Re-vision: why brands need to adapt to the Visual Web

Our culture is becoming more visual.   We’re becoming more visually astute and shifting to an image-based vocabulary that relies on photos, emojis, videos and other imagery, especially the short snippets shared via mobile social networks like Vine and Instagram, often supplanting or minimising the need for text.

This is broadly a good thing for communication, not least because there are material benefits to ‘speaking visual’.  90 per cent of the information that comes to the brain is received and processed visually because it’s most likely to stick in our long-term memory. Our overstuffed brains, which process visual information 60,000 times faster than text, crave this new visual vocabulary.

The visual web has fuelled an explosion of memes that create a real cultural impact.   The Ice Bucket Challenge and The Dress were two of the biggest memes of the last twelve months, while sub-trends like planking, coning and vadering crop up now and then, taking over social feeds like locusts and disappearing just as quickly.

Ice bucket challengers drench themselves for ALS

Like them or not, selfies and other image trends are proof that a cultural system is in place.  Although we do appear to have hit ‘peak selfie’.

Facebook is the world’s biggest photo publisher with users posting 300 million images a day.   70% of actions taken on social media involve visuals, and users are getting very good at consciously self-optimising likes on this basis.  We know, for example, that photos deliver between 300% and 400% more engagement than text alone.

Twitter of course grew from a purely text based model, but is now embracing images and video like never before with the launch of Periscope – a live video streaming service.

Meanwhile, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat and the $19 billion dollar WhatsApp continue to break records and forge new forms of creative expression, and Tinder takes dating based on looks alone to its logical conclusion.

The top 6 mobile apps of last year were all either strictly visual or included visual capabilities.   Mobile usage increased globally by 76% in 2014 but this is only the thin end of the wedge.  Data compiled by Cisco indicates that global mobile usage will grow 11 times to 15 exabytes per month by 2018. Cross that data with the growth of visual apps, and a compelling case can be made for the likelihood that images, video and the like will permeate human culture for the foreseeable future.

We’re going to have to get our heads around this.

With attention spans attenuating, brands need to translate their assets into easy to process visuals which can quickly convey information in ways that text cannot.   They need to join the feed by finding their own visual voices or helping consumers to do so.  This means that we’re going to have to think beyond the traditional 30” TV ad and 25×4 print ad.

Snapchat recently revealed that the best performing shows and ads on their platform are those that are shot vertically.   When horizontal videos pop up, they play in a downsized screen in the middle with a void above and below—kind of the opposite of how widescreen looked on old TV sets.  Mobile phones are vertical devices and turning one sideways is a lot of unnecessary extra work, so brands need to optimise the experience accordingly.

Facebook is leading the way as the world’s biggest photo publisher with users posting 300 million images a day.

Designing brand communications for people who are on their phones every day requires a different approach to traditional media.  When we talk about a visual language, communicating consistently over time becomes really important, because mobile visual apps tend to be feed-based environments.

A good place to start thinking about a brand’s visual language across the web would be to run an image SEO audit.    Are your brand’s visuals optimized for Google, Pinterest and Flikr or are they invisible? Where do your visuals land? On what kind of searches, boards or forums?

Pinterest’s Guided Search product shows how researching and sharing visual information ultimately pulls users towards a real life experience or purchase.  Blippar have gone a stage further by experimenting with a visual browser that enables users to search by images in the offline world.  Visual search has huge potential for a wide range of categories and early movers in this space will be able to quickly gather insights into what works best.

In-image advertising means we can work with in-editorial formats to match specific images on a website to related ads, often leveraged in native advertising campaigns. These can take several forms, ranging from display ads and product information overlaid on photos, to video or rich media ad units that only appear when the user engages by hovering or clicking on the ad.

This technology is still in a nascent stage of development and marketplace acceptance, but there are plenty of opportunities to test visually optimised campaigns using such formats.

We also need to think about how they can harness the visual web for insight.  In a now classic experiment, Moleskine asked users to answer the question: What’s In Your Bag?  Thousands replied, providing the brand with an avalanche of vivid detail that a text-based methodology would struggle to compete with.

Pinterest could also be considered as a marketing research tool. All things aspirational show up on Pinterest boards. They’re a product-based, dream-centered wish list that could be used to create product or brand driven board and used to harvested significant feedback on brands.   What does the brand mean visually?   What’s getting pinned from the brand’s site? What’s ignored?

Pinterest could also be used to aid product development as a springboard for rapid prototyping and selection in the fashion arena for example.

In summary, our screens are only going to get brighter, faster and sharper.   Curating the right visuals and finding a consistent visual ‘voice’ can help brands create content that consumers respond to, driving ongoing value for their business.   But understanding the ever-changing visual web landscape will require a new set of skills, tools and applied creativity.

This piece was written by Simon Harwood, Head of Futures at PHD.

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