saying a word. We’re not all natural-born visual storytellers, but that’s OK. By following a few simple guidelines, anyone can craft a compelling visual narrative.
Start with a good story
That may sound obvious, but a lot of marketers fall into the trap of trying to reverse engineer a narrative around a particular visual element. Piggybacking off a meme or GIF that’s gone viral could blow up in your face if the underlying story doesn’t really land with your audience. It could just come across as a desperate attempt to look trendy.
Always remember that the imagery should serve the story. Compelling visuals won’t have the same punch if your underlying message doesn’t shine through.
Lean on tried-and-true storytelling techniques
Marketing-based storytelling has to follow the same rules that drive our favorite movies, TV shows and books forward. “Star Wars” has just as much in common with “Beowulf” as it does with “Flash Gordon,” and that’s because it relies on narrative structures that have stood the test of time.
Be sure your visual content is built on top of these fundamental storytelling techniques:
- Conflict: Every good story has an obstacle that needs to be overcome. The more your audience can relate to the conflict, the more your message will resonate with them. That’s why case studies are often so compelling to potential customers.
- Structure: From Aristotle to Dan Harmon, storytellers throughout history have adhered to structural templates to give their narratives momentum. It’s not just about having a beginning, middle and end, mind you; every part of your visual story should be meaningful and help propel the narrative toward its climax and conclusion.
- Simplicity: Don’t overcomplicate it. Often, the stories that leave the biggest impact can be summed up in one or sentences. “The Odyssey” is just about a guy trying to get home. If you find your visual story is bringing in too many threads, try paring things down to get back to your core message. That goes for design too. Overly detailed or complex visual elements could be distracting and draw attention away from more pertinent points of interest.
- Contrast: Silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were masters of using contrasting images to tell a visual story. A more modern example (if a 35-year-old movie counts as modern) would be the malt shop showdown between Marty McFly and Biff in “Back to the Future.” You can just barely see Marty’s eyes nervously peek out from behind Biff’s looming shoulders, but that’s all you need to realize how outmatched he is.
- Size: Alfred Hitchcock is virtually unparalleled when it comes to using visuals to build suspense. One of his basic filmmaking rules was to draw viewers to important objects on the screen by making those items bigger than everything else. Sounds simple, but it’s effective when telling a story with images and animations.
Pair the right visual media with your message
Consider the medium that’s best suited for telling your particular story. Do you want to highlight the tangible ROI of your services, complete with hard data and statistics? Then an infographic is probably your best bet. Alternatively, if you’re looking to introduce potential customers to your complex B2B services, a short animation may be the way to go.
Do’s and don’ts of visual storytelling
Although there’s room for experimentation with visual storytelling, digital marketers should stick to the basic fundamentals – at least at first. You have to learn the rules before you can break them, after all.
Follow these visual storytelling do’s and don’ts to get produce the best content:
- Start by crafting an interesting story that will appeal to your audience.
- Choose your visual media according to the needs of your narrative.
- Incorporate basic storytelling techniques.
- Grab people’s attention right off the bat with dynamic imagery.
- Support your visual narrative with text and audio to add context wherever needed.
- Keep your message clear and simple.
- Measure the performance of visual media with relevant KPIs like social shares, backlinks and site metrics.
- Chase viral memes.
- Shoehorn a narrative into a specific visual idea.
- Prioritize style over substance.
- Repackage the same story across every visual media format (unless they’re a good match).
- Go overboard on imagery and wind up confusing or distracting your target audience.
- Remove audio and text just for the sake of having a 100% visual story.
Every decision you make should be focused on making your story clearer and more compelling. A presentation design choice might seem appealing because it’s dynamic or eye-catching, but if it doesn’t support the narrative at all, it could wind up just being a distraction.
Storytelling tools to get you started
Even if you don’t have a design, animation or video team on staff, you can still create your own visual stories with the help of online tools and software applications. These storytelling tools can turn any digital marketer into an effective visual storyteller:
- Ceros: This platform uses a simple interface so marketers of all walks of life can craft animations, infographics and other visual designs with relative ease. Cero’s also has an entire blog dedicated to storytelling examples. You can see what other brands have created using the platform, providing a little extra inspiration.
- Adobe Spark: It might require a little more design know-how than some other options, but Adobe Spark has tons of features to create high-calibre, professional visual media. The active and supportive community can help answer questions and show you the ropes.
- Canva: Build your own visual designs with this easy-to-use platform. Its drag-and-drop interface lets you create custom images using templates or from scratch.
And that’s a wrap!
There are plenty of other ways to use visual media to tell a story that we haven’t covered. There’s also the crossover-content formats such as eBooks (we like to think of these as picture books grownups read at work) and white papers (more text heavy, but with nice iconography, graphs and other visual aids).
But we’d have to create a novel to go into the level of detail that visual storytelling truly deserves. So this will have to suffice for now.
Besides, we think you get the picture, and if not, well …