Are your prospects and customers not responding to your content marketing efforts?

The issue might not be the substance or information you’re providing, but rather the format in which you’re delivering those messages. It’s probably time to start looking at visual storytelling as a medium for communicating your brand’s message.

Visual storytelling for Internet marketing is about captivating audiences with interesting tales in the same way filmmakers and novelists do. Arm yourself with this comprehensive guide before you start planning your next content marketing campaign. You might just start to see that needle move in the right direction.

Visual Storytelling for Internet Marketing

What is Visual Storytelling?

Visual storytelling is, for many, crafting a narrative through images, usually still photography or video. Communication in this form doesn’t depend on dialogue so much as the interaction between the viewer and the images. The medium is immediate, generating emotions within the viewer in an instant, where written content could take pages and pages to produce a similar effect. Photo journalism, evolving from print news to online content, is a classic example of visual narrative, a still image evoking myriad emotions while also encapsulating a moment’s crisp circumstances and kinetic energy.

When you watch a movie, you’re experiencing a tale built primarily through a visual medium. When you see a Calvin Klein ad in a magazine, that’s also visual storytelling.

The qualities used by each are the same:

  • Value-Based Subject Matter: Topics chosen to elicit an emotional response within the viewer that connects to their inner spiritual, social, or environmental values.
  • Narrative Designed to Persuade: Images create a story that persuades the viewer to a predefined action and subtlety or overtly compels them to consider a new point of view or change their perception.
  • High Quality Images: Visual storytelling demands clear, high-resolution images.

As an Internet marketer, if you don’t leverage this technique as part of your larger online campaigns you are only giving ground to the competition. Lost brand presence isn’t the only reason that this medium is so vital to modern marketing, however.

Importance for Modern Marketing

In the modern world where content consumption is a constant churn, images can arouse stronger psychological responses faster than the written word alone. Many people don’t have time to read a 1,500 word blog post about your latest product or service, but they scan your infographic for valuable info in seconds.

A famous study conducted by Microsoft shows that…

Attention Span Statistic from Microsoft

This is sadly shorter than a goldfish’s memory.

Narrative told through images, moving or still, helps fight this trend by bolstering engagement with visual content that has a low barrier to entry. Prospects and customers can engage with your brand in a meaningful way in seconds, leaving them with an emotional connection that can lead to opportunities for conversion.

In fact, “searchers clicking on images of people are 200% more likely to convert into sales,” says the Marketing Tech Blog.

As display network and video advertising continue to grow, visual narrative is an essential tool in your campaign toolkit. Without it, you’re missing out on potentially millions of impressions on your campaign materials.

Could your reporting survive all those missed opportunities when you’re trying to communicate wins to your stakeholders or produce an ROI for your own business?

Successful Visual Storytelling

Visual Storytelling Example: Inception

While any Hollywood film that turned a profit could technically serve as an example of successful visual storytelling, that route doesn’t give you any actionable tips for your marketing.

What can serve as a prime example, however, is an image-based narrative of a film’s complex plot, like 2010’s INCEPTION. Check out Inception Explained, a website dedicated solely to helping viewers understand who was really awake, if it was all a dream, and whether or not that spinning coin ever really stopped spinning.

Notice that the viewer is in direct control of the narrative’s pace. You’ll also see that the text is minimal with moving images as needed to help keep the viewer oriented to the characters and their actions. The layout’s simplicity triggers positive emotions, moving in a straight line down the belies of Christopher Nolan’s tangled story of dream thievery. Because the format makes the plot so easy to understand, you also experience the tale’s tension, giving the paired-down version’s sneaky emotional depth.

Cut to the end of the site’s story and what do you see?

A call to action asking viewers to share the site with friends and family. There’s also a link to buy the movie on Amazon in the bottom right.

After having such an enjoyable experience in so short a time, don’t you really want to watch the movie now?

