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9 Visual Content Tips and Examples From Creative Brands and Experts

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9 Visual Content Tips and Examples From Creative Brands and Experts


Updated March 30, 2022

Visuals are essential to creating content that will help your business stand out and draw in an audience. Not only does imagery help make text-centric content more eye-catching, digestible, and memorable, but it can communicate compelling messages that speak volumes without any text.

Visual trends and creative platforms come and go in the blink of a smartphone camera’s eye. Take a fresh look at how your brand’s photos, videos, and graphics can do the talking. This collection of best-practice tips comes from some of the industry’s most creative and design-minded content experts. It also includes best-in-show examples to inspire you to put your brand’s vision on display.

Take a fresh look at your brand’s photos, videos, and graphics to get a better focus on your #VisualContent strategy, says @joderama via @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

1. Consider the story – not just the visuals

Visual storytelling isn’t just about the pictures. Visuals should enable a clear, consistent story from your brand. Even if each individual visual asset doesn’t tell an obvious story, your audience should be able to follow the narrative thread.

It’s a point CMI’s chief strategy advisor Robert Rose emphasizes in his detailed Marketing Makers lesson on the subject. His top-line advice: Think like a storyteller. Then plan your visual media to represent and relate the story across all your platforms.

Think like a storyteller, then plan your visuals to tell the story across platforms, says @Robert_Rose via @joderama @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

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It’s a lesson executed skillfully by the mindfulness app Calm. Whether viewing their ads in your Instagram Stories feed or scrolling the daily affirmations and meditations posted to its profile page, the cool blue color palette and serene background scenery create visual reinforcement of the brand’s overarching story of enabling people to find balance in their lives.

2. Align the visual story with your content marketing strategy

Posting a photo or video online and waiting for the business offers to start rolling in is not a strategy. Neither is hinging your visual content success on creating the next viral phenomenon. Like any content marketing format, you need a compelling rationale for visual storytelling and a clear plan for turning views into meaningful marketing results.

Posting a photo or video online and waiting for the business offers to start rolling in is not a strategy, says @joderama via @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

Before your creative team sketches any ideas, make sure they answer these questions:

  • What are we trying to accomplish with our visual content?
  • Who are our audience members? What kinds of content experiences interest them?
  • What problems does our organization solve?
  • What is our clearly defined vision of what makes our brand unique? How can we communicate those messages in a compelling and visually consistent way?
  • What metrics will we use to measure success? For which terms should this image appear in search engine results?

To ensure your visual vision aligns with your marketing purpose, let audience preferences – not your gut feelings – guide the selection of themes, topics, and approaches.

For example, a current rule of thumb dictates videos should run between 30 seconds and six minutes. However, video pro Andrew Davis rarely creates videos less than seven minutes.

Why does he buck convention? It’s what his audience wants, according to his metrics. As Andrew explains, “The real core of my audience doesn’t want a superficial marketing tip and trick because they can get a million of those elsewhere online. I’m trying to help people think strategically about the marketing they’re doing and how to deliver a better customer experience. To me, that [requires lengthier videos].”
Don’t just follow best practices on #video length. Figure out what your audience responds best to, says @DrewDavisHere via @joderama @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

To find audience insights to guide your creative decision-making, Andrew suggests tracking:

  • Audience retention rates: Compare the retention rates for each video. For example, one of his popular videos showed a 50% retention rate – half who viewed the video watched until the end. When videos fail to meet that retention rate, he does a deeper dive into their creative and technical details – length, topic, title, and tags – to discern what didn’t work well.
  • Subscriber responses: Track direct replies to those who subscribe to your content. Andrew includes links to his videos in Loyalty Loop, a weekly email newsletter. “Lots of people click, open, and watch it, but the people who respond – especially when it’s about something that really hit a chord – help me understand what’s working because it tells me what they’re liking, what’s challenging them, and what are they learning,” he says.
  • Comments: Read responses posted below the videos. Andrew mines the comments viewers leave on the YouTube page and below his LinkedIn posts where he shares the link.

TIP: If you’d like more guidance on building a strategic framework to support all your content efforts, this three-step content marketing strategy tutorial can help.


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3. Ensure images reflect and represent your whole audience

Images might speak a thousand words, but those words do not necessarily convey the same message to everyone – especially those who aren’t represented authentically in your brand’s visual stories.

African-American Marketing Association founder Michelle Ngome implores marketers to consider diversity in their content creation. “What kinds of content are you sharing on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn company pages, and Twitter? What do your messaging and images look like? Is there a healthy balance of perspectives shared in [your] choices of topics and the [faces and voices behind] your messages?… Does it prioritize the experiences of some groups over others?” Michelle asks.

