The promise of social media was a promise of storytelling: marketers could finally weave away from the constraints of space (print) and time (TV, radio ads) to create entire narratives about their brands. It was the first time that brands could speak to consumers directly, in their own voice, and create a story and a mythology about their products. It lead to a veritable renaissance in marketing; ad campaigns such as the Old Spice Guy, who responds directly (and hilariously) to tweets, would have been impossible before the social media revolution.
Now, marketers have to prepare for another churn in the social media cauldron with the rise of visual social media.
Marketing space is shrinking: from 500 word blog posts to 100 word Facebook status updates to 140 character Tweets, the evolution of social media has been accompanied by a constant shrinking of space for words. Now, we’re switching to tumblogs and Pinterest, reducing narrative space even further to just an image.
But, as they say, a picture speaks a thousand words.
Creating a Visual Media Marketing Strategy
A visual media marketing strategy would involve distributing images, memes, and infographics across diverse platforms to create a narrative about your brand and the cultural ethos it subscribes to. At the same time, it would involve subsuming these marketing efforts with your brand image as well. The media you distribute online should be in sync with your brand’s dominant visual values.
Consider Apple. It subscribes to strikingly memorable visual values: clean, spare, minimalist and efficient. Remember those iPod ads with the dancing silhouettes? Or the iPhone ads with a finger navigating through the phone’s interface? Even Apple’s site shows the company’s dominant visual ideology: plenty of white space, with focus on the products and no visual clutter. There are certain words you instantly attach to Apple when you see their products or their ads: high-tech, high-end, beautiful.
The first step in crafting a visual media strategy, thus, would be to understand your own brand and its visual culture. Yahoo is kitschy, Google is minimalist, Gawker is irreverent, and Nike is energetic, and their visual marketing reflects these values.
Craft Your Visual Media
Internet culture has decidedly different visual tastes than main street culture. For one, it is besotted with memes, infographics, and Instagram images. You’ll need to leverage and tailor each of these different visual media forms to your brand’s values for an effective visual marketing campaign. Let’s take a closer look at these forms:
- Memes: A new meme explodes on the Reddit and 4Chan virtually every day. The Cheezburger network has created a huge online brand by leveraging these memes. Marketers should keep a close eye on Reddit and 4Chan to spot new memes and incorporate them into their marketing campaign, whether it is for SEO, or for aligning customers with your brand values.
- Infographics: Infographics serve three purposes – they inform your target audience of a pressing problem (with your brand as the solution), advertise your brand’s values (visual and otherwise), and generate SEO benefits. Mint.com famously used infographics extensively to grow its brand to the tune of a $170M exit to Intuit. An entire sub-industry has now popped up specializing in infographics.
- Cartoons and Comics: Original comics aren’t limited to the New Yorker anymore. Even small bloggers such as Jason Cohen of A Smart Bear blog utilize cartoons and comics to grow their online presence. Online comics themselves have morphed into influential businesses, such as The Penny Arcade.
- Images: This rather broad category covers everything from Instagram pictures that inhabit their own particular visual culture, to ordinary images shared through Pinterest and Facebook that showcase your brand values. The trick is to finding/creating and publishing images that show what your brand is really like. Think of how an Armani advertisement exists in its own visual vacuum that is easily identifiable. With the platforms described below, you have a similar opportunity to propagate your brand values through images.
Leverage Platforms for Maximum Impact
In the early days of social media, you could get away with just a WordPress blog, and perhaps a Twitter account.
You’ll need to embrace multiple platforms and maintain a presence on different websites if you are to maximize the impact of your visual marketing endeavors. Some important platforms from a visual media marketing perspective are:
Pinterest has led the revolution in visual media. The site now refers more traffic than Yahoo and had 17.8 million unique visitors in February 2012. The simple image sharing ‘pinboard’ dominates the conversation in visual media. Any visual media marketing campaign must depend heavily on Pinterest for distribution and content promotion.
WordPress powers roughly 15 percent of the top 1 million websites in the world. Blogging may have lost its sheen to shinier social media apps of late, but your blog remains the home turf from which every marketing campaign must be launched. Consider TechCrunch’s use of incongruous images in post headlines, or Cracked.com’s humorous images and “photoplasty” competition. Even GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons’ zany videos with their kitschy aesthetic values place the audience in the cultural frame embodied by the company.
Tumblr helps you create an maintain ‘tumblogs’. Meant to share pictures, quotes, videos, links and short lines of text, Tumblr has exploded in popularity in the past two years with over 20 billion posts shared on the site. The tumblog format makes it especially easy to share pictures with a single ‘re-blog’ button, and Tumblr should figure high in your visual marketing checklist.
With over 30M users, Instagram is one of the world’s favorite ways to share images online. Brands can leverage Instagram’s unique visual culture to promote their products and culture.
In December 2011, Reddit served the 2 billion monthly page-views mark. With over 30M unique visitors each month, Reddit is one of the busiest websites in the world. It is also one of the best platforms to market your brand. Reddit’s smaller sub-forums (called ‘sub-reddits’) with less than 20,000 subscribers are especially effective for promoting visual content. For example: see how stand-up comedians promote themselves on /r/standupshots, or how fashion brands have found a nook on /r/MaleFashionAdvice.
Winding it up
The key to social visual media success is to be genuine. A half-hearted attempt at fostering a community around your visual values will fall flat on its face. Instead of sticking your brand logo everywhere possible, be more genuine, more patient. Invest in story-telling and craft a grand narrative about your brand and its values.