Think of this like your own mini-coaching session for creating visual content that ties into your brand
Since our other senses are so lame we rely on our eyes.
With a little investment, visual content can bring a company’s real life spirit to the web.
But visual content is a double-edged sword. Doing it right is so overwhelming in fact that when we virtually sat down with three social media experts you know and love (and an experienced graphic designer to help break down the style considerations), we decided to throw out video all together. We’re saving video for another day.
Today, we’re talking images.
Ready to dig into the missed opportunities, the bad moves, and the doable tips that can make or break your visual content?
The opportunities for visuals that businesses often miss
So, what are you not doing enough of? Visual content.
“Visuals just dominate news feeds,” says social media speaker, author, and coach Neal Schaffer. “Content marketers miss opportunities for visuals when they just thrust out content without a visual. [That’s] a key engagement opportunity.”
A blog post without a header image? That’s bad news. But what about social sharing? Are you making sure that when a reader clicks “Share via Twitter” that your lovely header photo is included in the post?
Most social plugins don’t do that automatically. You have to embed a tweet with the media included into your WordPress social plugin. This is an opportunity to make sure that others are helping your content to dominate feeds whenever they click share.
“You want to get the most out of your successful how-to blog posts,” says Laura Rubinstein, AKA Coach Laura, social media marketing expert, speaker, and trainer (and creator of the Savvy Social Media Success System).
“Repurpose [posts] into infographics that can be shared on any network that does visuals,” says Rubinstein. “And make the infographic in the blog post embeddable (with code others can use) so it can be used by others in their blogs.”
She explains that you can put an infographic in its own post, directly in the post it was based on, or both. It all depends. “For Pinterest, it’s best to put it in the original blog post because then it will link back to the post,” says Rubinstein.
As for putting the infographic in a brand new post that simply references the original? That’s a good trick too. “It gives you extra content, it repurposes content, and it drives a lot more traffic because it’s visual,” she says.
Visuals don’t come easy
It can be a struggle just coming up with any images. Some businesses have it easier than others, explains digital marketing consultant and speaker Thomas Dodson. “If you make bicycles, you can take pictures of bicycles all day long,” he says. “You can take pictures of different parts of bicycles, of people riding their bicycles.”
When you move away from products to services, especially more cerebral work like consulting, images become less readily available. “When you’re an accountant, or you’re a speaker, or you’re an author, that visual is not so obvious,” says Dodson. “You do have to challenge yourself to come up with that visual when you don’t work in the tangible world.”
He advocates for an initial brainstorming. Before starting to come up with new ideas, Dodson first challenges clients to examine what visual opportunities they already have.
If you’re struggling with this one, we covered 19 Likeable Instagram Ideas for Businesses.
Maximizing your coverage of events
Events are another missed opportunity. Of course, you’re smart enough to promote your event with images on social media beforehand (perhaps with photos from years prior) but do you promote it during the event? Do you let people know what they’re missing out on so they’ll be sure to make it next time?
“Pre-schedule your visual posts,” advises Rubinstein. At Social Media Marketing World 2016, Rubinstein was playing the role of emcee. “I was moderating a whole track of speakers, introducing them. I tweeted out 15 to 45 minutes before their session an image of them, the room [the workshop] was in, with the [SMMW] hashtag in the image and in the post, and I tagged the speaker if I had their handle. I tweeted that out and shared to Facebook as well.”
She says that all of this was scheduled in advance for every speaker she introduced. She even put the title of the talk on the image, so that a photo of Andrea Vahl showed “Getting Started with Facebook Ads,” the room number, the time and the Social Media Marketing World logo.
For businesses that either attend or host a variety of events, similar imagery to Rubinstein’s is a big opportunity for customized, relevant visual content.
You deliver everything attendees need to know in one quick visual plus inspire a little envy in those who missed out—which works double duty to market your next event.
Businesses don’t just miss out on visual opportunities, they miss out on entire networks. Is every network right for every brand? Of course not. But companies shouldn’t miss out on a key market just because they don’t know how to provide the right content.
“Networks like Instagram and Snapchat require special types of images, so businesses often miss out because they can’t provide those types,” says Schaffer.
Pinterest is another, says Schaffer. “Unless you’re into a key industry that sells to women, businesses miss out on networks like Pinterest because they don’t have visuals that work for being pinned, like infographic, how-to type images.”
