By Matt Pigott - July 22nd, 2015

Branded content is exploding. The next stage? Becoming more visually appealing. The first part of our series on visual content.

From the moment we open our eyes, there’s a battle going on in the brain. In evolutionary terms, our senses are fighting for neuronal real estate space. And the sense that wins hands down? Vision. Whenever our eyes are open, roughly 70 percent of the brain’s electrical activity is dedicated to sight. Human beings literally drink the world in through their eyes while the other senses are relegated to their smaller, but still significant, supporting roles. In 1957, Neuroanatomist, R.S. Fixot, published a paper revealing that the neuron activity dedicated to vision fires off at a staggering two-to-three billion impulses per second, a fact of considerable relevance to content marketers as they enact their very own battles for consumer attention.

Every day around 2billion photos are uploaded to visual platforms including Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat and others; oceans of data from which marketers can–given the right tools–draw meaning from to inform the development of their strategies and campaigns.

So if visuals are taking over, what exactly does that mean, and what distinctions need to be made? How does text, also a visual form, fit into the equation? These are the sorts of questions (and there are many more) that drag art and science into the middle of a Venn diagram where new discoveries, ones that instruct marketing, decisions can be made. 

Words Vs Pictures - Or Are They One and the Same?

One of the main things to consider is that the brain has to work harder to make sense of words. Absorbing images is a largely passive process, whereas reading requires a far higher level of cognitive engagement. This is the reason that, during early development, children take longer learning to read than to recognize shapes. In short, images–substitutes for physical things–have a far greater direct impact on the brain than strings of letters and words that require decoding. They are still both vitally important spokes in the marketing wheel, however, and one without the other weakens the art of communication. Relying on promotional posts without complementing text with images is akin to marketing suicide. Research from found that posts containing images on Facebook accounted for 90% of viewer engagement. Posts without images on the other hand–unless direct and personal–were ignored. The statistical consensus seems to be that, if you can’t be bothered to include an image with your post, people won’t be bothered to view your post at all. Images attract attention, text engages–in that order. And that’s before you even start thinking about video.


Video: King of the Web?

According to Cisco, by 2017, around 70 percent of online consumer traffic will consist of video. As people have more ready access to video, and therefore consume more of it, marketers are increasingly using it as a hook before leading consumers toward their written subject matter.  In a recent interview, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg said, ‘People are gaining the power to share in richer and richer ways. We used to share with text and now we post mainly with photos. In the future video will be even more important.’ Here Zuckerberg peels back the layers of a content hierarchy. But considering these categories separately could be a red herring for marketers, because it’s more important to know which of these tools is most useful for the purposes of communication within a given context. An intelligent appraisal of marketing intention is more useful than any knee jerk reaction to trending opinions that one type of communication is better than another. People don’t have much need for Morse code these days but, during the Second World War, it came in handy. In short, all forms have their place.

More recently, in the more modern arena of social media, marketers have allowed images to play second fiddle to text simply because text has been searchable and images haven’t. But with APIs become more powerful, more intelligent and more discerning, images are becoming searchable too. APIs are getting better at scanning visual content, such as photos, and working out what’s in them. Which means for marketers, a new and terrifying Pandora’s box of delights has just opened. The big question: could APIs be the digital era’s new ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’?


Photos Rich with Marketing Data

The wealth of visual information in photos is only just being realized. Millions of images, uploaded every day, are literally brimming with useful information. Advanced algorithms, capable of extracting images for analysis (such as logos), gather terabytes of data that can be cross referenced and correlated to build a nuanced picture of consumer behavior and brand sentiment–on a grand scale! 

Picture this: a group of backpackers at the summit of a mountain, looking into the camera. As soon as the person who took the shot shares it on Facebook, it’s like throwing a tidbit of meat to a pack of information-hungry wolves. Immediately the algorithmic teeth set to work, seeking out logos and other data that will help brands profile customers and refine marketing strategies. Seconds of computation quickly reveal much that would have been ignored or overlooked at a casual human glance: the Berghaus label on a pair of walking boots, the Nike tick on the front of a cap, the can of coke in somebody’s hand, the Tag Heuer watch, the Adidas trainers. This sort of rich data provides a broad-stroke picture of consumption, the layers of which can be peeled back and analyzed in greater detail later. 

Couple this with facial recognition software that can ascertain the expressions on people’s faces–for example whether or not they are smiling–and a more effective overview, such as positive or negative, can be tagged on to the logo data providing richer detail. 

While this practice throws up a whole bunch of ethical questions about privacy and data use–another subject entirely–here, the key point is that, for marketers, such timely and textured information is golden. In the same way that a car needs fuel to run, algorithms need data; social media platforms naturally provide that data-fuel.  This new trend of data capture, though still in its infancy, highlights the increasing importance of brand and logo visibility on FMCG products. Knowing that logo recognition APIs are getting faster and smarter should be the ‘nudge and wink’ that CMOs need to get them jumping on the gravy train. Already, big names such as Coca-Cola are using these mechanisms to fine-tune their reach, communicate more effectively with people who are already engaged, and help find ways to appeal to new customers. 

Big Brother Watch suggest that major conglomerates with high numbers of household products swinging from their umbrella spokes are enthusiastically adopting this image scanning technology to improve their marketing. Furthermore, they point out that APIs are capable of capturing social settings too–such as whether a photo was taken at a party, at work, on a picnic, at an event–through the analysis of common visual cues. 

Image recognition combined with searchable text could be the new marketing weaponry, and there’s no reason that five years from now the former won’t have overtaken the latter in terms of relevance.


It's Been Emojinal

And then there are emojis. It’s thirty degrees outside, so somebody sends a friend or colleague a short text with a picture of a melting ice cream with a Flake in it. Next to it, a smiley face sporting a pair of sunglasses. What does this mean to marketers? In isolation, very little, but amass, amalgamate and apply a clever algorithm to tons of similar data, and clear patterns are likely to emerge. 

Use of emojis to communicate is being seen by many as a new language–cute emblems encapsulating coded messages that carry a deeper psychological meaning. The explosion in emoji use, which had been mostly restricted to Japan, started in the West as the result of Apple’s introduction of the emoji keyboard as part of its 2011 iOS. Shortly after, a similar keyboard was adopted by Android. In the same way that the practice of texting, and the widespread use of text abbreviations, began trending in the nineties (eventually outstripping calls as the preferred method of cell-to-cell communication) use of emojis is fast becoming a complimentary language from which additional layers of meaning can be teased out. 

In a recent study conducted by Instagram there is even room to conclude that use of emoji could be squeezing out text, with fun images already replacing acronyms such as OMG and LOL. In addition to this inverse correlation, the study also found that 40% of texted Instagram comments, today, contain emoji. 

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