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Why visual storytelling is the future of digital

Why visual storytelling is the future of digital Chas Edwards

In November 1995, I had a job selling ad space for tech magazines. One afternoon, the office fax machine scrolled out 12 pages worth of insertion orders from a software company I'd been pitching for two months. I did a happy-dance in my cubicle. The order confirmed that the magazine had committed to running a full page ad in every issue published in 1996. I called the client to confirm the mailing address and the creative instructions (i.e., right-reading film, emulsion-side-down, etc.) and got the further good news that the ad creative was already on its way in a FedEx pouch. The ad creative. A single photo with ad copy that would serve as the campaign's creative all year.

Why user-generated content is digital's future

I don't miss the inky mess I'd make of my hands when I had to change the cartridge on that fax machine, but those sure were simpler times in the world of advertising and publishing.

Back then, the brands on the other end of those fax machines could afford to sink significant time and resources into the production of each creative unit. Hiring a renowned photographer, a model, a team of set designers, makeup artists, art directors, and post-production editors might set them back $25,000 for a single photo for a single print ad. But given the enormous role played by that one photograph, it would likely anchor a $15-million national ad campaign across many magazines for months -- the time and dollars invested in getting it exactly right could fairly be called a rounding error. Twenty-five thousand dollars in creative development divided by $15 million in media spend is less than two-tenths of a percentage point.

While the math still works for brands advertising in glossy fashion magazines, there is trouble in paradise. Or rather, paradise has moved to the internet. If brands want to engage with consumers online (which, more and more, is where their consumers spend time), they need to compete with publishers and social media sites that refresh their bins of eye candy every few minutes. By the time they've art directed, developed, and shipped a piece of right-reading, emulsion-side-down film to a publisher, Gangnam Style has been replaced with parody videos of Gangnam Style.

The digital landscape changes fast, and pictures are a main catalyst. Netscape released the first commercially available web browser in 1994, and fewer than 15 years later Flickr housed more than 6 billion photos -- that's more than 450 times the number of photos held by the Library of Congress. In 2009 more than 2.5 billion camera-enabled devices were in the hands of would-be photogs who, in the course of a year, produced 10 percent of all photos ever taken. Instagram -- the mobile photo-sharing app that Facebook bought earlier this year for $1 billion -- measures its customer engagement in uploads-per-second. Back in the quaint old days of December 2011 -- pre-acquisition and before comScore released data showing Instagram's daily usage is now greater than Twitter's -- that engagement was 60 uploads per second. By early 2012 Facebook members were uploading more than 300 million photos every single day to the site.

"This slurry of data signals the end of the Kodak Era where we took photos on birthdays and vacations and shared them only with a small group of friends," said Bob Lisbonne, CEO of Luminate and former SVP for Netscape's browser group. "We've now entered a phase in which visual communication is supplanting the written word -- what some are calling the dawn of the 'imagesphere.'"

Source: 1000 Memories Blog

But it's not taking or uploading pictures that should worry marketers. It's the fact that consumers on the other end of these photos are viewing, engaging with, and generally spending more time with images they see on Facebook, Tumblr, or Pinterest than they used to spend reading the glossy magazines that arrived on the newsstand once a month. Accoring to comScore's Mobile Metrix 2.0 survey, Facebook users are spending more than seven hours per month visiting the site by way of mobile phones alone. Om Malik, founder and editor-in-chief of GigaOM, asserts that photos are the fuel driving the mass migration to social media:

"Photos are the reason many of us continue to engage with Facebook. Facebook has tried many verbs to increase and maintain our engagement with the service -- read, listen, watch. But in the end, it's the photos that work wonders for the Menlo Park, Calif. based social-networking giant."

Research from a team at Harvard Business School supports Malik's claim. A 2009 study finds that 70 percent of all activity inside social networks revolves around photos. Keep in mind that the study was conducted in a time when Facebookers were uploading a mere 31 million photos a day, and MySpace was still relevant enough to be included in a study of social-media sites.

These millions of new photos (or at least those shared by friends and organizations we choose to follow) are pushed to us each day in an unending, ever-updating stream of visual storytelling. We watch our friends' kids grow up in near real-time, and news stories unfold throughout the day as fresh photos replace those from hours or minutes before. Publishers are also responding to their readers' growing appetite for image content with larger high-res photography and the "gallery-ification" of stories as disparate as celebrity news, travel destinations, and business analysis.

According to the Wall Street Journal, roughly one-third of pixel real estate on the web is image content, and those images get old fast. In its first three days on the internet, the average photo has attracted half the total views it will ever attract. If you look at content shared via social media platforms rather than the entire web, the half-life for content is measured in hours not days.

Source: Bitly Blog

And there lies the rub for brands. The changing dynamic of media consumption has changed the rules of marketing in the following three fundamental respects:

"Professional grade" doesn't get the mileage it once did

Sure, the list of most-viewed clips on YouTube includes Justin Bieber music videos, but it also includes quirky independent interviews of people waiting in line for iPhones and home-movie sensations such as "Charlie bit my finger...again." The same goes for photos. Consumer interest no longer tracks with traditional definitions of "photo quality."

There was a time when all media was professional media created and distributed by large publishing companies. At that time, it only made sense for advertisers to polish their creative units to a professional, high production value shine. Good advertising should always seek to imitate the editorial content around it -- "native advertising" has been around long before the internet. There's mounting evidence, however, that recall rates for TV spots and display ads in magazines are declining, despite the professional expertise that goes into their creation. Nowadays, relevance trumps production value.

