Visual Communicatons

Design Online Content for Skimmers

People do more skimming online than reading, so you need to design and package your content to convert skimmers into readers.

People do more skimming online than reading, so you need to design and package your content to convert skimmers into readers.

Content providers beware. The explosion of online content has turned readers into skimmers. We still read what interests us, but we typically skim over most everything else.

Say what you want about shrinking attention spans or rising visual IQs, the evolving patterns of viewership have less to do with verbal and visual intelligence and more to do with survival. There is simply no other way to cope with masses of online material than to skim.

Developing content creation strategies that recognize our reading/skimming habits is essential if you want to be noticed. Here are some suggestions:

1  Create online content that people can skim. Design content with concise verbiage, good imagery and clear packaging that makes it easy to get the point even when skimming.

2  Include more visual content. Not pictures for picture’s sake, but quality visual content that tells your story better and more quickly than words. It can be photography, video, a chart, an infographic or a doodle that grabs the eye of a skimmer. Take consolation in data suggesting people remember more of what they see than what they read.

3  Place content where skimmers congregate. User data shows social media sites such as Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram are growing rapidly because they cater to cursory readers.

4  Leverage the online capability of layering content. As people skim, they look for what interests them, which they read more intently. Online architecture and links let people drill down on what interests them, even as they skim. Embedding links needs to be an integral part of content creation.

5  Offer content that answers questions or solves problems. Readability assessments reveal people will read content that answers their questions or offers problem-solving assistance. This requires sharp targeting, drawing on credible research, to find who is asking the questions you answer and problems you solve – and where they go to find reliable information and advice. People are more apt to read your content if they trust it.

6  Provide content that is pleasurable to read. Evidence indicates people take more time reading – or actually reading – material they enjoy. You may have to tell the boss to deep-six his merchandising message and substitute other content, perhaps content generated by other consumers or site users. Instead of describing the features of your product, show how a consumer can enjoy it.

7  Think about riding a bus. This is a useful metaphor for designing content aimed at increasing numbers of mobile users. If you can find ways to stick out as someone thumbs through sites amid jostling and looking for your exit, then you are probably creating content that is tailored to skimmers.

8  Make your content appealing to share. Sharing is a trait of skimmers. They assume other skimmers may miss something they should see. Don't get your heart broken if sharers haven't read your entire content. Getting into circulation is a form of validation of your content that will impress some skimmers to treat it as trusted content – and actually read it.

If this seems a little discouraging, don't let it get you down. You have to walk before you can run, and you may have to abide skimming to convert scanners into readers.

Earning Clicks and Much More

If you want to be heard, be seen.

If you want to be heard, be seen.

Images improve the chances of connecting your customers with your content. If you catch their eye, you can earn a click.

However, images can do much more than just earn clicks. They can deliver useful information, answer common questions and provide clear explanations. 

Visual content works because our brains are wired to process images much faster than words. That's why a good picture is worth more than a 1,000 words.

Images have other virtues, too. They can simplify, symbolize and sequence information in ways that are familiar, comfortable and nearly automatic. It takes far less effort to look at a picture than to read a paragraph.

Capitalizing on visual content requires the same care, thought and editing as writing an effective paragraph. Sticking a picture into the middle of a mound of words won't cut it. We use the phrase "information design" to describe the process of determining how to meld words and images into a cohesive communications unit.

Here are some tips about finding and using visual content successfully:

1  All pictures aren't created equal. You need to choose pictures that grab attention and tell your story. We have moved past the Polaroid era and people expect higher quality imagery, which they see everyday, all day on television and the Internet. If you can't discriminate between a good picture and a bad one, get help so what you choose does the job.

2  You don't have to be a world-class photographer. Some of the most powerful pictures are ones taken in the moment on smartphones. The pictures you want to use should be judged by their effect on your customers, not based on the credentials of who shot them. 

3  Images don't have to be pictures. Some of the best, most shareable visual content comes in the form of charts and infographics, which are cleverly packaged and logically sequenced information delivery vehicles. Charts are especially good ways to show contrast. Infographics work well to explain a complicated piece of information in a simple, digestible fashion. They also are powerful ways to show causal relationships.