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A lot of organizations are diverse but are they inclusive, asks @MichelleNgome via @joderama @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

Michelle points to Rihanna’s lingerie brand Savage X Fenty as a shining example. She credits the brand’s broadly inclusive visualization model as a key reason it reached a $1 billion valuation just two years after launching. You can see evidence of that in a Valentine’s Day post shared on Instagram and Facebook emphasizing that sexy isn’t based on age, skin color, or sexual preference.

Keep in mind: Diversity doesn’t need to be the focal point of a visual story for it to play a key role. In fact, normalizing the representation of diverse communities as part and parcel of your creative process means you won’t have to think about it on an asset-by-asset basis. It will happen organically. That’s a goal GLAAD, Getty Images, and Ceros are working to further with their collaborative initiative Seeing is Believing.

A Getty Images’ Visual GPS 2021 Study found countries with greater representation of the LGBTQ+ community in their media and advertising exhibit less discrimination and less bias. The resulting partnership was forged to “elevate diverse narratives that can alter perceptions, evoke empathy, and build community.” The effort included a calendar of LGBTQ+ celebration days and a gated Visual Storytelling Guidebook to inspire increased inclusion and thoughtful portrayals of the LGBTQ+ community. Getty also compiled special collections of stock images emphasizing intersectionality and authenticity over the narrow, stereotypical depictions commonly seen in media.

4. Use your fans’ content – or let them do the work for you

Consumers love to snap pictures and share selfie videos with their friends. Instead of interrupting their experience with product shots and promotional pitches, why not include their creative work in your content marketing?

In a recent Teen Vogue article, Abercrombie & Fitch explains how it turned to the TikTok community for help shedding its early 2000s “preppy surfer” look. While the company ran sponsored ads and partner posts on the platform, much of the credit for its successful refresh is owed to the Gen Z consumers who posted their own videos tagged with #AbercrombieHaul and #AbercrombieStyle.

For example, Teen Vogue points to Andy Lobos’ TikTok video about Abercrombie’s logo-less hoodies, which earned over 1 million views. Once an Abercrombie product goes viral on TikTok, it typically sells out on the site.

@andy_lobosReply to @gunnawut surprisingly there is no logos on this just a good blank hoodie #fyp #abercrombie♬ original sound – led

5. Stay on brand

Whether fans are involved in your imagery or not, take steps to maintain your brand’s visual identity, including the use of corporate colors and logos. Ideally, all your content assets feature a consistent visual design – one that viewers instantly recognize no matter where the content appears or who creates it.

For example, Planters decided to sit out the 2021 Super Bowl ad frenzy in favor of a cause-based play to promote “little acts of extraordinary substance that make the world a better place.” But despite benching its ad, the brand didn’t bench its signature colors or its resurrected mascot in its videos and social media posts about the campaign:

When creating branded assets, consider how target distribution platforms might render them. The specs might not be the same across the board. If you don’t pay close attention, the hard work to create a shareable image can be fruitless as the image gets mixed up or mangled that masks your brand’s value.
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For example, embedded links can be problematic if not used appropriately. Visual content strategy expert (and avowed comics geek) Buddy Scalera says a platform’s native tools might pick a less-preferred image from the content to display as the thumbnail or preview, or they might crop it in a way that robs some of its resonance and branding elements. As a workaround, he suggests using Open Graph tags – a piece of code that gives you greater control of the visual experience you’re trying to create.

Content marketers should wrest control of their visuals from @Microsoft, @Google, @Facebook, says @BuddyScalera via @joderama @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

TIP: Don’t forget to add your logo to original images and tag them with relevant keywords, categories, hashtags, and metadata. This helps your fans find your content even when shared in unfamiliar contexts.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: 9 Steps to Optimize Images for SEO

6. Tailor visuals to the delivery platform

You also need to consider each sharing environment to determine how well the visuals fit the conversational context and audience preferences. Of course, with the right insights, your visuals can find an audience in places you wouldn’t expect to be a good fit.

For example, the Instagram audience might not seem like an obvious fit for the long-form literature at The New York Public Library. But its content team translated a series of text-heavy content into snackable visual segments that deserve a special place on its shelves of great works.

Insta Novels visualizes five iconic novels as Instagram Stories. Each edition includes the full text along with illustrations and an animated intro. It even includes a place to pause on every frame for those who aren’t skilled at reading in the platform’s 15-second increments. These visualized novels gained more than 300,000 views and added more than 140,000 followers to the library’s Instagram account.