Yes, it is possible to go too hard
With everyone singing the praises of visual content, is there such a thing as too much?
Of course. First up in the #goingtoohard list is in-text visuals for the sake of in-take visuals. “If you’re just slapping in a stock photo every 300 words, that’s not going to help you as much as specifically designed images that exactly relate to the content,” says Rubinstein. “If you’re talking about an exercise like you’re a fitness trainer, you want every image to be coordinated with the text—not just someone doing a jumping jack.”
Pictures within blog posts should make the content easier to read. Just like the effect of an icon on a website, images should work with text to ultimately convey the message of the article faster and more effectively. “The image should be relevant, and tied in specifically, not generically,” says Rubinstein.
Schaffer echos the sentiment. “It’s great to have images in blog posts, but if you have too many it can take us away from the point you’re trying to make with the content,” he says.
Infographics can also lose their effect. “You can go overboard with too many infographics,” Schaffer says. “We’ve been bombarded with them.”
Caring about your audience from day one
“When businesses come to me for help, my first step is to help them identify who their target audience is,” says Adriana Wallace, owner of Casakalu Design House.
She starts the graphic design process with a questionnaire to get clients thinking as objectively as possible about their business, competition, and customer base.
“My biggest tip: get to know your clientele! I find that making a list of words or phrases that best describe both your business and your target audience helps when brainstorming your brand aesthetics,” says Wallace. “These keywords will begin to shape your brand and its visual style right before your very eyes.”
What your audience hates
One marketer’s gold is another’s bad day at work, so don’t assume all visual is good visual. The most important thing (as always!) is to do what’s right for your audience. “Using funny memes or gifs on Twitter and Facebook can work for or against you,” says Schaffer. “Quotes can work for or against you. Not everybody gets that stuff, and you need to figure out who in your particular community digs it.”
Dodson notes that you have to spice up your feeds and keep them interesting. “If you’re just posting the same thing it gets monotonous,” he says. “Make it engaging for customers.”
Creating a blend of content that speaks to your business helps you curate an engaging, but still representative feed. “Sometimes it’s pictures, sometimes it’s a quote, sometimes its text. Try not to get caught in traps. People like to see different things,” says Dodson.
The need to innovate is a definite struggle. “Companies get into a rut with content marketing,” says Schaffer. “They need to publish X number of visuals per week or per day. You know, visual is the most powerful type of content, and when not done right it can absolutely have no effect or a negative effect.”
In general, content marketers are noticing that nowadays, quality is essential.
“When you look at what types of content require quality over quantity, photo is right up there, without a doubt,” says Schaffer.
Audiences are savvy and they won’t let you get away with anything that sucks. Sorry.
How to mint a specific “visual voice”
The most successful feeds, whether they are for individuals or for businesses, always have a clear voice. For highly visual social platforms, artistry is a key value of the user base, so specific styling is a must.
What’s the point of putting out visual content if it doesn’t have that “something special” that makes users think of your brand?
Neal Schaffer says that every company needs a visual voice.
“Everyone from around the company deserves a seat at the table. Everyone is worried about company branding—HR, legal. Everyone should have a say,” says Schaffer. This ensures that the brand isn’t just representative of the marketing division, but of the brand as a whole.
“We get a lot of folks who rush into social media, who rush into the digital space, without really thinking about it, and they just want to get stuff out there,” Dodson says.
For any chance of success, there must be a more thought-out process.
“We really focus on the upfront strategy session,” he says. “We spend a half-day or two days with a client. We come up with everything they’re going to need,” he says.
Rubinstein says that businesses must first start with the intention to create clear branding with their visual content. Once the mindset is in place, the business will be more aware.
“They may have to test and play around to see what their market really responds to,” she says. “Then once they get it, keep evolving it and getting into that style of design.”
Color scheme considerations
Color is one of the key considerations for starting to get that “visual voice.”
“It’s about differentiating yourself, and it’s about building an emotional attachment,” says Schaffer. “That logo that you created was made for those things and therefore the colors that you’re using in them should be a powerful way of reminding people that even though they’re not looking at the logo, they’re looking at an image that somehow will reflect back on that logo.”
