Looking Good: Why Visual Content Has Become the Heart of Marketing and Public Relations

August 1, 2018

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like,” Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said. “Design is how it works.”

His point is well taken. Good design is not merely fun to look at; it can determine a product’s success or failure. Done right, design makes a strong first impression, builds trust, enables better understanding and motivates action.

But why is the way a thing looks so crucial? The answer lies in our physiology.

Humans are visually wired. Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the human brain can process images that the eyes see for as briefly as 13 seconds. Our brains are overwhelmingly devoted to visual functions, and our eyes are linked directly to our brains — which is why most people are visual learners.

Vision is, in fact, our most important sense: 70 percent of our sensory receptors are located in our eyes and almost 50 percent of the human brain is involved with visual processing, research shows. Our brains filter out nearly 99 percent of the sensory information around us, meaning that only about 1 percent makes it through to us.

The connection between our eyes and brains explains why visual information is easier for us to process, understand and retain. How a thing looks can also affect whether we will recall it later. People remember 10 percent of what they hear, 20 percent of what they read, and 80 percent of what they see and do, according to the 2006 study “Syntactic Theory of Visual Communication” by Paul Martin Lester, a professor in the department of communications at California State University at Fullerton.

Similarly, good visuals can render a claim more convincing. A study by researchers at the Wharton School of Business underscored the point that 40 percent of people will respond better to visual information than to text alone. The study found that 50 percent of an audience was convinced by a purely verbal presentation, versus 67 percent who were convinced by a verbal presentation accompanied by visuals.

Images before words

Add up all of these findings, and you begin to realize that we’re overdue in giving visuals the credit they deserve.

Many of us grew up with the vague impression that words are more important than images — perhaps starting in grade school, when some of us pretended to be too clever for picture books. But despite what our traditional educational system might sometimes suggest, images are not silly and inconsequential. They are powerful and essential for understanding.

People have, of course, been drawing for tens of thousands of years. By comparison, we’ve only been writing words for about 5,000 years, a drop in the bucket of some 200,000 years of human history.

Even many famous writers, those gurus of text, understand the importance of visuals. Novelist J.K. Rowling, for example, drew Harry Potter’s world before she wrote it. J.R.R. Tolkien drew his imaginary realm of “Middle Earth” before describing it in his classic fantasy novels “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” And Jack Kerouac drew a mandala (a Buddhist or Hindu pictorial design) to visualize his plotline before tackling his novel “On the Road.”

The simple fact is that we humans live our lives in color and narrative. Emotions make stories stick. And visuals trigger emotions, which produce dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain related to motivation, memory and attention. Dopamine tells our minds: “This is important. Remember this.”

Visuals and public relations

What does all of this have to do with public relations? Consider the recent shift toward converged, or merged, media — where a brand’s look, voice, storyline and message all have strong visuals and are consistent across different media channels.

Gone are the days when marketing materials sparkled but press releases could be text-y and workmanlike. In the digital age, visual content has become the heart of marketing and public relations, which is why it’s increasingly important for all earned-media assets to look good.

Case in point: Earlier this year, my firm, PWR New Media, asked more than 200 journalists whether they were “more likely to cover a story” when a news release provided easy access to usable images. A vast majority — 77 percent — said yes.

Today, your media-facing assets need to shine brightly. Getting visual in brand stories, news releases and newsrooms is key for any brand trying to grow healthy relationships with the news media and beyond. So get creative, bold and visual. You might be surprised by how well it works.

Malayna Evans, Ph.D., will lead a day-long workshop titled “Best Practices for Using Visual Storytelling Tactics in Media-Facing Assets and Beyond” on Sept. 21 in Arlington, Va. For more details, visit prsa.org/pd.

Malayna Evans, Ph.D.

Malayna Evans, Ph.D., is a managing partner at Chicago-based PWR New Media, specializing in helping communications professionals craft digital content and tell brand stories. Connect with her on Twitter @Malayna.


Iain Hamilton says:

I believe that figure should be 13 MILLISECONDS, and not the rather unimpressive 13 seconds...

Aug. 5, 2018

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