Storytelling Strategies in Detail

Implementing effective visual storytelling requires a detailed strategy as part of your larger marketing campaign. As with all advertising efforts, there’s more than one step to convey your brand message to potential customers.

Here’s the breakdown:

Make an Overarching Theme

Regardless of particular narrative across content channels, every story you build needs to fit under a campaign’s overall theme. Sometimes, that’s as simple as starting a campaign for a given holiday or season. You wouldn’t launch Halloween visuals during Valentine’s Day anymore than you’d talk about the common reasons couples get divorced during wedding season. Deciding on a theme and sticking to it can help you tell what story ideas can work with your campaign and which elements need to hit the cutting room floor.

Create Your Narrative Framework

Every stable structure needs scaffolding during its construction to keep the moving parts organized. When it comes to storytelling, your narrative framework are the answers to important questions concerning your brand’s mission statement, short-term and long-term goals for marketing, and company passions. What does your product or service do or offer that no other company in your niche does? What excites you about the brand’s direction? Answer these questions in detail and you’ll have your starting point.

Curate Visuals with a Company Mission Statement

Your company’s mission statement expresses your core beliefs regarding why you’re in the market in the first place. Does your business want to make life easier for consumers? Do you want to deliver the highest quality products? What about the most cost-effective services? Your visuals within your content marketing and storytelling campaigns should reflect this mission statement down to the last detail. For example, if your company mission statement is to make complicated solutions simple, then you want streamlined visuals that are easy to understand.

Consider Heroes and Point of View

Who is the real-life hero of your story? What is the hero’s main goal? What about the villains or challenges your hero encounters? Answering these questions gives you insights into the right point of view for your visual narrative while also setting up the kind of tension that keeps viewers interested enough to stick with the story as it develops.

Conduct Exhaustive Audience Research

Who is your target audience for your given campaign? Using persona building, dig deep into your target demographics, finding out what they’re interested in knowing about your brand, what they like and dislike the most, and what the prevailing assumptions are in the market. You can use this information to craft your story, giving your target audience content they’re most likely to engage with because they’ve already told you it’s what they want. If they want to know more about your production facilities, then include floor-level visuals with real employees as your story describes how your products get made.

Infuse Your Story with Emotion and Action

Think about the emotions you want your story to conjure within viewers. Do you want them to feel inspired by the narrative you’re creating? Would you rather them laugh or cry? Focus on why people should care instead of how you’re going to make them feel a certain way. This tactic helps you land on the desired emotional impact without exerting authorial control that could turn viewers off.

Next, infuse emotion into the story through imagery that advances the tale through action. As viewers engage with the imagery you’ve chosen, they need to get a sense of movement for them to continue to interact. That action can take many forms, including eye movement when processing an infographic, physical action captured in video, or even parallax scrolling on a web page. If they believe the narrative is moving up, they’ll continue to follow along with it and in turn get greater exposure to your brand messaging.

Find the Interesting Details

Statistics and interesting company details can lend much-needed credibility to your imagery, increasing the chances that you’ll capture viewer attention. “Keep the facts to as many as 16 punchy words and numbers, which helps with memory retention and later recall,” says Forbes. These elements can also make your story interesting, giving you a unique angle or point of view to situate your visuals that competition can’t begin to touch.

Make it Useful for People

Images, coupled with authoritative information, can form a powerful tandem as long as people think it’s of use to them in their daily lives. For example, an interactive home buying guide for a home lending site tells a compelling story while also delivering relevant info for its target market. Making content that actually helps people increases the chances that they’ll share the content with others and keep it for later use themselves. These actions mean you’re getting repeated exposure and increasing your campaign’s reach.

Personalize Message Across Channels

Gone are the days of creating just one print ad or TV commercial for an entire campaign and sending the client an invoice. That “shotgun method” of marketing is never coming back and you shouldn’t shed a tear over its passing. Your audience lives in too many places online to reach everyone effectively using the same digital medium. What works on Facebook won’t play well on Vine and what gets likes on Instagram might nosedive on paid search. Personalize your visual story for all targeted channels, including social, organic and paid search, and display advertising.

