By Erica Velis
Not so long ago, the web was all about text—but that is quickly changing. Considering the swift proliferation of memes and infographics in the past few years, the Twitter-led trend toward reduction of text in online communications, and the immense popularity of YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram, there’s no denying that visual content will be a potent digital force in 2013.
HARNESSING THE POWER OF IMAGE IN A DIGITAL WORLD
Visual content has been playing a more important role in how we communicate for at least half a century, but the internet—and now the shift to mobile—is accelerating this trend exponentially. From “Binders Full of Women” to “Gangnam Style,” viral videos and images are highly influential, changing the way we vote, communicate, eat, shop and…dance, for better or worse.
For today’s companies, deploying brand imagery and branded content in effective, culturally meaningful ways is no longer a fun side project or an occasional departure from the norm in marketing. For the foreseeable future, it’s an absolute necessity for any brand that wants to stay relevant.
A PEEK INSIDE THE DIGITAL CONTENT REVOLUTION
Time-crunched, easily bored, and always in search of the next new thing, consumers want information quickly, and they want it to be easily digestible. They also want their digital interactions with a brand to be seamless and rewarding, as they have a lot competing for their attention—including content they’re generating themselves.
Take, YouTube, for instance. The third most-visited site on the web has seen amazing growth just since last year. More than 800 million people around the world use YouTube each month, a stat that is expected to increase to a billion in the near future. With more than one trillion views in 2011, 72 hours of video uploaded every minute, and four billion hours of video watched each month, the numbers are simply mind-boggling. With nearly 55% growth in 2012, online video is the fastest growing ad format. Further, Internet Retailer reports that 85% of viewers are more likely to purchase a product after watching a video. In short, video content is a digital must in 2013.
Then, there’s Facebook. The number two site on the web in terms of traffic, it’s also the largest photo-sharing site with over 2.5 billion photos uploaded each month. With a new plug-in to make sharing photos on the site even easier, that number is sure to increase. While video is shared on Facebook as well, photos really rule on this platform and perform best for likes, comments and shares compared to text, video and links. In fact, a recent study conducted by HubSpot found that, on both B2B and B2C branded Facebook pages, photos received 53% more likes and attracted 104% more comments than posts without an image.
Also contending for dominance in the arenas of social content-sharing and socially-driven marketing are Tumblr and Buzzfeed. With more than 200 million monthly visitors and 18 billion page views, the success of Tumblr, with its dashboard interface and minimal text, is more proof that shareable, visual content drives digital engagement. Buzzfeed, once famous for its light-hearted animated GIFs and other meme-worthy internet ephemera, continues to fuel buzz with shareable, viral media. More freewheeling, flippant and visual than Facebook, these growing platforms are capturing a larger share of the digital audience and social web, particularly millennials.
Pinterest, a site that only opened to the public in August of 2012, is now one of the top 35 most visited sites on the web, gaining more traffic than Apple, Blogger.com, or Craigslist. Interestingly, women make up about 82% of active users on Pinterest, according to Google. Providing an opportunity to interact with customers and build communities online while feeding the desire for curated visual content, Pinterest drives significant sales directly from its website and generates more referral traffic for businesses than Google+, YouTube, and LinkedIn combined.
To sum up, the percentage differences between 2012’s digital stats and the stats of previous years are substantial—and emphasize a huge opportunity for businesses to use photos, videos and images as a means to drive web traffic, build brand value, increase social media buzz, and promote products and branded content.
"Not only do consumers want—and respond to—visual content, but they also want it anywhere, anytime. "
USING VISUAL CONTENT TO DRIVE ENGAGEMENT
Not only do consumers want—and respond to—visual content, but they also want it anywhere, anytime. Tablets, larger phones and 4G technologies have made watching video on mobile easier and more appealing to consumers. Despite its small form factor, 66% of mobile phone users watch an hour or more of video on their phones each week. In North America, mobile video consumption increased by 27% and mobile video subscriptions are already generating billions in revenue. YouTube saw mobile video views triple over the last year. People are on the move, they have devices with them 24/7 and a photo, graphic or video is much easier to view, "like" and share than long-form text. That’s not to say that verbal content isn’t still important—we maintain that it certainly is—but, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words for brands that want people to stop and pay attention.
Visuals are no longer supplementary for brands; they are primary forms of digital communication. Psychologist Albert Mehrabian demonstrated that 93% of communication is nonverbal, while 3M researchers found that we process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Further studies have found that the human brain deciphers image elements simultaneously, while language is decoded in a linear, sequential manner taking more time to process. Simply put, when it comes to quick, clear communication (and immediate emotional impact), one might assume that visuals will trump text almost every time—especially in the digital age.
Yet, without words—the right words—a graphic may be lost to ambiguity or fail to reach people. As Robert E. Horn, a scholar at Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information, has said, "When words and visual elements are closely entwined, we create something new and we augment our communal intelligence…visual language has the potential for increasing ‘human bandwidth'—the capacity to take in, comprehend, and more efficiently synthesize large amounts of new information." As brands plan and execute their digital strategy for 2013 and beyond, bear in mind that what’s happening today is not merely a process of substituting images for text. We are entering a new communication paradigm—facilitated and quickened by digital technology and platforms—that integrates image and language in fresh, novel and exciting ways. In 2013, as the numbers suggest, whoever effectively wields this intelligence will have a powerful advantage over their competition.