The Web might not have been around for too long but it already has a clear direction: away from text and towards images. The first blog platforms invited users to write posts of 1,000 words or longer. Facebook’s smaller text field told people to talk less and update more. Twitter cut things down to 140 characters and the rise of Instagram and Pinterest have made clear that people want to stop typing altogether. They want to show not tell, look not read.
You can see that trend in the figures. The fastest growing social media platforms over the last few years have all been image-based. Pinterest’s growth between 2011 and 2012 was over 1000 percent. It took less than eighteen months for Instagram to go from start-up to over 100 million users and a valuation of a billion dollars.
Two factors have driven that move towards imagery.
The first is the nature of the hardware. According to a recent Pew Research Report into the state of the Internet, two-thirds of US adults use their phones to go online, 58 percent do it on a smartphone and a third of cellphone owners say their phones are now their main way of accessing the Web, not a desktop or a laptop.
As online usage has drifted towards smaller screens viewed for shorter periods, so publishers have turned increasingly towards content formats that can transmit the most information in the shortest period of time. That format is visual.
The second factor has been the results that companies have seen as they turn towards images. Local businesses have found that 60 percent of consumers are more likely to contact them if their images appear in local search results. Engagement on Facebook posts increase by 37 percent if those posts contain pictures. An ROI study in 2012 found that 44 percent of respondents were more likely to engage with brands if they post photos rather than any other media.
However they measure it, companies have consistently found that as users turn to mobile devices and spend more of their time on social media sites, posting pictures has proved to be more effective at building connections with customers than writing text.
Different Pictures Tell Different Stories… And Trigger Different Responses
The effect that those pictures have though varies depending on the type of image the company is using. Dan Tynski, VP of Business Development at Frac.tl, broadly divides imagery into two categories based on their ability on Google Plus to win +1s and comments or shares.
Users, he argues, approve and comment on images for which they show “appreciation.” But they share pictures which chime with their own identity and which allow them some form of “self-expression.” Companies looking for likes, +1s or comments can even post branded content “as long as it’s amusing, aesthetically pleasing, inspirational, or communicative of another positive emotion.”
One example that Tynski uses is a picture of a pyramid of Starbucks drinks that received nearly 1,500 “‘likes’ because it’s a fun, aesthetically pleasing picture.”
That’s a strategy followed by many B2C brands especially in the drinks sector. Bud Light’s Facebook stream consists of little more than well-shot product pictures. Those images, appealing, attractive and heavily branded, generally pick up around 1,000 “likes” each.
Bud Light wins “appreciation” for its appealing product images.
More usually, Tynski says, pictures that win likes and comments as a result of appreciation are more likely to contain shots of people, including portraits and celebrities.
The “self-expression” images that produce shares tend to be lighter, cuter or funnier. Or useful. The example that Tynski provides is a picture of a home-made Starbucks drink with a link to the recipe. Users share that image because the act of sharing shows their friends who they are — the kind of person who would like a homemade Mocha Decadence — and because the link gives their friends useful information.
These kinds of images include memes, animated gifs, quotes, photos of pets and animals, and food pics. They often turn up in the content streams of B2C companies or companies in service industries where product shots would be less effective.
The strategy followed by General Electric’s Facebook stream, for example, is to post a series of images that are informative as well as entertaining. When its followers share them, they tell their friends that they too are intelligent and scientific.
General Electric doesn’t have engaging product photos so it posts images that say “We’re smart.” Users share them to say “I’m smart too.”
GE shines a light on social media images for B2C Fortune 500 firms.
Tynski argues that those two categories produce two different kinds of results: either comments and likes; or shares. In practice, differentiating between images used by large companies based on their results is difficult. The Starbucks drink pyramid that Tynski used as an example of an “appreciation” post received nearly 1,500 +1s on Google Plus but the homemade drink recipe that was offered as an example of a “self-expression” post also gathered an impressive total of more than 1,000 +1s.
