Look at a picture.
You probably comprehended the image in about one-tenth of a second, far less time than it took you to read this sentence. Your brain processed that image 60,000 times faster than it did for text. And your mind can process 36,000 images in an hour. Words? Not as much.
These little facts make visual storytelling effective. And marketers are aware that pictures tell stories faster than words, provided you find the right pictures and place them in a certain order. Do this right and you can sell a product. Do it wrong and you will just confuse the customer.
Mastering the basics
“For us, it’s how we supply an overall grand narrative with visuals,” said Katie Re, brand strategist for digital creative agency Artversion. Indeed, much of visual storytelling is about mastery of the basics. “It’s important to understand the style and tone of the brand itself,” Re said.
Understand the customer. Find the right images that inspire engagement. Use images to break up text, and balance text and images. “It’s important not to overwhelm the user,” Re said.
The elements that make for good storytelling can be small, additive and mutually reinforcing. Infographics can be more interactive if you can make an icon or graphic change slightly when the cursor hovers over it, Re noted. Pay attention to the landing page, and more importantly, to any visual element that marks the point where a user leaves the page. “Pay attention to bounce rates,” Re said.
Then there are things you don’t do. Don’t use more than three different fonts for text. “Stick to traditional graphics, but make it more interesting visually,” Re continued. Trying something crazy or experimental is not good, “even when it is cool,” she said.
Set the mood
A talented visual designer can certainly craft a competent web site to promote a product or service. But there is a little more to it. “You have to evoke a mood or emotion through editing or pictures,” said Gregg Bleakney, founder and director of creative agency WhereNext.
This insight came to Bleakney after quit his tech job and sold everything he owned to bike ride from the top of North America to the bottom of South America, blogging all the way over the course of two years. His periodic updates, taken together, told a story, which was a different approach than just sending a bunch of postcards. “That’s where I learned to [do] visual storytelling. I learned by accident.” he said.
Bleakney described visual storytelling this way: it can be a video of someone riding a rollercoaster, which is exciting, but brief. Or it can be a video of a man and a woman on a rollercoaster, and it’s their first date. The first is a rush. The second is a story that can have an emotional connection with the audience.
“You make yourself more vulnerable when you tell a story,” Bleakney said. You have to be consistent about your morals, beliefs and ethics. He gave Nike as an example when it featured NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as it’s hero. This was not going to be popular with everyone in Nike’s audience, Bleakley pointed out, but the number of supporters gained exceeded the number lost. “Telling our brand story makes us vulnerable,” he said.
You’re not making an ad
Shlomi Ron, CEO of the Visual Storytelling Institute, defined the practice this way: Use a three-act story, make the customer the hero, and use a visual format. A good visual story “should not feel like an ad,” he said.
“There needs to be a strategy,” Ron said. Marketers need to set a business goal and develop a good understanding of the audience they are trying to reach, understand how the customer journey works, then map out the visual storytelling approach that synchs with that customer journey, he explained. Then the “storytellers” have to become their own critics, analyzing their work against their competitors’ efforts, and also looking out for what works and what fails in their own content.
The length of the content is going to have an inverse relationship with the customer’s location in the sales funnel. A short video is enough to introduce a product to a consumer at the top of the funnel, Ron noted. Bandwidth and attention span will increase as the consumer journey descends down the funnel.
Eventually, long form videos come into play. “It feels like real content from a movie production house,” Ron said, with the brand message integrated into the content.
Mirroring the customer
Research and testing can guide visual storytelling — up to a point. After that, talent and sensibility must cover the next step from basic presentation to successful campaign.
Social media can give the marketer the tools needed to test messages to gauge their effectiveness, Bleakley said. “We have feedback.” And to some extent, the platform will dictate strategy.
“Any story created is going to be a mirror, if it reflects the personal story of the customer,” Ron said. Getting there requires time, research, intelligence and creativity.