Visual marketing vs stupid old words

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Doug Kessler

23. 08. 2012 | 7 min read

Visual marketing vs stupid old words

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Even the crustiest old copywriter in terminal denial would have to admit a glaring trend in B2B marketing: pictures are on the rise and words are on the wane.

It’s funny writing about this in text – I should probably find a way to make my points using an infographic with embedded video of an interpretive B2B dance. But I am that crusty old copywriter from paragraph one, so words it must be.


What’s the evidence of the rise of pictures?


The explosion in infographics – two years ago, when we were begging clients to give them a try, an infographic was a novelty. Today, it’s statutory. B2B marketers who have not produced at least three infographics are fined by the B2B Bandwagon Police.  Ryan has an excellent post about the different types. (BTW – we still like them but there’s an awful lot of crappy ones out there.)

Pinterest is booming – The ‘all pictures’ scrapbook is the hottest social network out there. And, as our recent blog post relates, it’s not all food porn and fashion. There’s a booming little B2B thing going on here too. Our boards are glittering with B2B eye candy.

The marketing vendors are starting to create content around visual marketing  – like this presentation on Visual Content Marketing by our friends at Marketo and their friends Column Five.

The experts are telling us all to cut the word count – Joe Pulizzi, the man that The Man consults about content marketing, discussed this in an excellent podcast interview by Mathew Grant of Marketing Profs.

The rise of Twitter – Twitter is a little-known ‘micro-blogging’ platform that some people think might go big. Apparently it limits its posts to 140 characters.  I think this means Abraham Lincoln would have needed eleven tweets to deliver the Gettysburg Address. Windbag.


Why is this happening?


Because none of us have any time to spare – which is kind of a shame really but there it is.

Because we’re all being constantly drenched by a firehose of Google-spume – and so we’re not as hungry for new information as we used to be. If you’re never more than three steps from the worlds biggest info-buffet, you really don’t need to stuff your pockets with rolls or chopped liver any more. (Note to self: sell Dry Cleaning shares).

Because we all experience info-guilt – I don’t know about you but I always feel that some incredible content somewhere is slipping past my attention-beam and sliding into the dark night. I even feel this as I’m reading stuff. And info-guilt forces us to stop reading anything that falls short of Tolstoy-in-a-Tweet so we can go find that gem.

Because most of our media are multi-stream – I have, like, twelve columns in Tweet Deck. Some of them barely move. Others zip past so fast I can’t read any single tweet (“All Friends” is a constant blur). My NetVibes dashboard has seven tabs with an average of 22 feeds per tab. It used to be my home page but I ended up going down rat-holes at 9am and surfacing at lunchtime with X’s for eyes.  My other social media is all streamed – with updates landing from all directions.

Web pages are noisy – with at least one extra column packed with content come-ons calling me away from the main story. ‘Don’t read that, big boy, download this!’

We’re all always-on – everyone has smartphones and everyone knows everyone has smartphones. So everyone expects instant responses to their notes, queries and seedy-little propositions. You can only say, ‘I’m reading something. I’ll get back to you.’ so many times.

The MTV generation has grown up – if you don’t get to the point in six syllables they roll their eyes and start texting LOL or LMAO or some other short way of saying ‘Sheesh.’  I don’t think my daughter has ever heard the ending of a song. Her thumb stays on the ‘forward’ button at all times. One chorus and you’ve made your point, Beyoncé. Move on.


Are pictures really worth a thousand words?


I like any trend toward shorter copy.  Some people think I’m a long-copy copywriter (maybe it’s the 50-page eBooks we produce) but I’ve always said we aim to write the shortest copy possible without leaving out critical content and without crippling the story.

If nine words say it all, nine words it should be. But if you can keep delivering value at page 40 – and keep the reader engaged – then it would be a crime to cut it short on some unwritten principle that less is always more.

But, let’s face it, people like pictures (especially moving ones), and if you can tell your story in a picture or an infographic or a Monty-Python-style video, a Prezi or a stop-motion Lego-man animation… well, you probably should.

There will always be a place for text-driven media. Long blog posts, eBooks, white papers, love letters and authoritative book-books. But if you’re a B2B marketer (and who the hell else would be reading this blog) you need to get good at the visual side of things, too.