4  Video counts as visual content. Video gets discounted because of a perception that it is too hard and too expensive to develop. That's yesterday's news. Short videos can be easy to produce and are an effective way to show how something works or share a testimonial.

5  Seek and use customer content. A great way to generate images is to ask your customers to send them to you. You may receive a lot of unusable stuff, but all it takes is a few gems to add value to your communications. Customer-generated content is also a great way to engage your customer base.

6  Little pictures matter as much as big ones. No question a large, dramatic picture can be spellbinding. But smaller pictures can be appealing, too, such as photographs of the staff member who writes a blog. Think both big and small when you search and select images.

7  Don't overlook the element of surprise. Pictures, unlike words, can make people do a double-take. Visual surprises pull the eye toward them because they conflict with our sense of the familiar. They cause us to take a second look, which increases your chance of getting someone to spend more time with your content.

8  Be careful with stock photos. Stock photography can be a short-cut to getting a relevant, eye-fetching picture. It also can be a can of worms. First off, make sure you purchase the stock image you use for the purpose or purposes you intend. Second, be mindful of whether a competitor has used the image, which can be very embarrassing. Finally, stock pictures are just that. They are generic, not specific. If you are going for authenticity, look somewhere else than the online galleries of stock photography.

9  Insert personality into your visual content. Selfies are popular because they are personal. Inserting some personality into your pictures, charts or infographics underscores authenticity and can reinforce your branding. Be careful not to inject a tone that is inconsistent with your message.

10  Leverage familiar patterns. Infomercials can be effective by relying on tried-and-true patterns, such as "before" and "after." Visuals that are basically doodles work because most people doodle. A familiar picture with an odd twist can be turned into a meme that results in shares and comments online. Be a good observer and follow your own visual instincts.

The Picture of Opportunity

Pope Francis blesses a baby at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Saturday, Sept. 26. The pontiff visited Philadelphia as part of the World Meeting of Families. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen)

Pope Francis blesses a baby at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Saturday, Sept. 26. The pontiff visited Philadelphia as part of the World Meeting of Families. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen)

The whirlwind U.S. tour by Pope Francis should convince every marketer of the power of photo ops to reinforce key messages.

Pope Francis departs the U.S. Capitol after his address to Congress. (Photo Phiend)

Pope Francis departs the U.S. Capitol after his address to Congress. (Photo Phiend)

From riding around in a tiny Fiat to having lunch with the homeless to meeting with prison inmates, Pope Francis exhibited what humility means in practice and underscored his pleas not to forget society's downtrodden souls.

The imagery from his trip was searing and kept most of the nation spellbound. The Pope's insistence to stop his car to bless a child provided a viral visual witness to his words.

The papal visit is a reminder that imagery can tell a story in a way words never can. Yet so much time is spent on words and too little time on actions that could convey your message in a genuine, impactful way. Even when visual communications are considered, choices often boils down to a video or an infographic, which can lack the raw appeal of an opportunistic photograph.

Photo ops have earned a bad name as manipulative ways to make a point in front of a camera. That bad reputation is deserved for the most self-serving "shots," such as the grip-and-grin pictures of someone handing an oversized check to a charity.

The art of the photo-op is to avoid making it look phony. That usually requires making sure it isn't phony.

Pope Francis is a media-savvy guy who keenly understands the value of walking the talk. He knows he is photographed constantly whenever he steps outside. But his actions that generate endearing images appear spontaneous. There is nothing forced or phony about them.

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama are greeted by Catholic school children on the flightline at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Sept. 22. The children are local to the National Capital Region and presented the pope with a gift of flowers. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama are greeted by Catholic school children on the flightline at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Sept. 22. The children are local to the National Capital Region and presented the pope with a gift of flowers. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

While Pope Francis is a hard act to follow, his ability to curry powerful imagery is something everyone can emulate by following his example.

First, the Pope looks for moments that can crystallize his messages. After a wedding ceremony at the Vatican, Pope Francis donned a red nose like the ones worn by the bridge and bridegroom, which was captured by the wedding photographer. He enabled a photographer during his visit to a prison to capture his arm in the papal robe firmly in a handshake with a heavily tattooed inmate's arm. Francis kissed, hugged and fawned over children with grandfatherly naturalness, with iPhones clicking madly.

