By Stephanie Wierwille
Nothing screams Web 1.0 like a clutter of text. Even text accompanied by an image is so 2.0. Welcome to the visual Web: a place where images create the experience and text plays second fiddle, adding a bit of context. The visual Web is Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr and your Facebook news feed. But it’s also the content you’re creating, sharing and watching. It’s your new favorite websites and your mobile experience.
The Web has always been a highway of distraction. Pop-ups unapologetically dart across our screens. Emails spring into the corner, screaming “Read me!” Our eyes glaze over after reading one paragraph of text online.
And even if a site manages to keep our attention for a few moments, seven modules within that site compete for our eyeballs until we give up and seek solace in our Facebook news feeds.
But when there’s so much to say and no ears to hear, a picture’s worth a thousand words. It kicks off the story and creates an instant emotional connection. As web designers strive to increase site engagement, big, bold visuals have come out on top in creating a user experience that is just that: an experience.
In 2012, content was king. 2013 will be all about context.
Take Peugeot’s HYbrid4 microsite: to tell the story of the car’s four driving modes, the brand created a parallax-scrolling graphic novel, complete with an auto-scroll option timed to audio of the heroine’s pursuit. And the visual story is just as poignant on mobile devices.
And compare eBay’s before and after redesign. Gone is the cluttered home page with tiny thumbnails. In its place is a Pinterest-like feed, conducive to browsing, discovering and window shopping.
Visuals Get Social
With the rise of Instagram and Pinterest, social network creators are following suit. In 2012, Pinterest hit 10 million monthly unique users faster than any site in history. On Twitter, text-heavy tweets now go beyond 140 characters, allowing users to view photos without leaving the feed. Facebook is moving toward visuals, too, increasing the importance of visuals in the news feed. Photos are one of the key EdgeRank factors determining the reach of a post.
And with 80 million Instagram users and 11 million on Pinterest, people are creating and sharing images like crazy. And in a world where memes and GIFs rule content, your news feed is even more visual than a few photos of your acquaintance’s latest meal.
Content Creators: The Image Factory
The trend-driver can be found at the heart of content creation, the creators themselves. The content we’re creating and sharing is now based on visuals. With more smartphones in more hands, we’re snapping pics on the go and uploading them instantly, forgoing digital cameras. In a 2011 survey by Prosper Mobile Insights, an overwhelming 44% of people admitted their mobile device has replaced a digital camera. As such, at the end of 2011, sales of point-and-shoot cameras were down 20% in the U.S. and 30% in the United Kingdom, and have continued to decline.
Brands and the Imagesphere
For brands, a stronger visual presence means more engagement. On Facebook, posts that include an album, photo or video increase engagement by 180%, 120% and 100%, respectively. In search, 60% of consumers are more likely to contact a business if an image shows up. And on product sites, 67% of consumers say the image of a product is very important, compared with 53% who say the online reviews. It can also mean more referral traffic. A year ago, Pinterest accounted for less than 1% of social media e-commerce referrals. Now it accounts for 26%.
Three Takeaways for Brands
1. Invest in Visuals
A strong visual presence comes at a cost of time, assets and resources. Whether your assets are based in photography, design or illustration (or a combination of the three), the development takes investment. But that’s an investment that will be noticed by users, who tire quickly of seeing the same product shots repurposed and whose eyes are strained from trudging through the sludge of text. Bold visuals mean increased engagement, both with the message and with the brand. They tell the story powerfully and concisely, creating an instant emotional connection with the user.
One cost-effective image creation tool is Instagram. Across social, specifically, Instagram content is generating just as much engagement, if not more, as high-quality, costly photography – all while creating a sense of authenticity. And it’s as simple to create as tracking down someone with a smartphone and a good eye – two easy-to-find things in this day and age.
And use your audience. Consumers are creating content at the ground level – in stores, at home with products and on the go. Use them. Scour Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest for consumer-created content. Incentivize your brand advocates and social media communities to create content for you. They’ll be more than happy to do so, and when it’s featured, they’ll share your brand with friends.
2. Create a Story for Your Audience
Especially where web development is concerned, the visual Web means being much more strict about choosing the single most persuasive message to greet visitors. No longer can sites get away with fragmented messages across 12 modules. People need to be sucked into the story immediately and guided along the storyline. The most engaging sites have already chosen for us where they want us to click, scroll and look long before we’ve landed on the home page – and they’re holding our attention much longer than the sites that present 12 forks in the road, making the journey entirely overwhelming. By choosing that engaging storyline and telling it with compelling visuals, a site can keep users’ attention and subtly persuade them along the way.
3. But – Keep in Mind the User Experience
Don’t just be visual for the sake of beauty. The execution should differ depending on the objective, so know your objective and stick to it. Is the objective to engage and tell a brand/product story? Then keep visuals big and bold. Is the objective to sell product online? Then create product visuals that are prominent, clean and interactive, but let functionality play an equal role. Visuals should always provide use for the viewer – be it entertainment, ease of use, inspiration or shareable content to pass along.