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What Pictures Tell: The Future of Social Is Visual

Today I’m in Austin, Texas, a town that for years bore the stamp of its native (nearby Johnson City) son, Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th President, whose library is housed at the University of Texas near my hotel.  Besides the Civil Rights Act, the Great Society and escalation of the Viet Nam War, LBJ will probably always be known for the famous “Daisy” attack ad in his campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964.  Amazingly, the ad only aired once, but its power to paint Goldwater as a warmonger contributed to LBJ’s landslide victory.

Had LBJ been around today Doyle Dane Bernbach would have had the viral capabilities of visual social media to support its strategy. Snack-able, sharable and visceral, well-crafted and chosen pictures and video cut through the noise to reach directly to the consumer.  

A 2012 study by ROI Research found that when users engage with friends on social media sites, they enjoy their pictures the most. Photos on Facebook generate 53 percent more likes than the average post, according to a HubSpot survey.


The same goes for consumer engagement with brands. Forty-four percent of respondents are more likely to connect with brands if they post pictures than any other media. The viral reach of Facebook posts, as well, increases from 26% to 74% when video is added, according to the Adobe Digital Index.

Of course this provides many opportunities for marketers. But there are also implications for learning, selling, political campaigns, and more.

“Visual communication is bigger than we think,” says Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group, and one of the most prominent thought leaders and published authors in new media. “It’s more than a content or marketing strategy. Visual communication starts with understanding how connected consumers discover and share. More so, it takes understanding what’s important to them, how to capture attention, and how to do something important with their attention once you have it. This will change not only marketing but education as well.”

With that said, here are some specific ways visual social media is shaping our world as a whole, and where these might lead, starting with education.

Visual Education:

Technology enables us to create slides on the go to share in a meeting or at a conference. We click through the pages that integrate big, beautiful images with bite-sized text boxes. Drawing connections between critical parts of images and words truly makes the formal learning part of any meeting or presentation much more engaging and relevant.

Even schools have gone switched from black boards and chalk to SmartBoards, which are interactive, wall-mounted white boards that merge the old-school blackboard with the data retrieval, information-sharing, and storage features of a computer. It has helped to develop visual learners in the classroom.  Will this mean that not only will teachers become increasingly visual in how they teach, but that learning to communicate in a visual format, either through video or pictures, will replace instruction in reading and writing as the core of curriculum?

When I was in college in the seventies, courses such as “Film as An Art Form” were among the “guts” and when the lights turned down on that Fellini movie you could hear the beer cans pop.  Are we in a stage of higher education where the ability to understand, create and manipulate imagery will be just as compelling as writing code?

Visual Marketing:

More brands are coupling a few lines of copy with engaging images to showcase their story, share helpful information, and highlight other customers.  There are hundreds of cases of successful B2C using Pinterest, Instagram and native image-based advertising, but you know that when the big B2B manufacturers are doing it as well that visual marketing has proven its point.

Catepillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial turbines and diesel-electric locomotives, is even on Pinterest. And it’s not just about the company’s Cat Footwear Collection. There is a craft board, “the pursuit of craftiness,” a motivational board, “Feeling Inspired,” and “Things that make us smile :),” which mostly pictures adorable dogs. The visual content portrays the culture and message behind their brand.

Now take General Electric. Although GE is a B2B company that only pins its own content, it’s highly visual content, such as infographics, photos, and memes. Boards include “That’s Genius” a board that shares the wisdom of GE founder, Thomas Edison; “The Art of Innovation,” a board that explores the beauty in science and art; and “Hey Girl,” which plays on a popular meme by replacing Ryan Gosling with Thomas Edison.

“Storytelling” is the new (and old) buzzword for social marketing; what does that mean for visual media? With the breadth of bandwidth and the enormous popularity of picture sharing now the big facts of life, we need to put visual artists into the “scrum” of the marketing team just as we have journalists and creative writers.

Visual Political Campaigns:

Visual social media offers several advantages to politicians and political campaigns that want to create and propagate compelling messages quickly and affordably.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, 14.5 million hours of Obama campaign-created videos were viewed on the free platform YouTube, which is popular with youth (the average age of a video uploader is 26). Campaign content was simply shared with target audiences, without interruption, mind you, while they went about their usual business of checking their email or Facebook pages.