Second, the images we saw on TV, online and in social media were all captured and shared by journalists and onlookers, not a Vatican production company. They were in many cases crowdsourced, which attested to their authenticity, even if in some real sense they were stage managed.

Finally, the Pope evaluated his schedule on its symbolic qualities. He insisted, for example, to go to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, not just to be photographed paying homage to the dead, but to participate in a live inter-faith service. The service delivered some of the most emotional imagery of his trip, which never would have been filmed if he hadn't gone there.

Incorporating photo opportunities into marketing PR plans requires a lot of creativity and hard work. But an image that takes seconds to comprehend and embeds itself into memory is worth the effort.

Personalizing a Brand Promise

TOMS CEO Blake Mycoskie fits a Peruvian child with shoes. The company recently utilized virtual reality to help tell its story. 

TOMS CEO Blake Mycoskie fits a Peruvian child with shoes. The company recently utilized virtual reality to help tell its story. 

Virtual reality could expand from video gaming to empathetic storytelling, placing viewers in the middle of the action worlds away.

TOMS developed a virtual reality video that transports its shoe buyers to a dusty, mountainous village in Peru where they see the faces of children who receive free shoes as part of the company's buy-one, give-one philanthropy.

The TOMS store on NW Burnside Street in Portland is just one of seven around the world with the equipment to play the 4-minute video, which had its inspiration in a TED talk by virtual reality film producer Chris Milk. TOMS executives saw virtual reality video as a way to dispel disbelief in its cause marketing One-For-One brand promise.

Critics don't dispute the reality of TOMS donating shoes. They take aim at its claims that half of all TOMS profits go to philanthropy, asserting instead that buyers actually pay for two pairs of shoes in the purchase price. Other critics condemn TOMS for failing to locate factories in the countries and communities where it gives away shoes to poor people.

The TOMS virtual reality video is unlikely to dispel those criticisms. However, it will make the TOMS brand promise more personal for its loyal customer base because it draws them deeper into the giving experience than a regular video or a photo gallery.

Produced for VRSE by Oregonian Susan Hebert, the video zooms over the remote area where the Peruvian village is located, takes you along the bumpy road into town and plops you among the villagers. You see children in their schoolyard, watch as they are measured for new shoes and enjoy dancers in native costumes. At times, the children look straight at you and, in a couple of cases, actually greet you.

The video is part of what TOMS calls its "Give One, Experience One" campaign. Other than flying to Peru, it is the next best thing to actually being there to see your contribution to philanthropy at work.

Carole Conkling experiencing TOMS new virtual reality experience at the company's Portland store. 

Carole Conkling experiencing TOMS new virtual reality experience at the company's Portland store. 

Virtual reality filmmaking involves using a camera array to shoot a panoramic, 360-degree scene. The technique produces four simultaneous frames that when viewed through special goggles give the illusion you are watching something occur around you.

The TOMS viewing site in Portland is in the corner of a store, next to the coffee bar, which supports improved water supplies in rural villages. It consists of a single swiveling chair. You move your head or swivel in the chair to scan the full scene. You are, in effect, there.

In his TED talk, Milk calls virtual reality video an untapped format for storytelling, especially for stories that draw on empathy. You don't have to paint a picture to fire someone's imagination; you place them at the scene to experience it first-hand. You are not part of an audience; your experience is unique, much as it might be if you were on location yourself. 

It was an adroit choice by TOMS to use this pioneering storytelling technique, which adheres to the company's social entrepreneurship reputation. (The Portland TOMS store has a wall-sized map depicting the various pathways of its business philanthropy, which also include eyewear donations.)

While virtual reality video may not be a tool that is available or affordable enough for most companies and organizations to pursue, it will be, especially as its 360-degree format is adapted to computer and mobile device screens so you don't have to wear special headgear. Google Cardboard already exists for DIY "immersive experiences."

The lesson for today taught by the TOMS video is that fresh approaches to storytelling can make tried-and-true stories come alive again.

Negative Space More Than a Pretty Face

Negative space is not wasted space. It points to the key message of an ad, brochure, invitation of PowerPoint presentation.