Image source

[email protected] reinvented five classics novels – without changing a word – on #Instagram. They gained 140,000 followers, says @Everypixelcom via @CMIContent @corpv. Click To Tweet

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7. Don’t be afraid to get emotional

Some of the most memorable visual experiences tap into the power of emotion. Need proof? I challenge you to watch this emotionally charged video from Oreo and not get a little misty-eyed at the display of fatherly love and acceptance:

All Animals – the flagship magazine of the Humane Society of the United States – also aims for the heart with its visual content. For a feature story on the Black Beauty Ranch, a sanctuary for wild animals and farm stock that have been abused, injured, or abandoned, the editorial team used photos of the animals looking directly at the camera to create a powerful connection with viewers. In its article about fur farms, the faces of the caged animals get across the organization’s message without viewers having to read a word.

This level of deliberate planning also helped the U.S. Humane Society catch the eyes of the 2021 Content Marketing Award judges, which recognized All Animals as a finalist in the Best Feature Design and Best Use of Photography categories and the winner for Best Nonprofit Publication.

Famed photographer Pete Souza captured plenty of posed snapshots while documenting the presidencies of Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan. Yet, in his keynote address at Content Marketing World 2021, Pete shared his most enduring images that say something essential about the person behind the institution.

He included many of those photographs in his two best-selling books, Obama: An Intimate Portrait and Shade: A Tale of Two Presidencies. “The way [Obama] interacted with other people showed what he was like as a human being,” Pete told the crowd.

President Barack Obama greets children at a day care facility adjacent to daughter Sasha's school in Bethesda, Md., following her 4th grade closing ceremony, June 9, 2011.

Image source

8. Repurpose information and insights as visuals

A stock-image service can be a viable alternative when cutting-edge equipment (and the talent to operate it) is out of your price range. The key? Put your brand’s spin on the images before you publish them.

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You also can “skin” your brand’s content without going the stock route, many of which might offer a stronger balance between cost-effectiveness and audience impact.

For example, in a content partnership with Quartz, Deloitte Global enlisted its creative services studio to help turn its lead-gen white paper on the millennial work experience into a highly immersive interactive version anchored by vibrant full-screen illustrations.

The cast of characters for The Resilient Generation was established with a drawing of an apartment and its inhabitants. Then, artist Paige Vickers created lush, individual scenes with whimsical details. She depicted three typical young professionals at home mid-pandemic — working next to a roommate, taking a mental health break with the dog, and preparing for a climate protest.

The original artwork might have been more expensive than stock art, but the investment paid off. A week after launch, Deloitte’s page visits grew approximately 964%, and white paper downloads increased 33%. It was also a hit with the 2021 Content Marketing Award judges, too, capturing the win for Best Use of Illustration.

9. Follow the patterns of effective design

A wealth of DIY design tools online and on social media gives almost anyone the ability to produce visual content. However, those tools still require some design chops to create clear, compelling, and readable images and videos.

That process can be simplified with design templates. That was the idea behind a holiday email campaign from Adobe Creative. It offered its newsletter subscribers intriguing ugly Christmas sweaters Photoshop templates. Customers could turn their favorite images into a virtual sweater pattern with just a few clicks.

Image showing Adobe ugly sweater Photoshop action turning half of a reindeer image into an ugly sweater-style pattern.

Adobe’s newsletters also featured templates for cozy winter cards, as well as non-holiday options like how to make a risograph-style print in Photoshop.

Adobe risograph-style print template gif

Sharing visual content that helped Adobe’s audience create their own was a smart marketing play. It got creators to experiment with Photoshop’s tools and features while providing step-by-step instructions and delivering a free holiday gift of surprise and delight.

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Audiences love free things – templates, tools, and images make great #content and great #email subscriber gifts. See examples from the @AdobeCreate newsletter via @joderama @CMIContent @corpv Click To Tweet

Of course, when working with templates isn’t a viable option, your best bet is to default to the basic principles of good design. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • Give your imagery room to breathe: Failing to leave enough white space between visuals can make a page cluttered and hard to follow. Remove images that don’t add to the visual conversation and expand the space between unrelated elements to clarify page structure.
  • Don’t get color-blindsided: Stay true to your branding guidelines, including color preferences. But don’t get so caught up in executing this priority that you overlook whether those colors will work well together online. Pick one color to use as a base, then find complementary colors with an online color-wheel tool.
  • Speed up your page loads: Visual experiences are slowed when images aren’t properly sized and compressed. Use tools (like this simple one from Google) to check how quickly images load. If it’s too long, adjust for consumption on different platforms and devices, including mobile.
  • Make good typography decisions: Not only is choosing the proper font size, weight, and spacing critical to readability, but poor typography decisions can conflict with crafting understandable and memorable messages.

