The Ultimate Guide to Visual Content Marketing

Visual content marketing is the cool kid in town—for good reason. It’s not just about pretty pictures in blog posts and ever-popular infographics. It’s a powerful communication tool that leverages the human visual system to deliver information in a compelling way, making it an incredibly effective way to tell your brand story and achieve your content marketing goals.

Over the last decade, we’ve lived and breathed visual content marketing. (We even wrote the book on it—see Infographics: The Power of Visual Storytelling.) In that time, thanks to evolving technology and publishing platforms, visual content marketing has become one of the most valuable tools for content marketers, whether you’re a small startup or Fortune 100 company.

If you haven’t experimented with visual content marketing before or need to make the case to your coworkers, buckle up. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about visual content marketing, from why it works to how to get your brand started. Ready?

Chapter 1: Visual Content Marketing 101

  • What Is Visual Content?
  • Why Humans Love Visual Content
  • Why Visual Content Marketing Works for Brands

Chapter 2: Applications for Visual Content Marketing

  • Visual Content and the Buyer’s Journey
  • Types of Visual Content

Chapter 3: The Keys to Successful Visual Content Marketing

  • Tell Your Brand’s Story
  • Build a Visual Language
  • 5 Tips to Create Visual Content
  • Examples of Successful Visual Content Marketing

Chapter 4: Visual Content Strategy

  • How to Approach Visual Content Strategy
  • Measuring the ROI of Visual Content

Chapter 5: Visual Content Production

  • Building Your Team
  • The Visual Content Process

Chapter 1: Visual Content Marketing 101

If you want to reach audiences where they’re at, deliver content in formats they want to interact with, and form deeper connections with your consumers, visual content can help—a lot.  

What Is Visual Content?

In short, it is the graphics and images that you see, read, and interact with as you consume media, including:

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Why Humans Love Visual Content 

Visual content is unique because of the way our brains process information, specifically through pre-attentive processing. Watch this video to see it at work: 

Compared to other forms of communication, visual content boasts three major benefits. 

1) Appeal: Visual content uses design to present information in a format that is stimulating, attractive, and engaging. This makes it easier to synthesize and piques interest immediately. In short, visual content grabs your audience’s attention.

2) Comprehension: The brain’s visual processing system is faster and more efficient than other communication systems, which means we are able to interpret visual information almost instantly and with minimal effort.

In fact, a 2014 MIT study found that the brain can process an image in as little as 13 milliseconds. Visual content is easier to understand, making it more enjoyable to engage with.

3) Retention: The visual processing system also works with our long-term memory, connecting the images we see to information already stored in the brain. This makes visual content more memorable than other mediums. (For more, check out MIT’s research on what makes a visualization memorable.)

For marketing and editorial uses, which demand broad appeal and interest, visual content can be a secret weapon.

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Why Visual Content Marketing Works for Brands

Whereas brand publishing was once relegated to traditional ads, sales collateral, and the occasional press release, content marketing is now the new paradigm. Audiences want high-value content that entertains, educates, and/or inspires. Infographics, e-books, videos—these are the tools to provide that content.

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Visual content is also particularly effective because of the way the media and tech landscape has evolved.

Audiences now consume content through social and publishing platforms, both of which have embraced visual content. Additionally, thanks to the rise of mobile, audiences are consuming this content 24/7. According to a 2016 comScore report, mobile accounts for 65% of digital media time spent in the U.S.

Luckily, visual content is uniquely positioned to help brands tackle some of their most significant goals.

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Lead generation: Consumers are attracted to brands not just for their products/services but for their values and customer relationships. Visual content helps you showcase your company’s personality, culture, and values in creative ways, whether it’s through your annual report or Instagram, to attract fans and build deeper relationships with them.

Customer engagement: Visual content is particularly engaging on social. Users spend more time with it, and they are more likely to share it. Even a simple image can boost social engagement. 

A 2014 Stone Temple Consulting study found that tweets with images garnered 5-9 times as many retweets and 4-12 times as many favorites.

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Unsurprisingly, more and more social platforms are making big moves toward more visual content (hence online video is on the rise, especially on platforms like Facebook).