Negative space is not wasted space. It points to the key message of an ad, brochure, invitation of PowerPoint presentation.

If you are one of those people who point to open space on a design for a brochure, advertisement or PowerPoint and suggest putting in more copy, stop it. Open space isn't there by accident.

Negative space, as graphic designers refer to it, helps cue the eye of where to go. It is a critical, not an accidental aspect of a design.

Pages, ads or slides crammed with words, charts and images make it harder for viewers to know where to look first. Visual confusion can quickly lead to frustration. When it is to hard to fathom, readers put down a brochure, turn the page of a publication or stop paying attention to the slide presentation.

The notion of "clean design" incorporates wise use of open space. An effective page, ad or slide centers on a dominant feature that isn't crowded by a lot of lesser items. That feature delivers the key message, with open space pointing the way.

Negative space must be proportional to the featured element. That is achieved when the open space is part of the overall design, not just the space left uncovered by copy.

The absence of an image or words can be its own message. Think of a full-page newspaper ad that is mostly blank, with just a few words: "This is what newspapers look like in countries that censor journalists who dare to report the news."

Sometimes negative space can tell its story by how it is designed. The cover of "Peter and the Wolf" employed negative space in the shape of a boy's head, encircled by the wolf on the prowl. The curving wolf would have been meaningless without the boy's negative-space silhouette.

Cramped layout equates for most viewers to loud TV or radio ads. Jam-packed designs have the same negative effect as a pitchman screaming on air.

For reviewers who wear green eyeshades and want to squeeze every penny's worth of value out of an buy or piece of printed material, open space must seem like a waste. But rest assured, open space is one of the best investments per square inch you make to surround quality content.

There is nothing negative about negative space. It is more than a pretty face.

Matching Visuals to Your Message

Viewers expect higher quality visual images. You should demand matching your visual assets to your brand message.

Viewers expect higher quality visual images. You should demand matching your visual assets to your brand message.

Most people by now have gotten the picture that visual communications are effective. But adding visual pop to actual communications still for many remains a mystery.

Anna Guerrero, in a blog posted by ragan.com, offers some practical tips on how to lure viewers. Guerrero's core point is that just adding visual content doesn't do the trick. You need quality visual assets that tell your story better than any words can.

Her tips include using high-quality photography, website screenshots, infographics, candid images, original designs and a striking color palette – stuff that stands out and grabs the eye.

Maybe Guerrero's most profound point is the need to match your visuals with your message. To convey that your organization is full of "fun people," show a behind-the-scenes picture of your team working while doing something funny. To reduce a complex topic into something simple, create an infographic that walks the viewer through the issue in digestible chunks. To establish credibility, post a screenshot showing the original source of information that you are citing.

Visual symbols play a large part in brand recognition – and loyalty. They can be leveraged by associating them with strong, compatible visual assets that express a more specific message. The example Guerrero pointed to was the Kaleidoscope Blog on Pinterest and its distinctive, easily recognizable design.

Striking photography pulls people in, as she showed with an eye-popping picture of a woman applying bright red lipstick with a man caressing her cheek with his lips. The picture was visibly relevant to the Facebook post headline and the content: "8 Reason to Fall in Love with the Girl Who Rocks Red Lipstick." The image, Guerrero notes, wasn't the result of an expensive photo shoot; it was a piece of stock photography.

Successful visual communications usually flow from information design processes that give equal weight at the start to all assets. Information designers don't make words look pretty or discard words in favor of snazzy pictures. They choose the best combination that tells the story in a way the intended audience will notice.

It is true that effective communications in the digital age almost always include visual assets. Viewers have come to expect it. With so many people sending pictures from smartphones and designing personalized greeting cards on their tablets, their expectations have risen for more presentational value. And they just don't want pictures; they want good pictures.

Good pictures don't always mean the same thing across communication channels. Quirky works on Instagram and elegance pays dividends on Pinterest. That is a direct reflection of the dominant demographics that use each platform. What you post on Facebook is different than what you post on your website or as a blog illustration.

Visual imagery should be part of your communications toolkit. More important, it must be part of your brand narrative.