The art of storytelling is changing in the digital age. The growing use of photos, videos, animations, and infographics has altered the way consumers act—and, as a result, the methods that marketers use to create and maintain customer engagement are undergoing a transformation.
“We’re in an interesting period in terms of visual assets. The definition of what is visual and what is required to connect to consumers is undergoing a transformation,” said Liz Miller, senior vice president of marketing for the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council.
To be sure, getting a message across to potential customers is increasingly challenging. Not only is it necessary to develop marketing materials that communicate a concept through pictures and words, it is important to deliver it in the right way for a particular channel and device.
“Whereas in the past visuals were more the icing on the cake, they are now the cake,” Miller told CMO.com. “A creative team must focus on capturing a person’s attention and leading them through the process in a way that seems natural and intuitive.”
Added Michael Boland, chief analyst and vice president of content at marketing consulting firm BIA/Kelsey: “Rich media is critical to marketing success.”
However, the path to progress can prove bumpy. A CMO Council survey in partnership with Libris, “From Content to Creativity: The Role of Visual Media in Impactful Brand Storytelling,” found that while 65% of senior marketing executives said they believe visual assets are core to how their brand story is communicated, only 27% have the ability to aggregate, organize, and manage these assets across marketing and nonmarketing teams—including those outside of the organization.
Meanwhile, the use of visual assets is continuing to rise. The study found that senior marketing executives expect the use of video to spike by 79%, infographics by 50%, and illustrations by 41% in the near future.
Image Is Everything
Although images have always played an important role in marketing and advertising—magazine ads, billboards, television commercials, and other media have served as a mainstay for decades—the nature of imagery is changing due to a number of factors, industry observers said.
“High-quality optics and cameras on smartphones have changed the way people think about imagery,” Boland told CMO.com. At the same time, social media has exploded, and the way consumers create, exchange and view photos, video, and other imagery on small screens or second screens has changed considerably. “People are increasingly conditioned to use fewer words and more imagery,” he added.
Overlaying all of this are Millennials with a strong distaste for messages and images that look artificial, Boland said. Because they are fluent in using image-based technologies they are more adept at recognizing poorly constructed and more contrived images and messages.
“They want a real and compelling story that avoid marketing jargon and clichés,” he noted.
Steve Gustavson, group creative director at Adobe (CMO.com’s parent company), agreed. “In order to break through the marketing logjam and capture people’s attention, it’s critical to produce high-quality imagery that is emotionally impactful but have it interplay effectively with copy,” he told CMO.com. “The marriage of these two things is critical.”
What makes the task incredibly difficult is the fact that Millennials—as well as Gen X and, to a lesser extent, Boomers—have increasingly short attention spans and frequently think in 140 characters or less. “There is an ongoing trend that extends back to USA Today and the MTV generation. There is a need to get to the point faster and in a more entertaining way than in the past,” Boland pointed out. Lead a person down a meandering path or to a dead end, and you have lost them, he added.
U.K.-based digital agency Zabisco found that 40% of the consumer market responds better to visual information than plain text. As a result, marketers have shifted content production to include vast quantities of graphics, videos, photography, and illustrations. Infographic production, according to Zabisco, increases by 1% every day. At the same time, consumers are rapidly shifting to viewing content on mobile devices. For example, mobile traffic to YouTube rose from about 6% in 2012 to about 40% in 2014, according to BI Intelligence.
Unfortunately, many marketing executives are lagging behind. Marketers are often remiss in approaching the “visual asset dialogue as part of the strategic consumer experience and engagement dialogue,” said Miller, who believes part of the problem lies in the fact that visual assets have historically resided within the domain of creative or agency resources that fall outside an organization. Consequently, the value proposition has fallen off the priority list for CMOs.
In addition, many materials and content created within an organization lands in silos. “There is no unified approach or messaging,” she said. “As a result, content and materials often come across as disjointed and confusing.”
CMOs and other marketing executives increasingly recognize the challenges. In a March 2015 survey conducted by Ascend2, 46% of marketing professionals worldwide indicated that videos represented the most effective content, yet 59% said it was the most difficult media to create. Similarly, 43% said infographics were effective, but 34% said they were difficult to produce. In contrast, 24% indicated that photos and illustrations are most effective, and only 8% reported they posed challenges.