Brand awareness: Old and new publishing platforms alike are increasingly focusing on visual content, attracting and engaging enormous audiences. Delivering your content through these channels helps you reach audiences outside of your owned properties. (Learn how to get your content marketing featured in major publications for more reach.)

SEO/traffic: In addition to quality written content, visual content can attract more people to your site because it is something your audience craves and actively seeks out.

According to LewisPR, image-rich content gets 94% more views than content without relevant images. And according to Hoosh Technology and ISDIA research, 63% of all visitors who click on a Google image will go to the website.

In addition to supporting these goals, visual content is a good solution for some of the challenges that marketers say prevent them from being able to achieve their goals.

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Content variety: Visual content is highly versatile. In addition to the many different formats available, the content you create can be broken up into microcontent for use on social and in blog posts. For example, a single visualization from an infographic may also be used in an e-book and as a teaser on social. 

Budget: Because visual content allows for repurposing, you get more value and mileage out of everything you create. (Try a divisible content strategy to get more bang for your buck.) 

Content creation resources: There are more content creation tools available than ever for visual content. (You might want to check out Visage, our sister company’s design platform, as well as our roundup of 100 resources for content marketing.)

Chapter 2: Applications for Visual Content Marketing

Your customers are looking for different information throughout the buyer’s journey. Visual content, in all its forms, can help you deliver that information. 

Visual Content and the Buyer’s Journey

visual content marketing buyer's journey

There is no particular prescription for what type of visual content to use at each stage of the buyer’s journey. The goal should be to deliver the appropriate message in the most effective format. Here’s what to focus on at each stage. 

Stage 1: Awareness

Traffic Generation Content: Introduce yourself to your audience and acknowledge their pain points. Focus on content that helps as many people as possible get to know you. This may be entertaining, educational, or inspiring editorial content.

Example: We collaborated with Foodbeast and Totino’s to create a video that explains how much Americans binge-watch TV. It was an interesting and relevant subject to their target audience, plus the creative execution (using Totino’s Stuffed Nachos to create the data visualization) put the brand front and center in a clever way.

Stage 2: Consideration

Lead Generation Content: Showcase your familiarity with the problems your audience is trying to solve. Demonstrate your value and the value of working with a partner to solve those problems. This content builds trust and establishes your brand’s credibility.

Example: This e-book, created in partnership with LinkedIn Marketing Solutions, educates marketers about native advertising practices to help them achieve their own goals.

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Stage 3: Analysis

Prospect Generation Content: Give your target audience the info they need to make an informed decision about working with a company in your space. Create thought-leadership and other content to showcases that you are the definitive leader in the space with a unique perspective, the right experience, etc.

Example: This infographic timeline for Intuit celebrates the company’s 30th birthday by showcasing major milestones and accomplishments. This shows its long history of being an innovative player in the game.

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Stage 4: Purchase

Customer Acquisition Content: Provide information that will support your audience’s purchase decisions, such as sales collateral or product demos.

Example: We created an interactive animated product demo for iPort to help their audience see the product in action.

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Stage 5: Loyalty

Partner Retention Content: Show appreciation for your audience, remind them why they like to work with you, and offer them content that continues to help them solve their problems.

Example: This motion graphic, created for NBC Universal’s Green Is Universal campaign, offers viewers simple tips to reduce food waste. It helps empower viewers while showcasing the company’s commitment to green practices.

No matter what stage of the buyer’s journey you’re targeting, focus on delivering your audience real value in every way possible. (And check out our tips for creating the right content marketing mix to make sure you maintain a balance.)

Types of Visual Content

Visual content includes many different formats, which can serve your brand in unique ways either by enhancing the content you already produce or adding new formats to your content strategy.

Annual Reports

Your annual report is an ongoing representation of your brand story. Making that content engaging is important not only to capture your reader’s attention but build trust in who you are and what you’re doing.

(Find out more about why your annual report should be a piece of brand storytelling, upgrade your annual report with these 7 tips, and check out 40 creative examples of annual report design for more inspiration.)