TIP: Don’t forget to get your visuals shared as far and wide as all your other assets. Influencers can be instrumental to this goal, especially on social media. Make it easy for them by offering multiple options – such as tagging them on social media or providing direct access to the raw files for download.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: 3 Graphic Design Tips for Non-Designers

How do you visualize your brand’s story?

Of course, these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find more image-centric inspiration in CMI’s content hub on the subject. We also would love to hear how other businesses are painting pictures of marketing success. Tell us about your favorites in the comments. 

All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.

Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute





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MARKETING

8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

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8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

As email marketers, we know we need to personalize the messages we send to subscribers and customers. I can’t think of a single statistic, case study or survey claiming an email program of one-to-everyone campaigns outperforms personalization.

Instead, you’ll find statistics like these:

  • 72% of customers will engage only with personalized messages (Wunderkind Audiences, formerly SmarterHQ)
  • 70% of consumers say that how well a company understands their individual needs affects their loyalty (Salesforce)
  • 71% of customers are frustrated by impersonal shopping experiences (Segment)

But what marketers often don’t understand, especially if they’re new to personalization, is that personalization is not an end in itself. Your objective is not to personalize your email campaigns and lifecycle messages. 

Rather, your objective is to enhance your customer’s experience with your brand. Personalization is one method that can do that, but it’s more than just another tactic. 

It is both an art and a science. The science is having the data and automations to create personalized, one-to-one messages at scale. The art is knowing when and how to use it.

We run into trouble when we think of personalization as the goal instead of the means to achieve a goal. In my work consulting with marketers for both business and consumer brands, I find this misunderstanding leads to eight major marketing mistakes – any of which can prevent you from realizing the immense benefits of personalization.

Mistake #1. Operating without an overall personalization strategy

I see this all too often: marketers find themselves overwhelmed by all the choices they face: 

  • Which personalization technologies to use
  • What to do with all the data they have
  • How to use their data and technology effectively
  • Whether their personalization efforts are paying off

This stems from jumping headfirst into personalization without thinking about how to use it to meet customers’ needs or help them solve problems. 

To avoid being overwhelmed with the mechanics of personalization, follow this three-step process:

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  • Start small. If you aren’t using personalization now, don’t try to set up a full-fledged program right away. Instead, look for quick wins – small areas where you can use basic personalized data to begin creating one-to-one messages. That will get you into the swing of things quickly, without significant investment in time and money. Adding personal data to the body of an email is about as basic as you’ll get, but it can be a start.
  • Test each tactic. See whether that new tactic helps or hurts your work toward your goal. Does adding personal data to each message correlate with higher clicks to your landing page, more conversion or whatever success metric you have chosen?
  • Optimize and move on. Use your testing results to improve each tactic. Then, take what you learned to select and add another personalization tactic, such as adding a module of dynamic content to a broadcast (one to everyone) campaign. 

Mistake #2. Not using both overt and covert personalization

Up to now, you might have thought of in specific terms: personalized subject lines, data reflecting specific actions in the email copy, triggered messages that launch when a customer’s behavior matches your automation settings and other “overt” (or visible) personalization tactics.

“Covert” personalization also employs customer preference or behavior data but doesn’t draw attention to it. Instead of sending an abandoned-browse message that says “We noticed you were viewing this item on our website,” you could add a content module in your next campaign that features those browsed items as recommended purchases, without calling attention to their behavior. It’s a great tactic to use to avoid being seen as creepy.

Think back to my opening statement that personalization is both an art and a science. Here, the art of personalization is knowing when to use overt personalization – purchase and shipping confirmations come to mind – and when you want to take a more covert route. 

Mistake #3. Not maximizing lifecycle automations

Lifecycle automations such as onboarding/first-purchase programs, win-back and reactivation campaigns and other programs tied to the customer lifecycle are innately personalized. 

The copy will be highly personal and the timing spot-on because they are based on customer actions (opting in, purchases, downloads) or inactions (not opening emails, not buying for the first time or showing signs of lapsing after purchasing). 

Better yet, these emails launch automatically – you don’t have to create, schedule or send any of these emails because your marketing automation platform does that for you after you set it up. 

