How to Put the Power of Visual Storytelling to Work for Your Website

It was September 1940 in Dordogne, France, when four boys and a dog named Robot set out in search of a legendary tunnel that led to a hidden treasure. Robot scampered ahead and began sniffing around a deep hole created by an uprooted tree. Was it the opening to the tunnel? After widening the hole with penknives, the boys slid 50 terrifying feet into a cool, dark chamber. They lit and lifted their oil lamp. . . .

Suddenly, the stone walls came alive with charging bulls, massive bison, stags, lions, equines, elk, and ibex—telling us stories of a world more than 20,000 years ago.

WHAT IS VISUAL MEDIA WITHOUT VISUAL CONTENT?

Abbe Breuil at Lascaux

Abbe Breuil at Lascaux

Bare cave walls. A website without photos. It is media that will not be crawled, indexed, and ranked well by search engines. And if there's nothing relevant or useful or entertaining for your prospective customers, clients, or contributors to learn or consume, why would they stick around? If someone's going to look for and find a cave, aren't they more likely to stay and explore it if they find fascinating things there? What's more, aren't they more likely to share news of their discovery if it's newsworthy?

MEASURING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF VISUAL CONTENT

According to HubSpot's review of 2014 data, the marketing software leader reported that "two major trends emerged and both highlight the effectiveness of visual content marketing . . . [They] reveal that marketers who are leveraging visual content are seeing significant increases in their blog traffic, social media engagements, visitor-to-lead conversion rates and inbound customer acquisition results."

Here are a few things HubSpot learned:

  • When Social Media Examiner recently asked marketers which forms of content they most want to learn about, creating original visual assets took first place, followed by producing original videos. (Source)
  • 70% of marketers plan to increase their use of original visual assets . . . (Source)
  • Visual content is a key component in each of the top 5 most effective B2B marketing tactics. (The 5 tactics are videos, webinars/webcasts, blogs, in-person events, and case studies.)
  • Tweets with images receive 18% more clicks, 89% more favorites, and 150% more retweets.
  • Last year the amount of video from people and brands in Facebook's News feed increased 3.6 times year-over-year.

WHY YOU WANT YOUR CONTENT TO BE "COMPELLING"

It's not enough to just increase your amount of visual content. Your content has to be compelling, which is, as Webster's defines it:

  • very interesting : able to capture and hold your attention
  • capable of causing someone to believe or agree
  • strong and forceful : causing you to feel that you must do something (italics mine)

You want your site visitors to take action: download an offer or an app, buy your products, retain your services, join your cause, or, in today's parlance, follow your path to purchase. You want them to become a fan of your brand.

Easier said than done. Marketing with visual content requires you, the site owner and/or content creator, to think about what you want an image to say. Then you have to find it or create it.

FORGET "ILLUSTRATING"; GO FOR STORYTELLING

For years, we content creators have taken the easy way out, adding stock visual elements to our blogs, ebooks, and website pages. We've gone for clasping hands in "teamwork," street corner signs for business strategies, and collections of words to tell you what we're talking about (even though that ought to be clear from the headline).

My colleagues—Sarah Huntington Photography and The Lincoln Studios—and I wanted the images for this site to work on at least two, if not more, levels. The goal: to get you to think about what the visuals are suggesting so you'll stay on the page a second longer, get the message, and connect with us.

OUR IMAGES AND THE STORIES THEY TELL

Let's start with the page that asks "Why do you need a website and content?" There's a point Google makes here about being a giant index that can sort and deliver relevant search results. That's a lot like an old hardware store where the items stored in individually labeled drawers can quickly be retrieved by a clerk. Knowing Sarah had an awesome still from a Lincoln Studio's documentary, Nichols: The Last Hardware Store, I opted to retool the reference a bit and use her image. 

Given a choice, which image would keep you on the page—one of the five stock photos in the screen shot, below, or the hardware store drawers?

Sarah Huntington Photography

Sarah Huntington Photography

"What Kind of Content Do You Need?"

Answer: Content that targets your business's audience. What visual would pique your curiosity? A stock image of an audience like the four below, left, or the football game with its jam-packed stands?

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The latter is likely to get you thinking, "What game is that?" I offered a couple of hints in the text:  Notre Dame. Army. The Polo Grounds. October 1924. Turns out it was a very big day for football and an even bigger one for branding. Thanks to four of the Fighting Irish and one newspaper columnist, Grantland Rice, it was the day “The Four Horsemen” were born. You can read Rice’s memorable column here.

"Have You Heard? You should hire us." How many stock shots have you seen like those on the left, below? Your eye slides right by them. But who could resist pausing on a page with an image of two cows in “conversation” that Sarah Huntington captured early one one morning on her farm.

Sarah Huntington Photography

Sarah Huntington Photography

"Who Does What?"

How could we be sure site visitors understood that while I provide small businesses and nonprofits with websites and writing, my independent colleagues offer photography and video services? It made sense to communicate "teamwork." How? With a standard stock shot like those below or with a Van Gogh of vineyard workers harvesting grapes together in Provence? Besides, where we live and work, the vineyard business has boomed, and this is an image that resonates in our market.

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"Writing"

How often have you read a blog about writing that featured an image of a famous quote. I wanted to use the Mark Twain quote about crossing out the wrong word. I had the option of a stock shot, below left. Or I could put some effort into it and search for a visual of a Twain manuscript that showed his edits in his own hand. It took a while, but I turned up one from The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and worked that into the text as a reference.

Stock image with quote v. image of original Twain manuscript (with crossed out words) in the Huntington Library.

Stock image with quote v. image of original Twain manuscript (with crossed out words) in the Huntington Library.

"Photography"

Nothing wrong with the stock images below to communicate that we offer portrait photography through Sarah Huntington Photography. But why use stock of a camera when I can use one of Sarah's most captivating images—her portrait of her daughters and their sulky basset hound, Albert. (Hard to take your eyes off theirs, isn't it?)

Sarah Huntington Photography

Sarah Huntington Photography

"Frequently Asked Questions"

Like the best switchboard operators, we're eager to help you get answers to questions quickly and accurately. We could have used classic stock images, but why when this vintage image tells the story of asking questions. We might also have used it for "Contact," but we had another favorite, below.

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Switchboard-Operators.jpg

“Contact Us…”

Is there any more blah page on a website than "Contact"? Every site needs to invite you to "contact us" somewhere--in the footer, a call-to-action throughout the site, or on a dedicated page. I wanted you to stop for one second and connect with the idea of "contact." Here's standard fare (below, left):

And below is a Royal Navy pilot dispatching a carrier pigeon with a message.  The year is 1918, toward the end of World War I. In an era before texts and live chats, Skype and GoToMeeting, it may be hard to imagine that pigeon could be your only hope in getting your message across enemy lines. But that's exactly what happened with the heroic Cher Ami. Take a moment to appreciate his heroism.

Imperial War Museum

Imperial War Museum

Websites

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And what about the spider webs? Obviously, we're connecting spider webs and websites. I had two more reasons to use these images: 1) to demonstrate the quality of Getty images available through Squarespace at a usage fee of just $10 per website, and 2) to give a nod to a doctor in genomics at the University of Pennsylvania who has just completed the genetic mapping of an orb spider.