Now that amateur photographers have gained access to distribution -- Google might lead you to an independent photoblog, Instagram might introduce you to some great photos from an excellent hobbyist -- consumers are dividing the world of photos into "interesting" and "not interesting," as opposed to "professional" and "amateur." Interesting no longer requires the talents of a professional.

Attention deficit disorder has become a lifestyle choice

A trend that's probably as old as the publishing industry has achieved fever pitch: content miniaturization. Articles get shorter and shorter, yet readers still can't get to the end of them. I mean, who has time to read the entire tweet anymore? Audience ratings seem to suggest that frequency and freshness of content are trumping quality and depth. In a world where tapping our thumbs on the Instagram icon on our iPhones unleashes an endless stream of photos taken in the last four hours, looking again at last month's print ad for Prada strikes many modern consumers as boring. 

Consumption is giving way to interaction

There's an activity that's even more popular than posting pictures: "liking" and commenting on pictures. It's a sign that we define ourselves not only through our own pictures, but also by associating with other people's pictures. It's this instinct that explains the growth of Pinterest -- the social network that rocketed to 10 million users faster than any social network before it. It's not built on photo-sharing in the sense that Instagram or Facebook are (i.e.,"Hey, check out my pictures") -- it's about photo-assembling (i.e.,"I've collected these pictures so you understand who I am and what I care about"). According to research by Pew, 41 percent of us find photos and videos online and re-post them on sites designed for sharing with others. In fact, it's one of the most popular things we do on the internet.

In order for brands to embrace these new platforms for photo mixing and mashing, they need to get comfortable with their images being separated from the carefully assembled context of yesterday's print ad or the spring catalog, and being extracted from the traditional models that protect ownership rights and pay out talent royalties. Your customers want to befriend you and play with you, but that game is going to be on their terms.

So what's a brand to do?

"The creative departments at traditional agencies simply can't adapt to this new world," said John Battelle, founder of Federated Media and the first managing editor of Wired Magazine. The old rhythm of branded storytelling -- devise the big idea, take a month to convert it into an artistic piece of advertising, and then enlist the media department to implant it deep into the skulls of consumers through mass media -- is losing its efficacy. Agencies will continue to find success producing professional-grade assets and distributing them around tent-pole events, but they're ill equipped for the in-between times -- the 363 days a year that don't feature the Super Bowl or the Oscars. The beefy muscles built up over years of pumping out 30-second TV spots and full-page print ads aren't well suited for the marathon running required by lasting social-media conversations. "Brands need to catch up to media," said Battelle. To do so, brands are going to need some help.

"Most creative agencies don't see themselves as ongoing, real-time publishers -- that's the business of, well, publishers," said Battelle. "I predict the two will merge over time -- agencies must become more like publishers, and publishers are going to have to learn how to service brands like agencies do."

Federated Media says the solution is a distributed, crowd-sourced model for branded content creation, and it invites advertisers to tap the talents of "the world's largest creative department" -- the 30 million some-odd bloggers affiliated with FM that range from the vast army of small WordPress publishers to large-reach sites such as Boing Boing or Notcot.

Source: Tom Ryabo, featured on Intel's "My Life Scoop"

Three years ago, David Veneski, Intel's director of U.S. media, took FM up on the offer for a program called "My Life Scoop." While the site features periodic updates on products like Intel-powered Ultrabooks, the bulk of the content is created by a broad array of independent content producers who speak the native language of Intel's customers -- those young, affluent people who seek out cutting-edge tech gadgets to enhance their lives. The imagery that accompanies the site's content is not highly produced. Instead, the emphasis is on fit, tone, and relevance. The photos and videos collected, curated, and presented to "My Life Scoop" readers are done so at a fraction of the cost associated with a professional shoots. The content is on-message, frequently refreshed, and invites social amplification. Nearly 50,000 Twitter users are following the "My Life Scoop" feed, and 100,000 Facebook members have "liked" it.

"It's important to us that we provide an authentic and compelling brand story for our target audience," said Veneski. "We find that visuals and imagery -- both photos and video -- alongside written content, offer a way of telling a story that is more interesting to the people we want to reach."

Source: GE's Tumblr

General Electric has taken an even more stripped-down approach. On Tumblr, the company created (with help from the Barbarian Group) a corporate site that is nothing but photos. You'll only find text where it's used to caption or hashtag a photo. What's initially surprising is that airplane engines, smart LED bulb testing facilities, and gardens decked out with PulseArc Multi-Vapor metal halide lamps are quite photogenic -- especially when they've been dolled up with an Instagram filter. Without set designers, models, or professional photographers, GE is telling its story with frequent, low-cost iPhone pictures. More importantly, GE fans are spreading this story to their networks complete with comments and hashtags.

And the "interactivity" isn't just something that occurs after the brand unleashes the content -- GE uses Twitter to invite its social-media followers to pick the locations of future photos.

Source: GE's Twitter account

Without breaking the bank or getting reckless with its brand, GE found a path to social-media relevance. The brand is leaning into the consumer acceptance of spontaneous, inexpensive photo storytelling. This isn't just reducing production costs, either -- it's giving GE a stream of highly sharable content nuggets to satisfy the short attention span types and the sharers.

In other words, the company is speaking our language -- the one in which every missive is worth a thousand words.

Chas Edwards is CRO of Luminate.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Chas Edwards joined Luminate in 2010 as CRO and head of publisher development. Before Luminate, Chas served as publisher and chief revenue officer at Digg, the site that allows readers to organize content from across the web by voting on what they...

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