You squander these opportunities if you don’t do everything you can to understand your customer lifecycle and then create automated messaging that reaches out to your customers at these crucial points. This can cost you the customers you worked so hard to acquire, along with their revenue potential.

Mistake #4. Not testing effectively or for long-term gain

Testing helps you discover whether your personalization efforts are bearing fruit. But all too often, marketers test only individual elements of a specific campaign – subject lines, calls to action, images versus no images, personalization versus no personalization  – without looking at whether personalization enhances the customer experience in the long term.

How you measure success is a key part of this equation. The metrics you choose must line up with your objectives. That’s one reason I’ve warned marketers for years against relying on the open rate to measure campaign success. A 50% open rate might be fantastic, but if you didn’t make your goal for sales, revenue, downloads or other conversions, you can’t consider your campaign a success.

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As the objective of personalizing is to enhance the customer journey, it makes sense then that customer lifetime value is a valid metric to measure success on.  To measure how effective your personalization use is, use customer lifetime value over a long time period – months, even years – and compare the results with those from a control group, which receives no personalization. Don’t ignore campaign-level results, but log them and view them over time.

(For more detailed information on testing mistakes and how to avoid them, see my MarTech column 7 Common Problems that Derail A/B/N Email Testing Success.)

Mistake #5. Over-segmenting your customer base

Segmentation is a valuable form of personalization, but it’s easy to go too far with it. If you send only highly segmented campaigns, you could be exclude – and end up losing because of failure to contact – many customers who don’t fit your segmentation criteria. That costs you customers, their potential revenue and the data they would have generated to help you better understand your customer base.

You can avoid this problem with a data-guided segmentation plan that you review and test frequently, a set of automated triggers to enhance the customer’s lifecycle and a well-thought-out program of default or catch-all campaigns for subscribers who don’t meet your other criteria. 

Mistake #6. Not including dynamic content in general email campaigns

We usually think of personalized email as messages in which all the content lines up with customer behavior or preference data, whether overt, as in an abandoned-cart message, or covert, where the content is subtly relevant.

That’s one highly sophisticated approach. It incorporates real-time messaging driven by artificial intelligence and complex integrations with your ecommerce or CRM platforms. But a simple dynamic content module can help you achieve a similar result. I call that “serendipity.”  

When you weave this dynamic content into your general message, it can be a pleasant surprise for your customers and make your relevant content stand out even more. 

Let’s say your company is a cruise line. Customer A opens your emails from time to time but hasn’t booked a cruise yet or browsed different tours on your website. Your next email campaign to this customer – and to everyone else on whom you have little or no data – promotes discounted trips to Hawaii, Fiji and the Mediterranean.

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Customer B hasn’t booked a cruise either, but your data tells you she has browsed your Iceland-Denmark-Greenland cruise recently. With a dynamic content module, her email could show her your Hawaii and Mediterranean cruise offers – and a great price on a trip to Iceland, Denmark and Greenland. Fancy that! 

An email like this conveys the impression that your brand offers exactly what your customers are looking for (covert personalization) without the overt approach of an abandoned-browse email.

Mistake #7. Not using a personal tone in your copy

You can personalize your email copy without a single data point, simply by writing as if you were speaking to your customer face to face. Use a warm, human tone of voice, which ideally should reflect your brand voice. Write copy that sounds like a one-to-one conversation instead of a sales pitch. 

This is where my concept of “helpful marketing” comes into play. How does your brand help your customers achieve their own goals, solve their problems or make them understand you know them as people, not just data points?  

Mistake #8. Not personalizing the entire journey

Once again, this is a scenario in which you take a short-sighted view of personalization – “How do I add personalization to this email campaign?” – instead of looking at the long-term gain: “How can I use personalization to enhance my customer’s experience?”

Personalization doesn’t stop when your customer clicks on your email. It should continue on to your landing page and even be reflected in the website content your customer views. Remember, it’s all about enhancing your customer’s experience.

What happens when your customers click on a personalized offer? Does your landing page greet your customers by name? Show the items they clicked? Present copy that reflects their interests, their loyalty program standing or any other data that’s unique to them?  

Personalization is worth the effort

Yes, personalization takes both art and science into account. You need to handle it carefully so your messages come off as helpful and relevant without veering into creepy territory through data overreaches. But this strategic effort pays off when you can use the power of personalized email to reach out, connect with and retain customers – achieving your goal of enhancing the customer experience.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Kath Pay is CEO at Holistic Email Marketing and the author of the award-winning Amazon #1 best-seller “Holistic Email Marketing: A practical philosophy to revolutionise your business and delight your customers.”

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