He also says that businesses need to be careful to not think too tightly in terms of color. Often it takes a designer or a visual specialist to keep brands from forming a style that’s either too narrow or completely nonexistent. While logos and websites must be tightly consistent, visual content often requires an expanded, but complementary color scheme. “There should be a fuller range of colors that you can use,” he says.
How to be consistent (but highly creative)
“Every business should have a brand book outlining the do’s and don’ts of the brand,” says Wallace. “This book clearly dictates how and where the brand logo should be used, what fonts are acceptable, what colors are approved, etc.”
Style guides and brand guidelines are an important strategy to keep efforts consistent across teams.
“Consistency is how you build brand awareness and loyalty,” explains Dodson. So the effort in creating guidelines is one hundred percent worth it.
Every detail must be discussed. If you’re thinking of putting your logo on your blog headers, you need to document the decisions. Dodson asks, “Where’s the logo going, how big is the logo, what color is it going to be?”
Schaffer says social deserves guides as well. “Now I think you need to make new [guides] that are going to be even social-network specific,” he says. “This is our SnapChat guideline, this is our Instagram guideline. Not just because the dimensions are different, but the functionality is different and the communities are very, very different.”
As for the battle between variety and consistency…
“That’s something that everybody struggles with,” says Dodson. “It’s about being as creative as you can within the guidelines that are set forth. Working the system, but also staying true to your core brand or message.”
One way to work the system is to dip your toe just barely outside of it, sometimes.
When creating social style guidelines, Rubinstein recommends providing 2-3 specific filter names for each app used, a color scheme, the color and size of the logo, watermark styles, and text overlay fonts (primary and accent).
But having all that in place doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally stray. “Make it so that 70% or more of the images are designed that way,” she says. “When they vary, I’d vary only one thing, so there is some consistency throughout.”
You may also like: How to Develop the Perfect Instagram Color Palette
Custom photography pitfalls
Because custom photos are the holy grail of visual content, they deserve the most consideration.
“Our team has worked on product catalogs where the items were shot by different photographers,” says Wallace. “While each shot works on its own accord when laid out on a catalog spread, it becomes apparent that everything is lit differently.”
Watching out for inconsistencies while shooting (or mitigating them ahead of time) is a skill that develops with time.
“Visually speaking, the layouts look messy when some products have shadows and others don’t,” says Wallace. “Think ahead when planning your photoshoot—how will the images be used? Should you shoot in portrait or landscape?”
Visual social feeds are very much like catalogs and magazines. For many women, Instagram and Pinterest act like replacements of fashion or craft-related magazines to serve as sources of inspo.
“Photography is a form of art and just like your brand, each photograph can communicate a ‘feeling,’” says Wallace. “It is important to use images that communicate the same ‘feeling’ your brand does. If your brand is fun and hip, use images that portray that versus images that are moody and serious.”
But Schaffer reminds us that perfection can be a killer. Style definitely doesn’t have to mean clinical or stark (unless it does!).
Are people perfect photographers? Not really. Your custom photos might not need to look like the work of an artiste, but they must be styled for your audience’s preferences.
Oh the humanity! #bottomline
Schaffer explains that stock photos definitely don’t work on visual networks like Instagram. “We’re always talking about how brands need to humanize their social media presence, and this is because social media was created for people, not companies,” he says. “Companies are always at a disadvantage.”
Brands need to stand out in the sense that a user can tell they’re looking at a specific brand’s content. But just as importantly, brands need to blend in so that their content looks like it was created by real people.
“Visuals are one of the greatest ways to humanize your brand when done correctly. Instead of trying to visually market your product, which you can do, and you will do, the greater benefit is to really humanize your brand and get on the same level of people,” says Schaffer. “I think that’s going to have a tremendous benefit for brands in the long run above and beyond direct ROI and more sales and what have you.”
“That’s what at stake, and the better brands are doing it that way,” Schaffer says.
His points are clearly differentiated from what businesses are taught to believe about social media. In essence, a brand’s social profile isn’t really about short term promotion, but long term communication.
Will any of this pay off? Rubinstein says of some of her clients: “I’ve seen posts go viral, reaching upwards of 200,000 people and getting shared more than a 1000 times.”
The opportunities for visual content are tremendous. There are so many open arenas for direct communication with your audience. This mini coaching session should have you strategizing long before you hit “post.”