Other analysts have divided imagery used by large companies by their subjects. Of those, three main themes turn up again and again:
1. Behind the Scenes Images
The decision to show what happens behind the scenes of a company is both surprising and symptomatic of the change that the rise of imagery has brought to marketing. In breaking down the boundaries between customers and the company, firms are trying to build closer relationships with their buyers. It’s a strategy followed by both B2B and B2C corporations. Walmart’s Facebook stream, for example, is made up largely of catalog shots that show the products that people can find on the store’s shelves. Occasionally though, and it happens about once in every fifteen images, the company also shows pictures of its staff. Those are pictures that pick up few shares but they do generate lots of likes and comments.
BP, a B2C firm, takes a different approach. The company uses pictures of its staff too but mostly to promote content intended to improve recruitment. It does, however, take users to its sites where the oil is being produced. It could just as easily have taken them to the forecourts of its gas stations, the place where customers come in closest contact with the company.
Walmart shows its staff; BP shows its plants.
These images are more commonly found away from consumer-side promotional material and in a company’s investment literature. BP’s website offers presentations on a range of different corporate social responsibility issues. The presentation on People Capability uses on its cover a group of workers on a rig.
BP’s CSR report also takes readers behind the scenes.
Like Walmart’s Facebook stream, the company has also used a picture of its staff in the workplace as a way of showing what the company does, how it does it and who does it for them. For both B2B and B2C firms, the strategy is intended to draw customers and the company closer together, and build trust by showing that it has nothing to hide.
Images that teach skills to users deliver a valuable service. They’re also likely to be shared by users with friends who might benefit from the knowledge contained in the picture.
Initially, this content would have been delivered in the form of a blog post and later as a YouTube video. While both those formats are still in use, it’s now also possible to deliver an entire lesson in just six seconds. Home Depot created a series of stop-motion Vine videos that offered visual lessons in basic home maintenance. More recently, it’s used a combination of image-heavy blog posts and a #LetsDoThis Twitter hashtag to deliver some simple lessons.
Although the images placed in the tweet are intended to serve as samples of the content that can be found on the blog post, in practice they’re often enough to tell most of the story contained in the post’s text.
How-To images don’t work for every company in the Fortune 500, and they’re most likely to work for firms in the retail sector where they help customers get more from their purchase. Where they are suitable though, they deliver valuable information that encourages sales, provides sharing and tells a story about the company.
3. Product Images
More common, and again especially with firms in the retail and food & drinks sectors, are product images. We’ve already seen how Bud Light posts only attractive, professional images of its products in its Facebook stream and in response wins likes and comments of appreciation.
Other firms try to win engagement by encouraging their customers to take product shots themselves. In 2013, whiskey makers Macallan ran a simple contest on Instagram that invited customers to post photos of themselves enjoying a bottle of the whiskey. Each entry had to include the hashtag #meandthemacallan. Winning shots were shown on the company blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed. Instagram encourages these kinds of simple contests by explaining in its help center how to host them.
Some companies though have been more creative. When Ford, a Fortune 500 company known for its adventurousness on social media, wanted to promote some of the features on the new Fiesta, it too turned to a hashtag-based Instagram contest. Each week, users were given a different hashtag which acted as a theme for photographs. The subject was related to an aspect of the car that the company wanted to promote, such as its keyless entry or its rear-view camera but the photographs didn’t need to show the car. Users could upload beautiful pictures of doors, for example.
The best photos were featured in galleries and on digital billboards, and the winning photo won a Ford Fiesta.
More than 16,000 photos were submitted during the six-week contest, giving Ford 120,000 new Facebook fans. Few if any of the images showed the product itself.
Businesses in general and the marketing arms of Fortune 500 companies in particular are increasingly coming to understand the importance of using imagery in their social media platforms, as well as on their promotional material. Those images have measurable effects which may differ according to the type of image used. The choice of images is broad but can be loosely into product shots, behind-the-scenes images and creative variations on those themes, such as how-tos and user-generated contests.
The challenge for companies is to use the right images for the brand — and for the desired result.