In 2008, Steve Jobs took the stage at the Macworld Expo and shared what seemed like a startling statistic: "Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year...People don't read anymore." Many are saying this statement could be seen as a foreshadowing of the explosive growth in visual content. But that wouldn't really be accurate. Direct marketers have long known this; creating compelling visual content has been at the center of their world for years.
People are compelled by strong visuals -- it's why we watch the movie without reading the book, why (prior to digital channels) we scrapbooked ideas for decorating our houses, and why "before and afters" make us buy stuff. Visuals matter. It's also why, nearly a decade ago, platforms like Smugmug, Flickr, and Photobucket were created -- to let people take their photo sharing online.
The biggest difference today is that the new players in the visual platform space -- Facebook, Pinterest, Instragram, and more -- have made it easy; it's easy to collect, easy to share, and, most importantly, easy for brands to get involved.
Yet with that ease of sharing comes important brand considerations. These new platforms are social at their core. So it's instantly about more than putting a few images on a page; it's opening a window into your brand. What companies share must strike a balance between bringing to life a genuine brand story and providing content that inspires and compels action. Furthermore, marketing strategies for how brands engage with consumers should reflect how and why consumers are using those channels.
Following are tips for navigating the waters of these new visual platforms using a combination of direct marketing best practices and our learned understanding of digital and social behavior.
Learn to stomach the sticker shock
If you've ever been a part of a website implementation, you know the biggest sticker shock is always the photography -- how much it costs to produce high quality photo inventory. Yet the rise of new visual platforms has made this component more important than ever. Brands must consider the quality of photography and what images should represent their products and services.
The most pinned image on Pinterest
The good news is that, thanks to these new platforms, your images have a bigger life beyond the walls of your website. Moreover, you can also start to attribute success metrics to individual images. You can follow an image's journey from a website to an individual's social feeds and then back to the website where a purchase is made. In fact, a recent study indicates that more than one in five Pinterest users have pinned an item that they later purchased.
Understand that not all platforms are the same
A visual content strategy is inherently social. That means you have to consider the way people use various platforms and why. Social marketing is as much about relationships as it is about driving action. You could look at the various platforms, and the content you share on them, a little like a foot race: there are marathons, half marathons, and sprints.
Pinterest could be viewed as a half marathon. People there are already in what we like to call "dreaming" mode. They're inspired and actively looking for things that fulfill their interests and passions. As they collect, they start to make decisions that ultimately lead to a purchase. To be successful as a brand, you have to be there from the beginning.
Then, there are marathons. This could occur in virtually any network, but here is a Facebook example. Typically, people on Facebook aren't researching, so they're not in a buying mindset. Yet something might grab their attention and get them to finally take action. For instance, my friends have been talking about doing boot camp for ages. There's a place right around the corner that gets great reviews, yet we still never signed up. What finally tipped the scale was one of those special discount offers from Schwaggle. That promotion was then shared through Facebook. So, my friends didn't go to Facebook to purchase a boot camp package, but they left with one. Multiple channels came together in this marathon to form purchase intent; it was just Facebook that helped close the deal.
Start with both great imagery and great writing
Direct marketers have been preaching the value of visuals and of telling a compelling story in digital for more than a decade -- and in the direct mail space for an easy 50 years. As more brands get into the content business, the clutter is going to rise, and it will become increasingly difficult to find ways to stand out in the crowd.
Do this by blending attractive and relevant visuals with deliberate calls to action (CTAs) or valuable content worth sharing. This is where we can benefit from using direct marketing best practices in combination with what we know about social platform behavior. Look at your photos on Facebook and Pinterest -- which ones get shared? There are patterns of interest and behavior that can be observed and applied. Also, don't forget to have a URL on images that are sans-brand, otherwise you risk a powerful image getting shared with no tie to your company.
For example, Pinterest tends to be a place of inspiration -- food dishes people want to try, places they want to visit, décor they want reflected in their own homes. Play on this with CTAs that appeal to their aspirations. Travel and tourism could use copy that promotes destinations and travel plans. And brands that use recipes as content, such as Coca-Cola and Coffee-mate, could use copy that directs people to it, or even incorporates it directly into the image, making it both easier to share and more actionable. Just don't forget to include actual text on your website to give the search engine some love -- just because we have a new, shiny object to play with doesn't give us permission to forget the basics.
Enable sharing, regardless of the channel
If nothing else, Instagram has proven how powerful enabling sharing can be. So make it easy for people by adding sharing buttons on your site at the individual item level. If you have great content that's designed to compel action, then make it simple for people to use it. Don't forget to ask them to include that ever-popular hashtag.
House Beautiful has taken this to a new level, with an entire article dedicated to letting readers post to Pinterest. Using smartphone apps, readers are able to scan images from the June issue's "Kitchen of the Month" article and post them directly to Pinterest.
Understand the role of measurement
There is a wealth of metrics available for assessing digital marketing performance. It's both a blessing and a curse. While the real-time nature of metrics is an obvious benefit to campaign optimization, lumping in social media doesn't really fit. The things you can measure in social are not necessarily those that will directly drive your business, so brands have to be careful about what they're focusing on.
That being said, it's important to utilize trusted success metrics, such as Net Promoter Score, brand awareness, purchase intent, and sales. When it comes to acquiring new customers, it's also impressions, reach, and frequency, regardless of whether it's digital or "analog." When a content strategy is put into place, it can serve to multiply reach and maximize these success metrics.
Navigating today's visual content trend is all about leveraging marketing fundamentals: Understand your audience, and test and learn what imagery and content generates the greatest results. In today's space, you also need to make sharing frictionless and give people an action to take. If you're new to the space, look back to great writers and designers and learn what made for great results. While we might be living in the digital and social age, people are still largely motivated in the same ways.
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"Hand reaching images streaming" image via Shutterstock.