Data Visualization

Data lends credibility to your message and, when properly visualized, can bring hidden insights to life. You can use data to enhance many types of communication, whether it’s a presentation or whitepaper. Even a single stat shared online can create an interesting dialogue.

(Check out these 3 reasons to embrace data-driven storytelling, bookmark these 104 data sources for your next project, and learn how to design charts and graphs according to best practices.)

E-books 

E-books are a great way to demonstrate your knowledge and provide value to your audience. Think of ways to turn dull information into visually impactful communication, whether it’s visualizing data or humanizing through imagery.

(See our 5 tips for better storytelling as you craft e-book content.)

Infographics

Infographics have been the bread-and-butter of visual content marketing for several years, and they’re not going away. They are visually stimulating and highly shareable, making them great tools for communicating your message.

(Try these 16 ways to think of infographic ideas, learn about the 5 underutilized applications for infographics, and find out how to optimize your infographic for SEO.)

Interactive Infographics

Interactive infographics are especially beneficial because they invite your audience to actively engage in the content. Whether it’s a simple interactive slideshow or a complex data set to explore, they’re a great way to welcome your audience into the brand story.

(Learn about the 7 ways interactive infographics can tell your story, ask yourself these 5 questions before you make one, and try these tactics to help your interactives get more traffic.)

Microcontent

Microcontent is a budget-friendly way to make the most of the content you have. By extracting or repurposing existing visual assets, you can enhance other types of visual content you create, extend the life of the content you have, and engage your audience on different platforms.

Download our free e-book to find out how to maximize publishing with microcontent.

Motion Graphics

When you have an abstract concept that you need to explain or a brand message you want to deliver in a succinct way, an animated motion graphic can be especially useful.

Learn more out the differences between motion graphics and other types of video, find out how to create engaging motion graphics, and enjoy these 6 cutting-edge motion graphic examples.

Presentation Design

A good presentation helps you communicate your information, establish your authority, and make an impact on your audience. You may use data visualization to support your argument, graphics to break down a concept, or a video to intro the presentation. Regardless, good design is a must.

(Makeover your presentation design with these 11 tips, follow best practices for using data in your presentations, and find out how to choose the right presentation design agency if you need some help.)

Explainer Videos

Explainer videos are super useful tools to help introduce your company, explain a product or service, teach your audience about an abstract concept, or offer a helpful tutorial.

(Learn more about how explainer videos help your brand, find out what 10 qualities yours should have, and follow these tips to write a great explainer video script.)

Video

Video has exploded in popularity in recent years. Social media platforms are putting video front and center, and many audiences crave this type of communication over other formats. If you want to get more exposure, video can give you the reach.

(Find out how video can help you crush your goals, learn how an online video strategy can help you, and get 10 tips to do better work with your video agency.)

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Chapter 3: The Keys to Successful Visual Content Marketing

Simply throwing together a photo and words does not guarantee visual content marketing success. As with any content marketing effort, crafting content around a message and executing well is vital.

Tell Your Brand’s Story

Every piece of content you create should serve your larger goal. Telling your brand’s story is key.

Good brand storytelling is multidimensional: It communicates who you are, what you do, and how you want to help your customers. (We honestly think that communicating these stories through content marketing can change the world.)

You can communicate story in big and small ways. It may come in the form of a helpful tip on Twitter. It may be an infographic series that explores your industry’s biggest challenges. It may be an interactive tool that helps your audience solve a problem. Regardless, your visual content marketing should serve to support—and reflect—what you’re all about.

Build a Visual Language

A strong visual language communicates your story as much as the words you write. (According to the Libris/CMO Council 2015 “From Creativity to Content” whitepaper, 65% of senior marketing executives believe that visual assets are core to how their brand story is communicated.)

Your logo, fonts, illustration style, color palette—these elements make a powerful impression on your audience. Research has even shown that companies that put design first may have a better bottom line. When it comes to visual content marketing, a visual language is necessary to help you:

  • Distinguish your brand from competitors: Is everyone in your industry using a red-and-black logo? That’s an opportunity to differentiate.
  • Create a cohesive look: Apple. Nike. Google. These brands have such specific branding and style you can recognize their products and ads before you see the logo pop up.
  • Build trust and credibility: The more recognizable your content, the more your audience will acknowledge, embrace, and interact with it. This helps you form a deeper relationship.

