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What is visual storytelling, and how can it appeal to potential customers? In a world overflowing with data, marketers often fail to grab hold of and retain audiences’ attention. But by engaging them in a visual story, they can stand out among a sea of competitors.
To further our goal of being your one-stop visual-content site, Visme is happy to present a new "Ask Me Anything" series in which we turn to you, the crowd, to find out what you most want to ask movers and shakers in the content marketing industry. While some of the questions were submitted by our staff, others came from readers via Reddit, Twitter and Survey Monkey.
Our first guest is Shlomi Ron, co-founder of the Visual Storytelling Insitute (VSI). For more than 20 years, Ron has worked in the digital-marketing industry, driving impact at multiple global Fortune 100 and 500 brands, including IBM, American Express and Nokia.
Ultimately, Ron’s visual-media journey led him to co-found the VSI, where he helps businesses get their voices heard in today’s crowded and fragmented online media environment.
Before answering any of Visme’s AMA questions, Shlomi wanted readers to understand a little more about visual storytelling.
“First, let’s define what is visual storytelling, so everybody is on the same page,” he explained.
“When I searched the term ‘visual storytelling’ on Google Trends last year, I found that people searched it less than 100 times a month, and most searches revolved around entertainment and photography. Only this year has the term started to achieve some relevancy in the marketing space."
“So we’re talking about a new term crossing the line from entertainment and visual arts to a business and marketing context.”
In fact, Shlomi has his own definition for visual storytelling:
“Visual Storytelling is a marketing strategy that communicates powerful ideas through a compelling story arc, with your customer at the heart of the story, and delivered through interactive and immersive visual media -- in order to create profitable customer engagements.”
A successful visual story such as “Dove Real Beauty Sketches” includes the following elements:
This technique allows viewers to complete the story in their minds and find relevancy bridges to their lives and their business challenges.
First, a confession: I have a side passion for classic Italian cinema. It all started by simply taking Italian language classes as a hobby, and as I moved up the levels, we ditched the textbooks, watched films and discussed them in Italian.
That triggered the launch of cafePellicola.com, my 10-year blog where I review films, run online interviews with Italian filmmakers and conduct offline screenings, supported by Q&A with the audience.
Now that you have the backstory, this will explain my list of choices:
Like any visual story you’re planning, there is no silver-bullet video style that will always work. The answer to what to do lies first in getting to know your audience, what makes them tick, the type of visual stories that spike their response, what competitors are doing, what is the culture of distribution platforms your audience hangs out on, and lastly how all of this jives with your core business story.
Having said that, interactive video platforms have emerged in the last few years that allow users not only to choose their adventure, but also to navigate in a nonlinear fashion to the points of the story that interest them.
Along with embedded interactive objects, I reviewed some of the benefits marketers can leverage in a recent blog post. This is important, because according to Vidyard, over half of business videos created in the past year were 2 minutes or shorter. And so interactive video is one way to combat users' shorter attention spans where viewing experience is passive .
True, we can see the wide adoption of emoji in messaging, live streaming on Facebook, sharing on Instagram, video explosion on YouTube, the ephemeral sharing of visuals on Snapchat, the popularity of memes that combine a visual and text, and the growing use of infographics to simplify complex concepts.
Having said that, these are examples where visuals combined with text still hold value for audiences as they provide a coherent context for relaying meanings.
Borrowing from the science of social semiotics, the study of signs, every object around us always carries objective and subjective meanings.
A Snapchat logo for most everybody will trigger the objective meaning of the company Snapchat. But the subjective meaning will vary from one person to the other (e.g.: from “still don’t get what the fuss is all about” to die-hard users).
From this perspective, there has been a history of creating some level of visual-grammar ground rules, if you think of 2002’s Kress and Van Leeuwen work or if you look at different types of film shots in movies (e.g.: close-up, medium shot, long shot) that are designed to convey distinct meanings. So audiences are already trained to process visual scenes according to a certain taxonomy.
In the future, visual grammar is going to become more accurate. I actually wrote a blog post about narrative images and an academic paper reviewing visual grammar theories, but visual meanings are still a far cry from the high-clarity resolution of text.
The potential danger of this trend is obviously that a new generation will grow up to communicate through hieroglyphics-like imagery -- even though we now know that Egyptian hieroglyphics was in fact a much more complex language compared to emoji because each visual matched a single letter to form words and sentences.
With that said, we also know that the unit sales of print books rose 3.3 percent in 2016 over the previous year, marking the third-consecutive year of print growth. So the appeal of books and the long-form written word is still intact at present, especially with the adoption of eBooks, so people can carry entire libraries on their devices. But there is no doubt that future business people will most likely look at PowerPoint as a stone-aged relic.
