With the explosion of visual content in the last year, it’s getting harder than ever for brands to get noticed and persuade their target audiences to take action. One way to rise above the noise is to consistently integrate your brand into your visuals, through a consistent, well-thought-out template of color, typography, and design.
What’s driving this explosion in visual content? A growing number of bloggers and businesses are recognizing its awesome power to communicate in powerful ways that words alone cannot. At the same time, apps and tools have matured to the point where nearly anyone can create and distribute attractive-looking images and infographics tailored for a variety of social media channels.
There’s only one problem: A lot of it looks the same and doesn’t communicate or persuade very well. Just as buying a canvas, paint, and brushes doesn’t make you a Picasso, nor does using tools like Canva and PicMonkey transform you into a kick-ass graphic designer. I’m not criticizing these tools; I’m just saying that a brand is more than a logo or a specific font. It’s an expression of your customers’ experience. Accordingly, it deserves careful thought and planning.
Just as visitors to your website make decisions about your company based upon its visual appeal, usability, and the quality of the content it contains, the same thing happens in microcosm with every piece of visual content you publish. Well-crafted visuals can help you build trust, differentiate your company, and grow your business. Conversely, poorly-conceived visual content can damage your audience’s perceptions of your brand.
One design consultancy, Visage, puts it bluntly in a recent blog post, Why All Your Visual Content Needs to be Branded, declaring effective visual content as a key to nurturing relationships with audiences:
Audiences have access to a flood of content, so what piques their interest? Content that is cohesive, visually engaging and consistent… demonstrates credibility. It shows that your brand is invested in providing value through communication, that you are considerate of your audience’s time and needs. If the content you create is segmented, siloed or scattershot, with no thought to design or presentation, it will be much harder to nurture that audience relationship.
The attention span of your audience is diminishing
The explosion of visual content means that your audience members are skimming more than ever; they only take a few seconds to view an image and determine whether they should investigate the content it’s promoting or just move on. That’s why consistent branding of visual images is becoming critically important. Ideally, your audience ought to be able to view an image and immediately recognize it as representing your brand. Only a small number of thought leaders and brands are doing this effectively today.
What does this mean to you as a content marketer? Your brand will need to address this issue if you want to rise above the growing maelstrom of mediocre infographics, image quotes, and stock photos to effectively communicate with your target audiences.
5 experts reveal what works and what doesn’t
Recently, I’ve come across a few thought leaders who I think are doing an excellent job of consistently branding themselves:
- Paul Biedermann, creative director and owner of re:DESIGN, a boutique agency specializing in strategic design, brand identity, and visual content marketing
- Rebekah Radice, a social media strategist, consultant, trainer, and author of How to Use Social Media to Virtually Crush the Competition
- Lisa Loeffler, publicity and promotions manager for social media guru Jay Baer and his popular Convince & Convert blog
- Joseph Kalinowski, art director at the Content Marketing Institute
- Stephanie Diamond, author of The Visual Marketing Revolution: 26 Rules to Help Social Media Marketers Connect the Dots, and numerous other books
I asked them to share some details on what they’re doing and why. Following are our conversations:
How important is it for bloggers and thought leaders to develop a distinctive visual brand?
My panelists were universal in their assessment that developing a unique visual brand is essential to getting and keeping the attention of your audience online. In essence, it becomes a visual signature that your audience will ultimately seek out, as it serves as a symbol of a resource they trust.
“It’s critical to have a distinct voice in today’s business world — it forms the very foundation of your brand and your blog. Creating an effective brand image through good design and a consistent visual strategy is critical to getting that voice seen and heard,” says Paul Biedermann.
“Creating a distinctive brand is incredibly important. It defines your unique identifiers and acts as an instant connector,” explains Rebekah Radice.
“It’s critically important for bloggers and influencers to develop a distinctive brand, and few do it well. The reason for this is not a new problem. It takes an understanding of what your brand really represents and how to translate that into a meaningful design,” adds Stephanie Diamond.
What kind of a difference has strong, distinctive branding made for your business?
These early adopters believe that creating, refining, and consistently presenting their brand as a core part of their content marketing strategy helps them rise above the tidal wave of noise online.
“Focusing more on Convince & Convert’s social media visual strategy and creating more assets to accompany our content this year has made an appreciable impact in click-through rates to our website and engagement within social channels. We have seen a sharp increase in the amount of likes, shares, and engagement across channels, especially Google+,” Lisa Loeffler says.