The CMO Council found that, ultimately, the lack of a cogent strategy is common. Only about one-quarter of survey respondents said they had a process in place to aggregate, organize, and manage visual assets used across teams, while about four in 10 said there was no conversation about centralizing these issues due to competing priorities.
The Big Picture
Transforming the challenge into an opportunity is critical. A starting point, Miller said, is to understand the journey—or, in many cases, the different possible paths—that a target customer takes to arrive at a buying decision and how best to merge pictures and words effectively. In some cases, that might translate to a short video or an infographic that serves as a starting point for a buyer learning about a product. In other cases, these collateral might lead to a white paper or more detailed information.
Ultimately, “It’s about taking sometimes incredibly complex concepts and using the right tools to deliver the right experience for the customer,” Miller said.
Understanding how consumers use devices and consume content is critical, said Kim Smith, vice president of innovation and digital services for North America at Capgemini. Not only is it important to understand overarching trends in devices and form factors, it’s crucial to use analytics tools to understand what types of content works best—where and why—including with different segments and groups. For example, a phablet user may prefer, if not demand, video, while a Kindle user rooted in reading books may veer more toward the written word with supplemental pictures.
Regardless, “It’s best to assume in today’s environment that the first path to content will be on a mobile device,” Smith told CMO.com. “Marketers should start with a mobile-first approach, particularly with visual content.”
It’s also important to distinguish between B2C and B2B markets, Adobe’s Gustavson said. As a general rule, “A B2B audience is not spending its own money; they’re spending thousands or tens of thousands of dollars—sometimes even millions—of their employer’s money, so they are willing to do more research because they want to be sure they are making the right decision,” he said.
This may translate into the need for detailed white papers, ebooks, and longer marketing videos. “On the other hand, if I am making a $10 purchase on my own, I may respond to a fairly simple video or image,” Gustavson added. “There’s no need to spend a lot of time thinking about the purchase.” At the heart of success is understanding what a business offers and what type of content appeals to buyers.
A more modular but coordinated approach is often in order, BIA/Kelsey’s Boland said. “It’s often wise to give consumers the choice to navigate through the process the way they feel comfortable,” he said. “If someone wants to watch a quick video, they can view it. If they want to read a longer white paper, they can download it.”
Of course, the challenge for marketers is to produce content that works across multiple channels and different devices—while addressing the needs and desires of specific audiences. This means defining choices from the marketing end. “Opportunities exist for those that adopt a flexible approach with modular formatting,” Boland explained. “The content has to be in context with both the touch point and the audience.”
For instance, the imagery and words used to promote a product in a smartphone app might be considerably different than marketing the same item through a mobile browser or a social media service such as Snapchat or Facebook.
The CMO Council survey found that key issues to building a better content ecosystem include expanding marketing budgets to create compelling visual assets, ensuring that investments in resources focus on appropriate allocations at the right level, and developing a better understanding of how various teams spend and how much effort and content is being duplicated or wasted.
Ultimately, Miller said, CMOs must elevate discussions about visual content to a strategic experience dialogue, build out the technology needed to support robust content creation, and put every dollar to work in a coordinated way. Until these events take place, the report warns “justifying additional investment—and even the ability to get full ROI out of their current investment in visual assets—is out of reach.”
CMOs must work with CIOs and others to bridge silos and ensure that content isn’t squirrelled away where it cannot be used effectively, Miller added. There’s a growing need for better digital asset management technology and improved storage strategies and solutions. There’s also a pressing need for CMOs to work with different and sometimes nontraditional or nonmarketing groups to better define a strategy, content creation, and how various channels and devices come together.
“Right now you have one-third of marketers saying that individual teams are defining and creating their own content,” so CMOs must ask a few questions, she said. Where is everything? Are there untapped points of creativity across the organization that have fallen outside the strategic content marketing dialogue? How do I move to a 360-degree view?
The bottom line, Boland said, is that visual assets are now a critical component of marketing, and the trend isn’t about to disappear anytime soon. “CMOs must think far more broadly about how to market effectively,” he said. “There’s a need for a well-defined omnichannel strategy, along with an understanding of the relationship between behavior and design.”
A deeper technical perspective that taps into technology—increasingly mobile devices—also is needed to deliver an optimal visual experience on Web pages, in apps, in videos, in content and collateral, and within various social media spaces.
Said Boland: “There is a need to approach marketing content in a very holistic way.”