Best Practices: How to Break the Mold with Visual Storytelling

Three Ways Marketers Can Do Something Different to Tell Stories

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"Visual storytelling" has become one of those hot, buzzy marketing concepts, but it's nothing new: Human beings have been painting stories on cave walls for at least 35,000 years. When we use pictures, videos and graphics in marketing, we're tapping into ancient biological machinery -- and that machinery is very discerning.

The stack of data supporting the effectiveness of images is impressive. But the content itself -- the quality of the story -- matters more than the fact that it's told in pictures.

If you wish to stand out in the Age of Distraction, you can't create the visual equivalent of white noise. Being original is brutally hard work loaded with risk, but if you're up for it, here are a few avenues to try:

User-generated content on steroids

Backpack company Cotopaxi's Questival 24-hour adventure race
Backpack company Cotopaxi's Questival 24-hour adventure race

Marketers underestimate the content people will create if doing so involves a ton of action and adventure. Look at mud runs like Warrior Dash, Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, for example. People pay as much as $150 to take a brutal run, hop through obstacles, jump over fires, get shocked by high-voltage electric lines and endure completely unnecessary suffering. There's an opportunity for brands to create these types of journeys and structure them such that participants do make public visual stories.

Cotopaxi is way ahead of the curve on this. The Utah-based outdoor company puts on a 24-hour adventure race called Questival all around the country. Participants are given a Cotopaxi backpack and swag, then they attempt to complete over 300 tasks (which are "brand-aligned") and document them all by taking photos and videos of the action. The Questival app requires that a lot of the images be posted on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to count, so the volume of social impressions over 24 hours is remarkable. Indeed, the first Questival, which had only 1,500 participants (versus the 20,000+ numbers a mud run can pull in), still reached 1 million people on social media.

Choose your own adventure

Being a "consumer" of content is a lot more fun when you're not passive about it. Consider the immense popularity of video games; most of them make awful movies, but the storylines are interesting when users shape their direction. Great visual storytelling could allow your audience to become actors in the story.

For example, "choose-your-own adventure" websites could lay out a visual story according to what the user clicks on or manipulates in the site. A smart marketer could let the visitors enter their name, input their role in the business, check the box on one of five to six potential problems, maybe select some parameters for the solution (user base, vertical, CRM solution integrations), and then see a personalized animation or series of images that address the problem.

Memes tell stories

If you're looking for quick visual hits for social media, memes are your best bet.

Memes are effective for a few reasons. First, they are built on established images that are widely recognized, highly contextual and often connected to historical figures, movies, books and other reservoirs of cultural capital. Thus, they have an implicit story that requires no explaining. Second, with a little brainstorming, you can make them funny. You don't need to be a pro comedian to work a meme. Finally, and most importantly, they make you, the marketer, seem like a human being.

People trade memes with friends, family and co-workers because they want to make a point in a captivating way. Good meme selection (and captioning) helps build social capital. Everyone has that one friend who emails or posts the worst articles, memes and videos. On Facebook, usually that "friend" is a brand. Don't be that brand.

Fake it and you won't make it

A lot of visual content has no purpose whatsoever. Some infographics and videos look snazzy, but that doesn't mean they're useful, educational, inspiring, entertaining or hopefully some combination of all four.

Visual stories have power rooted in 35,000 years of human history, but if your intention is to promote a brand and its products, you need a perspective, not just great aesthetics. Without an argument, a mission or some reason people should care, you can desensitize your audience and reduce your marketing to white noise.

People want to feel alive, so don't just jump on the latest "content consumption" trend. If you try out visual storytelling, break conventions and do something new.