(Learn more about how to build a visual language for your company, make sure your brand style guide includes these 4 elements, and see our step-by-step guide to building a brand identity.)

5 Tips To Create Visual Content

There are many aspects of content creation that influence its success. As you pursue visual content marketing, keep the following in mind to guide your creative process.

1) Do something original. Breaking new ground, coming up with new ideas, thinking of creative ways to solve your audience’s problems or provide value—these are sure-fire ways to achieve success.

2) Do something someone did before—better. While originality is fantastic, you don’t always have to break new ground. If you can build upon or do something better than someone else, go for it.

3) Don’t let fear hold you back. Sure, you might have a crazy idea. It might also be a crazy good idea that will take you to the next level. Trying new things can be scary, certainly, but rewards come to those who risk.

4) Experiment, experiment, experiment. Just because one thing didn’t get the results you wanted doesn’t mean you’re dead in the water. Visual content marketing is an ever-refining process.

5) Improve something you’ve already done. Is there a new study out? New internal data? A stale piece of content that could use a makeover? We’ve turned infographics into slideshows and blog posts into infographics, all to great success. Look at the content you have to see if you can get more mileage out of it.

Examples of Successful Visual Content Marketing

We’ve been lucky enough to work with some great brands who were willing to try something new. With a little creativity, we created visual content to solve some of their communication challenges—to great success.

  • Read our behind-the-scenes recap of Internet Explorer’s Child of the ‘90s video, which garnered 49 million views (and was originally supposed to be an infographic).
  • See how we turned more than 10 million cells of data into a colorful, exploratory interactive experience for Northwestern University in Qatar.
  • Take a look at our interactive poll for Mashable, which resulted in 30,000 responses from readers in 191 countries.

Chapter 4: Visual Content Strategy

No matter how boring your content or lofty your content marketing goal, when applied strategically, visual content can help you get there.

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How to Approach Visual Content Strategy

Successful visual content marketing is the result of a content strategy. To build that foundation, there are many elements to consider.

1) Identify Your Audience

If you don’t understand your audience, your content won’t resonate with them. Ask yourself:

  • Who are you trying to reach?
  • What type of content do they consume?
  • What level of knowledge do they have?

To really get inside your audience’s mind, try our marketing personas exercise, which will help inform your content ideation down the road.

2) Specify Your Brand Goals

Identify exactly what goals you are trying to achieve with your content. Consider:

  • What unique value can your content provide your audience?
  • What do you want them to do or know as a result of seeing your content?

You must also define how you will measure success in relation to your goals. (See “Measuring the ROI of Visual Content” below.)

3) Consider Distribution

Even the best content will fail if no one sees it, wasting everyone’s time, money, and energy. Luckily, there are more distribution channels than ever—and more channels are being introduced each year. (When we started in 2008, Instagram wasn’t even around. Now, Snapchat is all the rage.)

Determine the best channels for distributing the content you create before you make it. Based on your budget and goals, choose the platforms that serve your needs. When deciding which outlet to use, consider the audience it reaches, as well as the content formats it supports.

You should have a solid plan for all channels, including:

  • Owned: Company site, social accounts, newsletter, etc.
  • Earned: Major publications, influencers.
  • Paid: Sponsored posts, content.

(Learn more about developing your distribution strategy by downloading our free e-book, The Ultimate Guide to Content Distribution.)

4) Pursue Creative

Once you understand how to engage and reach your audience, your task is to develop captivating content that addresses both your audience’s needs and your own goals.

  • What content will provide the most value?
  • What content will compel them to take the desired action?

(For more tips, check out Column Five cofounder Josh Ritchie’s 10 hard-won lessons about crafting content strategy.)

Measuring the ROI of Visual Content

Online marketers have long focused primarily on the volume of visitors they can attract to a site, relying on the almighty page view as the most significant metric to gauge ROI. Certainly, a single piece of content can receive millions of hits, but when it comes to nurturing a long-term relationship with your brand, there are other meaningful metrics you should also consider.

