When talking about native campaign performance, headlines tend to get all the attention. But the preview image plays just as important a role in the reader's decision to engage (or not) with brand content. Compelling visuals have long been at the center of creating great social content, which is all native -- it matches the look and feel of the content around it. As advertising moves in-feed, images have become just as important for boosting engagement with native advertising in traditional (non-social) publisher platforms as well.
As with headlines, the art of a good preview image is evolving into a science. Here are seven essentials to picking a successful preview image for your native campaign:
The goal is for readers to connect with content, and think a brand just gets them. Generally, that's more likely to happen if readers feel they look like the people they see in photos. In other words: Use real people, not models. Know your demographic, and show you understand them.
Don't make stock images the default
Stock images are a valuable resource when a brand doesn't have assets for a specific campaign, but beware the photo that is not true to real life. Does someone in the photo look a little too thrilled to be in a meeting, or like he or she is dressed for an office circa 1980? You're trying to create a brand experience to which people will relate, not a meme.
Avoid product shots
You don't see a lot of Instagram photos of jars of tomato sauce. You do see a lot of Instagram photos of beautiful bowls of pasta with rich red sauce, a grating of cheese, and a bright blue basil leaf; maybe even on a table surrounded by friends or family. Highlight the experience of the product, not just the product. The goal is to inspire positive associations and emotion. Images should also be hi-res, in eye-catching colors, to maintain the quality level readers expect from their trusted publishers.
Align with the headline to extend the story
If there's a disconnect between the preview image and headline -- regardless of how nice an image it is -- it's a missed opportunity to provide further insight into the substance of the content. The reader needs this connection to engage: they're tired of clickbait, and want to know what they're getting into with a story. Use the preview image to add dimension.
Honor the editorial context
If you're running a native campaign across several content verticals, make sure it honors these placements to avoid looking spammy. For example, let's say you have an auto campaign that is distributed not only to the auto vertical, but also to family and parenting -- maybe it's a piece on teaching your teenager how to be a safe driver. A preview image with a parent handing over the keys will honor both placements, but without the family element, the story will look out of place amongst family and parenting editorial.
Just make sure that there isn't too much going on in the photo, as busy images are not cross-device friendly. Have substance, but keep it simple.
Establish seasonal relevance
Seasonal components establish why a piece of editorial is relevant now. A preview image should similarly enforce what's meaningful to the reader when they discover the content, including the appropriate seasonality. This is the reason you'll soon see fashion and style preview images transition from people wearing light jackets and sweaters to down coats and knit hats (sigh).
Test, test, test
As with any digital campaign, good optimization strategies involve diligent A/B testing. Branded content is no different, and allows even more opportunities to test various elements that constitute the ad. Launching your native campaign with two preview images instead of one can boost the click-through rate (CTR) by nearly twenty percent, so take every opportunity to test and optimize. You will derive more meaningful learnings if the two images are very diverse, rather than two versions of similar subject matter. Even with best practices there are countless variables impacting performance. You have no idea (or control, unfortunately), over what else will appear in the news cycle or on a site during the time a campaign is live. Give yourself some options to stand out in a publisher feed.
When brands and marketers talk about social campaigns, there's no confusion about the importance of visuals. It's time to expand that thinking into native. Social campaigns are native, after all: they match the look and feel of surrounding content. As advertising continues to move in-feed to follow where the consumer's attention is, images are critical to driving engagement on traditional publisher platforms, as well.
Still fixated on headlines? Well, here's one: Let's give preview images the attention they deserve! As the idiom goes, a picture's worth a thousand words, but it's the resulting campaign performance that'll really speak volumes.
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