Avoid These Common Visual Storytelling Mistakes

Falling into common visual storytelling traps can harm your campaign’s growth, or worse, make it seem totally uninteresting and boring to your target audience. Breaking the rules is often the best way to innovate new techniques, but in this case, there are several methods, modes of thinking, and tactics you should avoid:

  1. Fail to Cite Sources: Welcome to the Internet where no one believes you unless you can cite a credible source for your information. Always include a link or two where viewers can see the data from an unbiased third-party site, preferably a .gov or a .org.
  2. Not Consider Viewer Assumptions: Consumers are so accustomed to fakery in marketing that they sniff out staged photographs masquerading as candids almost instantly. When crafting your narrative, don’t forget to take into account this and any other reasonable assumption that viewers might make.
  3. Use Only One Image: A picture is worth 1,000 words, sure, but one single photo is not enough to power all visual storytelling for an entire campaign. It’s simply too much pressure for any modern visual to endure.
  4. Forget to Edit Without Mercy: Always bring your most discerning eye to the table when tweaking and adjusting your visuals to make them just right for each campaign facet. Never settle for “good enough.”
  5. Using Stock Images: Never use stock imagery as part of your visual storytelling. The images are usually boring and don’t speak to the unique narrative you’re trying to create. Competitors or brands with less than stellar reputations can also use the same stock pictures, which could lead to unwanted associations with your company or client. Always develop proprietary images, graphics, and photographs for your campaigns that you can exclusively brand.
  6. No Common Thread: Viewers need a common thread that links all your images and graphics into a cohesive whole. Without this context, they’ll have a tough time understanding your content’s meaning and will be less likely to engage on an emotional level.

The bottom line when avoiding pitfalls in storytelling is to do everything you can to keep the user engaged with the content. Avoid static images that never change angle or distance from the subject. Keep viewer brains honed in on your story by showing them something new with every mouse click or browser scroll. Don’t be boring or take shortcuts to the finished product and you’ve already taken two important steps in the right direction.

How to Pull Off Visual Storytelling

Pulling off a visual storytelling campaign that hits its goals demands that multiple efforts across paid, organic, social, and offline channels work in close cooperation.

Each has its own responsibilities in terms of molding imagery to suit their given mediums to achieve its potential for greatest success, but you’ll need to keep other channels in mind.

Here are the main drivers and concerns for each channel as you look to carry out your strategy:

  1. Display Network: Paid campaigns through the Google Display Network and others need impactful visuals, including banner ads, that generate strong emotions quickly, compelling users to convert to see more of the story. You’ll need a strong call to action embedded in your visuals here to get a solid click-through rate.
  2. Social Channels: Leverage audience demographics through each social platform, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to find where your target market  lives. You don’t need to do it all with one post. Structure your social media postings throughout your campaign to build excitement and buzz.
  3. Organic Landing Pages: Organic search also plays a part in your storytelling. You want website landing pages that deliver on the promises made by paid ads and social posts. These pages also help bolster online presence, giving your brand more real estate when searchers look to find out more about the company. Keep your images high-quality on these landing pages, but leverage lossless compression with progressive JPEGs to make users and search engines think the content is loading faster.
  4. Offline Advertising: Billboards, TV spots, and magazine ads can still play an important role in visual storytelling. For modern users, there is no offline and online, only different screen sizes. Use traditional media to direct people to your organic landing pages and social channels to get them into the storytelling pipeline.

Functioning as a cohesive unit, these integrated channels give viewers different experiences all geared towards the same goal: delivering a compelling experience that convinces viewers to convert. You don’t need to wait to start one campaign before you begin another, meaning all facets can run in tandem provided you have orchestrated launch procedures for each phase. Don’t post on Facebook just because display ads are running. Make sure your whole team is ready first.