To address this issue, school curriculums need to create a balanced diet transferring knowledge via textual information that is supported by visual communication to keep students’ engagement high.
I believe the upside is the emergence of more engaging learning experiences where the student becomes not only adept at formalizing intricate textual arguments, but can support them with vivid visuals that function as meaning and emotion amplifiers.
There are so many sectors that will benefit from VR/AR and AV. I’ll touch on a few that I am watching.
Entertainment will no doubt continue to maximize immersive environments, but another direction where audiences will extract more meaningful value they could apply to their lives is branded education . From this perspective, I see immersive storytelling being used to deliver the ultimate branded learning experiences (the online course as the visual container).
Think of a nationwide Italian restaurant chain like Carrabba's producing a branded VR experience that whisks users to Tuscany for a cooking class with a local chef. Or how about Air France producing French language learning classes at an immersive French Riviera environment?
Short-term, another indicator we want to pay attention to is mobile AR: Augmented/Virtual Reality revenue is expected to exceed $100 billion by 2021. Why? The mobile device is truly the “wireless mouse” that both connects the virtual with the physical realities and due to its high adoption lowers the barrier of entry to new audiences.
Assuming a heavyweight like Apple will release default AR capabilities into the new iOS and potentially new glasses, that will remove the current hurdle of the need to install a custom AR app to consumer content.
This means there are opportunities around the corner in creating visual stories that leverage mobile AR, such as integrating embedded digital objects that trigger traveling stories by location and display information that enrich a physical experience, for retail and tourism at first and then for other areas as it expands.
In essence, there are three sensory areas that will drive immersive storytelling experiences:
At the very basic level, we see that businesses don’t have a concrete business story to tell. As a result, the market is telling the story on their behalf, which means drowning it in the overall noise.
The typical mistakes I see brands are making include trying to be on all channels regardless of where their audience is and ignoring the platform-unique visual language, so they spray and pray the same content assets on all networks.
Marketers use the term storytelling loosely, without actually implementing the simplest three-act story structure (setting, conflict, resolution) in their messages. If anything, they tend to jump right to the resolution bit, bragging about their product without first establishing why their audience should care.
The story is delivered not from customers’ perspectives but from the marketer’s point of view. As such, messages come out flat, following the classic Inadequacy Marketing model, which uses fear to create a need and puts customers at a weakness level unless they buy the product.
We teach business leaders the proper way to do it at VSI using My Visual Story framework, following these core categories:
This is where you develop your overarching business story (we call it the Big Story), customized to buyer personas, their distribution platforms and their stage in the buying cycle.
Outcome: A business narrative statement around your customers' challenges.
Here we take your Big Story, find mini-stories that can support it and decide on the visual formats that would be relevant to your buyer personas -- and transform them into relevant visual stories using a wide range of visual formats (e.g.: images, video, AR/VR).
Outcome: Could be a brief explainer video about your product/service.
We then develop an effective distribution strategy of visual stories across channels and influencers to drive awareness, engagement and product/service adoption. We underscore personal conversational communications vs. cookie-cutter marketing speech. We also cover how to measure tactical and strategic story performance.
Outcome: Visual story distribution and optimization strategy.
As you can see with the above process, the distribution strategy maintains a “less is more” channel presence, while respecting channel-unique visual language. So, for example, a video explainer could be re-purposed into three different content pieces, each based on the unique distribution platform culture.
When you think about the future of visual storytelling, in broad strokes we’re talking about changes and interplay among the three categories that represent the visual storytelling ecosystem:
Stories will have to adapt to new narrative structures and pipeline requirements to meet buyer personas and their contextual micro-moment needs.
The goal of triggering emotional, empathetic responses in audiences will remain as this is the beating heart of stories. The axiom of nobody cares about your product but they will love your BIG story will continue to ring true .
Future stories will constantly offer a role fluidity across brands, audiences and their topic subjects. That means that any story can be experienced from the perspective of the story maker, the storyteller or the story’s protagonists’ roles.
This category represents the wide range of visual formats stories can be expressed through: images, videos, 360 video, AR-MR/VR/AV, among others.
With all this action, it’s no wonder Facebook, Apple, Google to name a few, are all rushing to establish their own visual standards at the upper rungs (AR-MR/VR) to empower their existing audience.
With technology's rapid advancement, we all literally have a “visual storytelling powerhouse” in our pockets; this tendency will continue with the emergence of true natural language programming that will remove the need for hard code programming knowledge in order to create rich narrative experiences.
With the growth in machine learning and big data, I also foresee the emergence of more coherent visual grammar rules that will allow producers to customize visual stories at the individual level. It would be like buying a shoe customized only to your individual comfort.
Is there anything else you would have asked Shlomi? What should we ask future experts in our "Ask Me Anything" series? We’d love to read your suggestions in the comments below!
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