Conversions: Effective visual content compels action. As visitors explore your content, they encounter related CTAs that nudge them to take the desired action, whether that’s a newsletter sign-up or product demo download.

Interactions: When you compel your audience to interact with you, you are creating true engagement. This interaction cements your relationship, allowing you to nurture it over time. Interaction can be gauged by things such as comments, likes, or new followers.

Time on page/completion rate: It isn’t just about getting an audience to your site; it’s about providing that audience with a meaningful experience that will form a lasting connection. The longer a consumer spends watching a video, scanning through photos, or interacting with your visual content, the closer you are to forming a bond.

Shares: Word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing. When consumers share your visual content, they are putting their own stamp of approval on it. Although a share does not necessarily guarantee that consumers have read all content, this credibility is tremendously valuable, helping expand your reach through your audience’s personal networks.

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Chapter 5: Visual Content Production

Different content serves different purposes, and each content types takes a different amount of resources to produce, as the chart below outlines. As you begin to explore what types of visual content your brand may be interested in, keep cost and format in mind.

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Building Your Team

Creating effective visual content relies on many things: The right idea, the right resources, and the right team to keep the machine moving. You may be able to produce some content in-house, you may need to reach out to a creative network, or you may need an agency to do the heavy lifting.

In-house: If you are tackling content creation in-house, make sure you have the right team assembled. You need experts to make sure that you’ve covered everything from designing in the right dimensions to optimizing for SEO.

(Take a look at our rundown of the key players you need to create great content before you pursue production.)

Visual content agency: A visual content agency can take some of the stress out of the process. They are experts in their field, who keep abreast of trends and best practices. They have experience helping a variety of brands, which means they can help you find the right format for your message. And they have established relationships to help you get that content to the right audience.

(If you’re on the hunt, here are 12 things to look for in a content marketing agency.)

The Visual Content Process

A proper process is key to creating great visual content. Follow these 5 steps to do it right.

1) Write a Solid Creative Brief

Before you ideate, write a comprehensive creative brief to keep all parties on the same page. The purpose of the brief is to share any and all relevant information for a project, including:

  • Background information: Project, department, initiative, campaign
  • Objectives: Specific action, such as an e-book download or site visit
  • Goals: Ultimate goal, such as increased brand awareness
  • Audience: Who you are looking to reach
  • Specifications: Formats, distribution channels, dimensions, branding guidelines, etc.

(Take a look at more tips to write an effective creative brief, and make sure there are no outstanding questions before you start to brainstorm.)

2) Ideate Around the Brief

Once you have completed your brief, it’s time to brainstorm your creative idea. This stage relies on successful collaboration, creative inspiration, and critical analysis of your ideas. Assemble a group of individuals from different disciplines to increase your pool of thought.

Every idea you generate should be able to achieve the objective designated in the creative brief. As you ideate, vet each idea accordingly. Questions to ask:

  • Will it be interesting to your audience?
  • Can it be distributed effectively to reach them?
  • Does it align with your engagement goals?
  • How original is this idea?
  • Does it fit your brand?

(To get the best ideas, check out our 10 tips for a productive brainstorm, find out how to cultivate a culture of content, and learn how to tap into your team’s creativity.)

3) Craft Your Content

Create a timeline to guide the content creation process, and decide whether you’ll use internal resources or outside vendors or freelancers. This phase may require research, source materials, outlining, copywriting, or scripting, depending on the type of content you are developing. Make sure content is approved by required teams at each stage.

(Whatever you do, avoid these 5 mistakes in content creation.)

4) Design Your Content

Good design is the foundation of successful visual content. Having a professional oversee the project, whether that’s an art director, creative director, or lead designer, is essential to ensure the end result is both beautiful and effective.

(Whether you use an in-house designer or hire a freelancer, learn which design mistakes to avoid in your visual content and find out how to apply design thinking at every level of your organization.)

Stay Educated About Visual Content Marketing

Above all, if you want your visual content marketing to succeed, stay educated and experiment often. Keep up to date on the latest trends in design, follow distribution best practices, and track what works.

Good luck!

If you have any questions about visual content marketing, we’d love to geek out about it and have a chat.