It's Time to Picture a New Web

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At the same time that the Internet is emerging as a predominant channel for advertising, creativity is still struggling to understand its role in the medium. We want online to be the next great creative frontier, but haven't really yet found the formulas for great online creativity. We're lost in a boring world of search, social networks and mundane display ads. Internet advertising is generally the roost of quants, measurability and metrics, much more than it is about creative execution.

All this is about to change, however, as we're hitting another digital tipping point. Namely, imagery is about to completely trump text on the Internet. We are entering a future where pictures will become central to creativity on the web and play the leading role in defining the future of online advertising. It's a repeat of a similar evolution and hard-won lessons from our print and broadcast past.

Dove's First "Evolution" —from Text to Images
Just a few decades ago, text was king in advertising. Compared to the ads of today, the print ads of the 1950's look horribly outdated. Take Dove soap, which has emerged with "Evolution" as perhaps the greatest here-and-now example of the triumph of imagery over words. To contrast, print ads for Dove soap from 1955 featured a small picture of a woman in a bathtub full of bubbles, with four dense paragraphs of copy explaining every benefit of the body cleanser.

Today, imagery has moved front and center in print ads. If someone tried to include four paragraphs of text in a soap ad, he'd be laughed out of advertising. As we've seen from "Evolution," imagery alone can send a powerful message that resonates with consumers on an emotional and visceral level. The lesson is simple: pictures speak much louder than words in advertising. They capture our eye, tug at our heartstrings and convey meaning that words alone cannot.

The advent of television cemented the era of image communication with its constant barrage of images. TV has since become the most well-known and powerful form of advertising. The power of imagery—still and moving—has heralded an advertising era that has been profoundly more successful than its predecessors.

History Repeats Itself Online
Today, digital advertising is going through a nearly identical visual evolution that we saw offline. In these very early days of the Internet, text is dominant. Copy, not content, is king.

A lot of this has to do with the medium's own limitations. Text-based search was one of the Web's first "killer applications." Limited online real estate poses its own peculiar design challenges. And perhaps the biggest roadblock of all has been the tedious download times for image-rich environments.

But now all of the factors are converging for us to accelerate towards a more visual web. Broadband penetration is now more than 80 percent amongst regular internet users and growing steadily. Meanwhile, online media companies are increasingly welcoming adventurous creative ideas and formats to more effectively advertise to—and monetize —their growing audiences.

At the same time, the explosion of websites, blogs and almost unlimited content is driving new online behaviors that demand a more visual approach to capture the attention of web surfers. We're craving simplicity more than ever, and it's the simple, iconic, stunning images that grab our attention. Imagery is accelerating as the shorthand for communicating messages and conveying meaning.

All of this suggests a future where image-rich advertising will be a more effective form of online advertising, and the evidence strongly suggests that a picture is already worth a thousand words on the web. AOL estimates that 80 percent of its page views are driven by images. Google's new image search generates significantly higher click through rates than text search. A recent study by Unicast and InsightExpress reveals that premium rich media ads—video and HD3D—dramatically outperform other online ads, increasing brand awareness by more than 200 percent and brand favorability and purchase intent by nearly 100 percent.

Image-ine the Possibilities
The evolution from text to visual advertising took decades in an offline world. It will take just a few years in the online world. It won't be long until the Internet's most recognized type of advertising–Search Engine Marketing (SEM)—will become predominantly visual. Over the coming years, images will become the heart and soul of search, serving up information faster to tired eyes sick of sifting through pages of text results.

The ultimate frontier will be video on the web. We've already seen tremendous innovation in this area over the past couple of years, and this is just the beginning. The future holds a world where the Internet and video converge, marrying the precision of the web with the sheer visual impact of television.

Print and broadcast advertising have evolved dramatically over the years, and we should remember what they've taught us along the way. Imagery stirs emotions, brings creative ideas to life, initiates dialogue and helps brands connect with consumers. Digital advertising will be much more powerful when it fully harnesses imagery's potential. We should start getting creative now.

Gary Shenk is chief executive officer of Corbis.

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