Visual social media also makes sharing complex political information and soliciting new support much more compelling than a political ad campaign commercial. It’s more personal and informal.  Or as Lyndon Johnson would say if he were still around: if you get them by their pins, their hearts and minds will follow. 

Michelle Obama even has an official profile on the mostly female network Pinterest. Besides sharing photos from the campaigns, she pins recipes, style and fashion, and photos of her and Barack enjoying life together.

When Planned Parenthood, in a famous case now being copied by other non-governmental organizations, wanted to make their case against Susan G. Komen for removing them from their grantee list, they first went to YouTube to publicize the now-ubiquitous “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” graphic and pink bus on a “Truth Tour” to organize rallies across the country.

It doesn’t matter what industry, brand, group, or cause, visual social media is the new strategy across social media platforms—from Pinterest and Instagram to Facebook and YouTube—and now even LinkedIn and Twitter.

The growth of platforms such as Pinterest and Instagram proves visual content is becoming an increasingly powerful force for communication online.  What about search? Search engines rank content based on social conversations and sharing as well as text content on sites. Brands that understand this use visual content in their social media to increase engagement and motivate sharing. And although text-based content still reigns supreme in SEO, there are techniques for making the images you choose not only support your story but your SEO as well.

For the strategic marketer, if you haven’t hired a “photo editor” already, do so.  Any veteran of the newsstand wars can tell you what the right image can do for your sharing, which, as the Adobe studies confirm, ultimately lead to an enormous lift in engagement.  As to whether LBJ would approve of bringing in an expert to help your team, well, as he once said about J. Edgar Hoover, “I’d rather him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.”

(#Selfies / shutterstock)

Join The Conversation

  • Robin Carey's picture
    Mar 5 Posted 3 years ago Robin Carey

    Checking this out, Paul

  • Feb 17 Posted 3 years ago paulbalcerak

    Hi, Robin. I'm really curious about the 2012 ROI Research study you mentioned in the third paragraph, but the link appears to take me somewhere else. I'm I doing something wrong, or is that link incorrect?

  • Sofie De Beule's picture
    Jan 23 Posted 3 years ago Sofie De Beule

    Hi Robin, I completely agree with your article! We should definitely move towards 'Visual content is the new king'.

    Best, Sofie



  • Randy Milanovic's picture
    Jan 22 Posted 3 years ago Randy Milanovic

    Thank you for the nice comments Robin. Also, sorry about the brevity of my earlier note – was in transit.

    Many readers aren't aware that prior to digging in on the content marketing front, I was a professional graphic designer (CGD) for 17+ years, having received my designation back in 1995 from the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, a national body representing throusands of visual communicators in the great white north, and a sister organization to the AIGA in the US. Over the years, I've had the very good fortune to meet and mentor many up-and-coming designers, and was also named on dozens of awards for excellence in that field.

    Making the transition from visual communications to text-based communications, and eventually authorship was (still is) a big step for me. Given my "visual" background, many find it challenging that I advise others to put the communication before the design. I don't mean to avoid design of course, as aesthetics can make or break a first impression, but when we consider the communication first, our message is more likely to get through.

    Given we are visual beings, lack of an interesting visual can put people off. Having excellent images boosts readership.

  • Randy Milanovic's picture
    Jan 22 Posted 3 years ago Randy Milanovic

    Especially profile photos!

  • Robin Carey's picture
    Jan 22 Posted 3 years ago Robin Carey

    Thanks Randy.  Means a lot coming from you.... it will be interesting to see how visual content affects search in the coming months, beyond what visual means for sharing. 

  • Jan 22 Posted 3 years ago Ajay Prasad (not verified)

    True. A picture is worth a thousand words or even more than that. We tends to understand easier with the help of a picture or a pictorial graph than data or figures. Same goes on Social sites as well, pictures are way effective in catching the attention of viewers than texts.

  • Randy Milanovic's picture
    Jan 22 Posted 3 years ago Randy Milanovic

    Agreed Robin. Visual representation is at the core of all language. 

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