Visual marketing tips


It has to be said: bad visual marketing is every bit as useless as bad textual marketing. In both cases, you’ve chased people away and taught them to be wary of any future content that comes from your brand. Worse, you still think you’ve delivered your message.  “Hey look! Eight thousand views of our infographic!” (yeah, but 7,999 of them couldn’t interpret the thing).

Here are some things to keep in mind as you rush headlong from the glory of the printed word to the superficial temptations of the image (I never said I was above Bitter):

Start with the story – a medium is a medium for something. If the idea isn’t there first, the result will be empty. It’s okay to start with, ‘I want to do an infographic.’ but your next thought should be ‘Here’s what I want to say and why it’s best said visually.’

Shape the story for the medium – a good infographic may have many small points but it needs to have one big take-away and that should be something you can say on a T-shirt. Our 38-page Content Strategy Checklist can’t be told in a single infographic — but it can be spun off into a series of infographics (watch this space?).

Get your designer and your writer together early  – with a text piece, it can sometimes be okay to write it first, then throw it over the wall to the design team. With visual media, you need the visual thinkers in on the concept as early as possible. Get a writer and a designer and two coffees and a table and some markers and a pad. Slap down the brief and tiptoe out of the room. Return with more coffee at 20-minute intervals. By nightfall, you should have something to work with.

Don’t think either/or, think both – most content can be spun as a text piece and a visual piece. In the spirit of content atomisation, think of all of these things at the beginning. For each story, you want lots of different spins in different media in different places – all pointing back to you, you, you.

Beware of bandwagons – sometimes a visual approach is just not right. Man up, turn around and walk against the stampede. Shin-pads advised.

Lead your audience – too many visual pieces hope that the audience will figure out how to navigate them. They’re pretty-but-disorganised compilations of data points, charts, graphs and icons. Confident marketing takes the audience by the hand and leads them on a journey. Beginning. Middle. End. Visual storytelling is no different. Make sure you’re signalling where to start your piece and where their eye needs to go next, and next and next. And remember: you need to earn each step by being useful and entertaining. Or the ADHD bastards flitter away.

Draw conclusions – data point is to conclusion as feature is to benefit. Don’t just dump five statistics on a page and add decoration (as 70% of all infographics do). Tell the viewer (we can’t call them readers any more) what each statistic means and why they should care.

Cross-promote – every piece of content should promote other pieces of content. The visual pieces are no different. You’ve got an audience, don’t let it escape. Link to something relevant.

Even visual pieces need to be well-written – few visual pieces are completely devoid of words. And the fewer you use, the more carefully they need to be crafted. So don’t fire that foul-smelling copywriter just yet, even though you’re dying to. (Oh go ahead — you can always hire a new one).


Wrap it up you long-winded bastard


If you’ve read this far (instead of just skimming), you’ve just consumed nearly 1400 words in a single sitting. In today’s word-hating culture, that’s a bloody encyclopedia with a Russian novel inside.

But I ask you this: could I have said this in a pictogram? Would it have been better as a flickr stream or Pinterest pin? If so, please design it for me and I promise to post it.





Published in:

  • B2B Content Marketing

  • b2b-marketing

  • content-marketing

  • copywriting

  • visual-marketing

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  1. Fin Wycherley (@FinWycherley)

    August 24th, 2012

    Hey Doug, another epic piece.

    I’m sorry I couldn’t even begin to design this material. I too am stuck in the thrall of words *sigh* but only great words will do. And words that punch above their weight in the shelf space of the mind, or the heart, depending on where you’re aiming, lol.

    Keep on copy rocking

    Fin 🙂

  2. Doug Kessler

    August 24th, 2012

    Thanks Fin.
    Well said — and with a visual emoticon to cap it.

  3. Doug Kessler

    August 24th, 2012

    OKay, Ryan Skinner is the first to rise to the challenge.
    Here’s his visual representation of this entire blog post:

  4. Intercall

    August 24th, 2012

    “constantly drenched by a firehose of Google spume” is one of the most accurate, and yet potentially disgusting, ways of describing the average internet experience! That’s the power of words for you.

  5. Doug Kessler

    August 24th, 2012

    Yeah, sorry about that. A bit gross… (Imagine it as a visual though).

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