“Creating a distinct visual brand has made a world of difference for the Content Marketing Institute as a whole. When CMI was first launched, we worked through our visual branding in phases. It was something like a trial and error process to see what worked and what didn’t,” Joe Kalinowski reveals. “That process and solution has worked perfectly now that we have three different brands (Content Marketing Institute, Chief Content Officer magazine, and Content Marketing World) that all have to be distinct in their own right, yet must be connected as a whole. We feel that the visual branding is a huge key to that connectivity.”
Content Marketing Institute’s logos are connected, yet distinct.
“Strategic design, branding and visual content is what I do, so having my own distinctive visual brand is a must,” Biedermann explains. “It is also one of the best examples I can provide for the impact it can have: People recognize my business and my blog — they associate me with my business name, understand what I do, trust me and think of me when they need my services — and I’d say that’s about as much as you could hope for!”
Clearly, effective branded visual content does more than put your logo or company name in front of your target audience on a regular basis. Over time, it begins to stand for something in the mind space of your current and prospective customers. That increases the odds that, when they’re ready to invest in the type of product or service your company offers, your brand will be top of mind.
Why don’t more bloggers adopt this kind of approach? I see more and more visual content, but so much of it looks the same. There’s nothing distinctive about it.
Several panelists point out that the growing availability of DIY tools has accelerated the explosion of visual content; but they feel most of it is mediocre and does nothing to strengthen the brands of its creators. In many cases, development of a visual to support content is only a last-minute afterthought. In that case, “fast” DIY tools enable bloggers to quickly churn out an image that may be unique, but is often unconnected to their brand.
The same goes for stock photos, which have become a quick, easy source of visual pablum. They add a visual element to the content they support, to be sure, but don’t connect it in any way to the brand itself. In other words, if the image was taken out of context of the blog post it’s supporting, no one would know it was meant to represent your brand.
“I think the reason that bloggers and influencers avoid adopting the idea of creating a consistent and distinctive visual brand is because it does take a lot of work and a lot of trial and error,” CMI’s Kalinowski says. “It is so much easier to surf a stock site and match up the first stock photo that is vaguely relatable to your blog topic rather than taking the time to find the perfect image and working with it to ‘make it your own’ by enhancing it (cropping it, adjusting colors, etc). Dragging and dropping from the ‘free tool’ programs is a heck of a lot easier than doing all of that work yourself.
“One additional reason that the visual side of a blog may be sidestepped is simply because the visuals aren’t thought about until after the fact, almost like the finish line of a race,” Kalinowski adds. “Some may feel that the image is less important than the actual words of the blog. As a result, less effort is put into the image or visual look than the actual writing and ideation of the article.”
“I think there are a couple of reasons. The first one is lack of time,” Rebekah Radice explains. “Small businesses owners and entrepreneurs claim they ‘don’t have the time’ to create branded images. Unfortunately, just throwing together images or worse yet — using stock photos — sends the wrong message to prospective clients. The second excuse I hear is a lack of money. However, I would argue that you can create a branded persona without spending big bucks. There’s no way to create differentiation if you’re not willing to invest in this key business-defining element.”
“Visual content is going wild, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. In fact, it’s only made it more difficult to cut through the noise. That’s why serious businesses and bloggers need to up their game to have any hope of breaking through. Cookie cutter solutions and DIY will only take you so far,” Biedermann warns.
Stephanie Diamond concurs: “Most of the people who are responsible for creating visual content are not prepared and would be the first to say so. Embracing simplicity and spreading a clear message isn’t easy. The tools are much easier than they used to be, but you still need to know how to create beautiful work. Volume doesn’t equal value,” she points out.
How did you come up with the motif for your business and your visual social media posts to promote it?
Brand identity is a unique animal. It’s not just about placing your blog’s URL at the bottom of each image. It incorporates a distinctive visual style, color, typography and instantly-recognizable elements.
“My branding is carried through all of my online engagement, which includes the images on my blogs. They’re all different, yet they present a cohesive, recognizable brand identity. When my posts are shared by others, those images carry through and further spread my brand,”Biedermann explains. Each of his pieces of visual content includes a ghosted “re:DESIGN” logo in the corner.
Image from the re:Design blog
Radice’s visual content is immediately recognizable by the stylized art of a smiling woman with large eyes. The second you see one of these images in your feed, it’s immediately recognizable as her content. Here’s how she came up with this unique and distinctive style:
Rebekah Radice’s visual style
“The look and feel of my blog is in total alignment with my personality. I’m a huge fan of the color orange. It’s vibrant, fun, and eye-catching. Once I determined color scheme, I spent quite a bit of time deciding what graphics would complement my design and extend that look beyond my website and blog. It’s not easy to find your look, but it’s well worth the time and effort. Nailing down my color palette, fonts, and graphic design now makes graphic creation for each new blog post effortless.”
