What is visual storytelling?

And why marketers should care

What is Visual Storytelling?

What is Visual Storytelling? 1024 575 Shlomi Ron

I am talking to a lot of folks these days about visual storytelling, and from these interactions, I learn that there is still a great deal of ambiguity about what is visual storytelling and why it’s important now for marketers? If you’re clueless too, don’t feel bad, some of the top dictionaries like Merriam-Webster and Oxford have no clue either:

Merriam-Webster:

Words fail us
Sorry, the word you’re looking for can’t be found in the dictionary.

Oxford:

No exact match found for “”visual storytelling”” in US English

When I figured, hey maybe these are old fashioned resources, let’s try Wikipedia, I received:

Visual narrative

A visual narrative (also visual storytelling) is a story told primarily through the use of visual media. The story may be told using still photography, illustration, or video, and can be enhanced with graphics, music, voice and other audio.

Getting warmer! The reality is that the term “Visual Storytelling” is pretty new. Looking at Google Trends, for the past 12 years the term garnered low counts of under 100 searches a month, and it’s only in the past 3 years that the term is experiencing a growth, albeit still modest.

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Looking closer at these searches, we find that the term “Visual Storytelling” is largely associated with topics covering the visual arts targeting artists/designers: photography, media, illustration, and infographics.

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Even though the traditional meaning of visual storytelling has been with us since the first man figured hey, I could create a stencil by blowing paint on my hand held to the wall to express how my day went. Sweet!

caveSulawesi Cave in Indonesia is the world’s first cave paintings 35,000 years ago.
BTW Text was invented only 32,00 years later!

After which, came the animal hunt stories – all the way to today’s visual arts such as photography, picture books, comics, video games, Instagram, Snapchat, Hollywood 3D movies and Virtual Reality.

In line with the term direct affinity with the entertainment industry, when I searched for “Visual Storytelling” definition the first result Google offered in their high-attention summary snippet was from EICAR – The International Film & Television School Paris:

search term

It seems quite obvious that the term “visual storytelling” is quite new for both visual arts and more so in the context of marketing, so users have no reason to search for it just yet – think “content marketing” circa 2005. However, switching our camera lens to the marketing space in 2016, we find that marketers have realized that the benefits that rode visual storytelling in the entertainment space to new heights, also make a lot of sense when driving business impact with jaded audiences, overwhelmed by tons of copycats content plays.

To paint the picture in broader strokes, we see that the communications landscape today is strongly marked by 2 opposing forces:

1) Content explosion: a dramatic and continual increase in content production,
> “4.6 billion pieces of content are produced every day” – LinkedIn

and content consumption is further enabled by greater broadband and mobile access
> 70% of the world mobile data traffic will be video by 2020” – Cisco

VERSUS

2) Decreased user attention span: a marked and well-documented downshift in focus
> The average human attention span is down to 8 seconds -Microsoft

We recognize 2 core drivers that support effective visual storytelling:

1. Our human brain processes visuals much faster than text
> “Visuals are processed 60,000 times faster than text by the human brain and 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual” -3M

2.  The human brain prefers information packaged as stories
> “92% of consumers want brands to make their ads feel like stories. -OneSpot

So what is the definition of visual storytelling
in the context of marketing?

Visual Storytelling is a marketing strategy that leverages compelling narratives, placing your customer at the heart of the story, staged with an emotional visual media experience and effectively distributed across your buyer’s journey – in order to empower customers’ lives and drive business results.”

– Shlomi Ron

That means that in order to cut through the clutter and resonate with your audience, as a marketer you need to put your audience as the hero of your story, addressing first their needs – not yours. Why? As Rolf Jensen aptly states, we’re entering the emotion-oriented “dream society” where customers take for granted the functionality of products and make purchase decisions based upon to what degree they believe a product will give them positive experiences (source: Storytelling Advertising – a Visual Marketing Analysis by Sarah Elise Väre).

Experience is key.

And companies that sell experiences, rather than product/service functions are poised to be rewarded with audience attention. A great example is Apple. Some of us own iPhone 6 or 7 devices that work perfectly fine, but regardless we gotta have the new iPhone 8, even with its marginal upgrade benefits. It’s that unique experience that the Apple story enables.

If you check Wikipedia under Storytelling, there is a whole section devoted to storytelling in business and marketing. Marketers use storytelling techniques because humans have an ingrained need to be entertained than being clobbered by dry product speeds and feeds.

With all the hype surrounding virtual reality (VR) these days, marketers need to mentally put on VR goggles and see the world through their customer’s eyes. It’s about introducing authentic narrative elements to illustrate a meaningful challenge your audience is facing and how you – as the brand marketer – can help them solve it with outcomes impacting both the business and personal levels.

Storytelling strategist, Kathy Klotz-Guest also suggests that such meaningful resolutions also need to carry social change that affects the environment, causes that are bigger than rational business results – the currency Millenials respond to the most. Warby Parker with their Buy a pair give a pair campaign or Patagonia that supports the environment – are good examples.

The magic happens only when your business story carries a good dose of vulnerability or imperfection that allows your audience to see the human aspects of your narrative and this way develop trust and empathy towards your message (i.e., mirroring themselves in your story). Why? Research suggests that when we read stories packed with distinct feelings, colors or odors, the same region in our brain is activated as if we would smell that particular odor or experience that feeling in real life.

How does the visual storytelling ecosystem look like?

*Note: Behind each of the items listed above, there are complete sub-industries that offer either on-demand visual content management platforms or agency-side consulting.

In closing, my core message for this new landscape is quite simple.

When both your super creative 11-year-old nephew and a digital manager at Red Bull have access to the same communication tools and organic influence in the attention battlefield, then the battle will be decided by strategy and skill.  YOUR STORY!

And not just any stories, it’s those stories that will authentically mirror your audience problem, emotionally ignite their sense of identity and in the process will transform your story into THEIR STORY!

Ready to become a pro visual storyteller?

We help you rise above the communication noise with personalized visual storytelling workshops, so you can connect better with your audience, empower their lives and grow faster your company.

Schedule an appointment!

Shlomi Ron

After 20 years of well-rounded digital marketing experience, having worked both on the agency and client sides for Fortune 100/500 brands such as American Express, Nokia and IBM, Shlomi has co-founded the Visual Storytelling Institute (VSI) to help business leaders rise above the noise through the power of storytelling and the effectiveness of visual media. Follow Shlomi's visual stories on Instagram.

All stories by: Shlomi Ron
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