Creating Visual Content for Search Engines

Storytelling with Visual Content

Search engines can have trouble with truly visual storytelling, unless marketers make sure searcher and search engine friendliness is in tandem.

Google, in particular, recently deprecated their rules for crawling AJAX JavaScript, which developers generally love to use in their coding, recommending a different set of best practices.

There are also concerns with other rich media, including Flash, that you need to consider before your campaign launches. If you brush past this phase of project planning, your storytelling might hit a significant roadblock with search engines.

Here are some concerns you need to keep in mind:

  1. Crawling AJAX JavaScript: Google recommends HTML coding with progressive enhancement, if your web development wants to use AJAX. This strategy essentially layers a given web page’s coding with simple HTML that contains all the essential elements to render content on the bottom and all the fancy JavaScript elements on top.
  2. Flash Media: Using Adobe Flash to power rich media, especially for mobile campaigns, is perilous at best. Google sent out warnings to websites using predominantly Flash in their construction in 2014, meaning it’s better for your marketing efforts to use other routes, including HTML5 and CSS rules, on site. Because Flash generally relies on rollover actions from a mouse, media created with them won’t work on touchscreens.
  3. The Right Meta Tags: Want to help all those images you created to get crawled by search engines and indexed? Optimize their image tags to describe the pictures in two to three words. A rich description helps search engines understand the content better, giving it a better chance of showing higher in image search results.
  4. Ad Blockers: New ad blocking software and apps rising in prominence for mobile can stop far more than display advertising. Many outright block JavaScript from rendering on smartphones and other devices. Download several of the most popular and test your campaign images on a live page to make sure they render prior to launch.
  5. Robots.txt File: This file controls what search engines can crawl on your site and what files they choose to leave out of their indexes. If someone on your team mistakenly blocks access to JavaScript containing folders, which was actually best practice several years ago, search bots won’t see your pages at full render. To check, head over to Search Console and request a “Fetch as Google” to see how the search engine sees your pages. If you get a “Partial” response, you have blocked resources on your hands.

Google and other search engines get better at crawling and understanding JavaScript with each new release, which happens almost every day. In many cases, search engines can render all visual components of landing pages without your development team needing to take extra steps. It’s still a smart idea to loop in all stakeholders, including your SEO, when developing your campaign so you don’t find a problem after it’s too late to fix it.

Gauging Success of Visual Content Campaigns

Finding out if your storytelling campaign was successful is about identifying the right metrics and goals.

If the goal of your efforts were to increase brand presence, then the views, shares, and likes generated across social channels are an ideal place to start. Naturally, business owners will want a more clear path to revenue generation or conversion, but that’s not the end goal of these content marketing efforts. If you’re using paid channels like display networks and Adwords, you’ve already got dashboards that can clearly attributes revenue.

What you want to show is the increase in unique visits to your pages, both social media outlets and website, as well as increases in targeted geographies at the campaign’s conclusion. Also analyze bounce rates, page views, and time spent on site for storytelling pages from the campaign’s start through to its finish.

Are You Integrating Visual Storytelling into Your Internet Marketing Strategy?

Online marketing continues to evolve, from vibrant interactive visuals to the devices consumers use to access the web. How your business and its marketing adjusts to these progressions will dictate the growth or stagnation of your efforts.

Getting started with visual storytelling is not nearly as difficult or resource draining as many people have come to believe. Start by grabbing your phone / camera and snapping pictures or videos of the things that compliment the story you’re trying to tell. As you get more comfortable documenting your experiences your eye for quality will increase and thus your story will become more interesting and easy to follow.

Need an extra push to get your visual storytelling efforts underway? Let’s talk!

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Vinny La Barbera

I’ve been working in online marketing since 2000 and have helped thousands of companies improve their online presence and grow their business through better web / mobile design, development and online marketing.Learn more about me or follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.