To Handle the Visual Social Content Vortex, Brands Seek Balance

Palo Alto Egg Sculpture FinalWhile U.S. residents experienced the polar vortex this winter, another whirlwind phenomenon has surrounded the social media world in recent years: the surge of visual social content. Images and videos have become content’s hot currency, even surpassing text. Twitter’s redesign adds visuals, while platforms like Instagram, Vine and Pinterest continue to grow.

A Social Media Week New York session on Thursday addressed this shift. The Huffington Post’s executive tech editor Bianca Bosker moderated, and panelists included Craig Hepburn, Nokia’s global head of digital and social media, Will Palley, JWT’s trends strategist, and Apu Gupta, CEO/co-founder at visual analytics firm Curalate.

As with other media transitions, visual content’s rise involves upsides and downsides. The panelists said those need to be weighed, since visual content poses as many challenges as it solves. They also outlined ways companies can leverage the swirling visual wave.

Comme des Garcons Store Final2VISIBLE BENEFITS: Images and videos provide several clear advantages:

•  Universal format: Visuals offer widely recognized cues, understood across languages.
•  Speed: Viewers process images far more quickly than text.
•  Creativity: Images and videos represent prime occasions to showcase creativity.
•  Impromptu snapshots: Visuals can readily capture spur-of-the-moment experiences.
•  User-generated content popular: Social visual platforms encourage UGC.
•  Color trends: With the rise in visual social content, dominant color themes can emerge.
•  Ecommerce: Visual social content coupled with analytics lead to business opportunities.

Social Media Week Nokia Work Pod FinalELUSIVE CHALLENGES: Visual social content also poses many limitations:

•  Missing context: Images can be taken out of context and lose nuance if not tagged.
•  Consistent quality lacking: Images aren’t always high quality given the rise in creators.
•  Risk of superficiality: Stand-alone visuals can over-simplify people or stories, Palley said.
•  Drowning in images: Image management is needed, and Hepburn noted he could spend days just sorting through photos generated at Social Media Week. (Nokiapod, left)
•  Visual search results less comprehensive: Online visual queries to date are less inclusive than for text. Reverse image searches help, but visual search remains in the early stages.
•  Privacy concerns: As more companies mine consumers’ visuals, privacy is threatened. But Hepburn said brands that go too far will get called out.
 Legal issues to be addressed: We’re brought up to know copyright laws governing the use of text, but with images now it’s a free-for-all, said Hepburn.

High Line Punctuation Sculpture FinalBRANDS’ TO DO LIST: Companies can take a multi-dimensional approach to optimize images:

•  Restore context to visuals: Brands need more analytics to figure out if consumers’ photos are positive or negative based on their shopping experience, Gupta noted.
•  Speak and listen visually: Brands should prioritize being visually literate vs. just pushing out content, said Palley. His agency often uses emojis for clients’ consumer projects.
•  Curate visual images: More curation on content management platforms should occur, said Hepburn. Brands must be judicious about images they use, Palley added.
•  Provide point of view: Visuals aren’t just for endorsing products, they can also provide perspective, Hepburn said. Nokia’s site offers POVs on issues like switching tech devices.
•  Manage visual data expectations: Companies should be realistic about the information visual data can provide. With proper analytics, data is more actionable, said Gupta.
•  Establish creative consumer communities: Hepburn advised selectively encouraging relationships with brand advocates, Vine creators and creative influencers.
•  Redesign websites to accommodate more visuals: Websites should have UGC sections. UK’s popular Daily Mail site contains loads of visuals, said Hepburn.
Las Vegas 2011 Eraser Sculpture Final•  Draft visual content etiquette guides: Palley cited Google’s recent guide as an example to follow. People should take responsibility for photos they share, added Hepburn.
 Connect social visual content with ecommerce: Forward-looking brands incorporate social cues and apply them to their business, said Gupta. Nordstrom’s pilot program is leading to changes in its in-store merchandising strategy, he noted.

FORECAST: Text isn’t toast just yet.

It’s easy to dismiss words, but people still appreciate text, the panelists emphasized. Hepburn observed that before long the pendulum may swing back to text. (With climate changes, that could even happen before next winter’s polar vortex.)