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When GE first started experimenting with social media, it did what everyone else was doing: It posted 140-character messages on Twitter and uploaded its commercials to Facebook. While some of those posts performed well, as more people started using these platforms, it realized it had to do something different to increase engagement. They needed to shout louder, as Sydney Williams, the company’s head of global social media told me.
GE decided to focus more on visual content, such as video, infographics, and photography. The company created original videos to post on Facebook, set up an Instagram account to publish journalistic-style photos, and it began churning out infographics to help make its more complex lines of business easier to understand. Engagement quickly soared, and the GE saw a much higher percentage of click throughs when the content was visually interesting.
Now, about 99% of GE’s social content comes with some sort of visual element. And while it’s one of the leaders in this space, many others are producing eye-catching content, too. Vennage, an infographic creation company, surveyed 300 marketers and found that the majority of respondents incorporated visual material in more than 91% of their published content, while 90% of those surveyed said they used visual content in at least half of their posts.
But why are visuals so powerful? This is a question most marketers can’t explain – they just instinctively know that image-heavy content generates more engagement. So I set out to see if I could find a scientific answer to the question.
First of all, science does indeed prove that humans have a strong reaction to visual information. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that the human brain can process entire images in as little as 13 milliseconds.
Another study that tested memory recall found that people could only remember 10% to 20% of the information they read after three days. When people digested the same information visually, the number jumped to nearly 65%.
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But why do we have such a visceral reaction to visuals? Asking Danielle Szafir, an assistant professor with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Information Science, provides an interesting answer: it may be related to evolution.
Szafir explains to me that when we used to pick berries, for instance, our visual systems would let us quickly choose the good ones from the bad. Our eyes also helped us instantly identify dangerous situations, and because we can ascertain a lot of info at glance, our brains gave us the evolutionary advantage of fight or flight, Szafir tells me.
While we may not be faced with the same kinds of life-and-death choices today, our brains are still hardwired to extract copious amounts of information from what we see. Within half a second of viewing something, we already know how colors are distributed and how space is segmented, says Szafir. That process allows us to more easily remember the things we witness with our own eyes.
Images have a kind of voracity and real specificity that words don’t have.
When I ask a neurologist about the importance of visuals, the explanation comes with a story of a cup on a table. According to this specific neurologist, Dr. Anjan Chaterjee, member of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, out of all the senses, visuals may be the most important.
Say someone sees a cup on a table and wants to grab it. That information – the cup and its placement on the table – will travel through the person’s eyes and into the visual cortex, which is near the back of the brain. The mind then maps out our motor behaviors, which causes our arm muscles to contract and, ultimately, reach for the cup. A fairly complicated process.
If the person’s eyes are closed and they receive detailed instructions on where the cup is on the table, they would still have trouble reaching for it. That means images have a kind of voracity and real specificity that words don’t have, Chaterjee explains.
Icons work because they’re simple.
Saying all that, our brains won’t react to just any old graph, image or video, says Chaterjee. He points to Olympics icons – of weightlifters, fencers, runners, and others – as a good example of the kinds of images that work best.
If the Olympics used words to indicate where a sporting event was taking place, it would need to write it in various languages, which wouldn’t be efficient. It could show an image of actual people fencing, but that would give off too much information, he says, because people would wonder why they were showing a Russian fencer instead of a Chinese or American one. That information would simply be too specific.
Icons work because they’re simple. Since we all know what fencers look like, our brains can immediately recall everything we know about the sport. To this, Szafir adds that humans can identify faces or natural objects in a split-second, but struggle with more abstract images. Cluttered visuals, which distract our focus, are also less effective.
For marketers, that means figuring out how to convey information in a memorable way, without sacrificing important details, something Szafir says is difficult to do. Some creative thinking can help, though. Say you want to create an agricultural industry-related graph – consider using yellow bars for corn and orange lines for pumpkins. That has two benefits: bright colors grab people’s attention better than dark ones and the color association with pumpkins and corn allows us to quickly process additional information about what we’re seeing.
Another reason why visuals are so effective today is that we’re living in a more visual world, says Chaterjee. We’re exposed to far more images than we have been in the past, in part because of social media, which is littered with video and photos. Our attention spans are shorter, too.
One of the businesses that have understood the need for visuals is KPMG Canada. Over the last five years, the team of designers has grown from 10 to 22 people, all of whom are churning out infographics and videos for a variety of platforms.
In 2012, the global accounting firm was producing some infographics, but they now create hundreds of pieces a year. When asked how many, Sherry Gu, the director of national creative services for KPMG Canada, says it is impossible to give a number.
When asked for the reason for the increase, the answer is much more simple: Because visuals work. Four years ago, the company began producing a global CEO outlook survey – it’s a 16-page text-heavy document on where executives think business is headed in the coming year. For the first two years, the executive summary was mostly text, outlining the results of the survey. A couple of years ago, Sherry Gu decided to turn the summary into an infographic highlighting the most important parts of the report, and it was a success. It received more clicks, and people would look at the infographic and then dig into the report if they had time.
More than 25,000 people visited its video modules, while 43.5% interacted with “learn more” tags that were placed throughout the video.
Sherry Gu agrees that simplicity is crucial with our shorter attention span. People need to grasp complex concepts as quickly as possible, which means a video should be at most two minutes, but ideally 30 seconds. An infographic should be clean looking and communicate clearly.
Most importantly, though, it has to tell a story in the same way a print piece might. It all comes down to storytelling - but through visuals. As Sherry Gu puts it: “I think of it as a storyboard on a single page.”
Like KPMG, GE’s also been turning text heavy documents into more visually appealing works. For their most recent annual report, the company took what’s typically a mundane document and created numerous videos, including some 360-degree footage of its factories, and created an interactive, online report. More than 25,000 people visited its video modules, while 43.5% interacted with “learn more” tags that were placed throughout the video. The average viewing time was also 34 seconds or more than double the industry norm of 14.8 seconds, she says.
Visuals can also help wake up our brains.
Ultimately, visuals help set the stage for deeper conversations. In the business-to-business space, which often deals with complex issues, an infographic or eye-catching image can help draw the reader to a white paper that digs deeper into more complicated material.
Visuals can also help wake up our brains, according to David Rock, CEO of the Neuroleadership Institute. In his book “Your Brain at Work,” he points out that when we picture a concept – whether through actual pictures or a story that generates an image in our minds – the visual cortex becomes activated.
These are some of the reasons why I agree with Sydney Williams from GE that visuals will become an even more important part of content creation going forward. For as long as our brains continue to be attracted to images, Sydney Williams will continue making use of eye-catching mediums. And she’s definitely not the only one.
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