For CMI, orange is founder Joe Pulizzi’s favorite color. Whenever he does a speaking engagement, he wears an orange vest or sweater. Over time, this color has become a core part of the company’s unmistakable brand. Kalinowski explains how this look developed:
“We set our brand standards early on for a consistent look. Fonts, (obviously) our orange, and logo usage is pretty consistent across the board. I also benefit from the fact that a lot of our social posts can be created from a template, so when we see a “series” of posts on the horizon, we take the time to create a nice look for the first post and then follow that theme throughout the remainder of the series.”
Convince and Convert also relies on the color orange as a central part of its brand. It’s one of those colors that tends to “pop” off of the screen and commands attention. Lisa Loeffler explains how she and the C&C team developed and use its distinctive brand:
“Our visual social media posts are predominantly created in bright oranges, which mirrors Convince & Convert’s visual brand identity. We include our website URL in our images, as well as our blog or podcast logo to instill visual continuity and familiarity for our followers.
“We work closely with our graphic designers to create customized graphics to highlight our weekly Social Pros podcast. We have a handful of designs to keep the rotation visually fresh. We switch them out each week and include the show’s guest, company and show title.”
Jay Baer’s Convince & Convert content
How do you handle producing artwork for each blog post and social media image? Do you do them yourself, or do you have someone helping you with that?
Our group of visual content marketing experts were split on this question. Several bloggers create their own visual content, simply because it’s a competency they have. Others rely on a designer. And at least one of them has developed a middle ground, enabling non-designers to create images by following a clearly-defined style guide that keeps their creations consistent with the brand.
“I do them myself because it happens to be my specialty and area of expertise. I think others can do them too, but I would strongly encourage engaging with a professional to at least establish an effective foundation that is on-brand and can be carried through,” Biedermann recommends.
Convince and Convert utilizes a hybrid approach: “We work with a visual designer to help create some graphics or provide visual branding guidance. We also utilize Canva to create visual graphics to accompany our blog posts and social media posts and build the visuals ourselves,” says Loeffler.
“I am very spoiled because our marketing director has a very keen sense of what she likes to see when it comes to a visual to accompany her social posts,” Kalinowski says about his experience at CMI. “I create the majority of the visuals that accompany the social stuff, unless it’s a photo or image that is directly related to the topic. As for the blog posts, we have actually just started implementing a new strategy that seems to be working extremely well for us and we are very pleased with the outcome so far. First, we have our editorial content manager supply us with general topics for upcoming blog posts. We have recently brought on a visual media manager who works with me to find great imagery for us regarding those topics. We find relatable images and enhance them a bit to give them a consistent ‘CMI look’ across the board.
“We have also set up a blog visual library online and post the enhanced photos under each topic that our ECM supplied and from there she can pull the images directly for the blog post. I also work directly with our ECM when it comes to specific visuals that she may need to be created,” he adds.
In contrast to CMI’s collaborative approach, Radice creates her visual content on her own: “I do all of them myself. I’m a self-taught Photoshop user and a huge fan of Canva. Depending on what I’m creating, either one of those tools will help me produce exactly what I envision. I have a very clear idea with each post the message I’m trying to convey. I create the graphic around that idea,” she explains.
Yet, Stephanie Diamond feels strongly that bloggers and brands shouldn’t try to develop a visual brand on their own. She feels that investing in a competent graphic designer will pay off in the long run and will enhance your brand:
“I would recommend that businesses pay for design work. If they have a very small budget they should work with freelancers who can create guidelines for them. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune and it’s money well spent, if it’s done well. Obviously you need quality content or you won’t attract an audience. But if you have good content and poor design, it may be harder to get people’s attention,” she warns.
- Invest in a competent graphic designer and spend time helping him or her understand the essence of your brand. It will save you money in the long run.
- Developing a visual brand is an iterative process. Test different elements, and keep track of what your audience responds to. Do more of that.
- Create a style guide that details do’s and don’ts for your company’s visual brand, so other members of your team can create images that reinforce it, not damage or detract from it.
- Visuals should be an integral part of your content planning, not an afterthought. Get your graphic designer involved early on in the content creation process; this will increase the odds that you’ll end up with visual elements that support your content and make a positive impact with your target audiences.
- By all means, experiment with free and low-cost visual content creation tools, but establish your brand’s visual content guidelines first, and then stick to them.
Author: Chuck Frey
Chuck Frey is the founder and author of the The Mind Mapping Software Blog, the world’s leading website covering visual mapping. He also blogs about creativity, productivity and personal development strategies on his personal blog. He has extensive experience in public relations, online marketing, content development and marketing, innovation strategies and creative problem solving techniques. He is an avid photographer.
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