Yesterday I attended the annual social media breakfast organised by the UK's Direct Marketing Association (DMA), which explored the hot topic of visual storytelling using social media. Held at the London gallery owned by Getty Images, the picture service, the chair, Tim Pritchard, Head of Social Media at media agency ManningGottlieb OMD set the scene by reminding the audience of agency and brand owners that images are a gateway to consumer engagement, and that consumers are increasingly sharing brand images.

Indeed, just this week, British fashion brand, Burberry, made the headlines by achieving the most social media buzz at London Fashion Week (LFW). To achieve this, Burberry displayed sophisticated utilisation of visual social networks such as Instagram and Pinterest to promote its presence at LFW and even promoted itself on Twitter's micro-video sharing site, Vine.

Next to take to the floor was Guy Merrill, art director at Getty Images, who offered his own unique perspective on the photography industry. Merrill discussed how social and mobile advances are influencing advertising and marketing.

First, some compelling statistics. At time of writing, Instagram, the photo sharing service has:

  • 150 million active monthly users
  • An average 55 million photos are posted every day
  • Over 16 billion pictures have been shared since it launched over two years ago, while, by way of comparison,
  • 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day
  • And about 10 percent of the photos ever taken have been taken in the past 12 months!

As Merrill pointed out, the ubiquity of mobile devices has enabled us to capture all our experiences, not just the key events, celebrations and milestones of our lives. From the exciting to mundane – we can record snapshots of our lives any time, any place, anywhere. To paraphrase Merrill, ‘mobile phones are our archives; they are a time capsule of our lives’.

Ubiquitous access to photography has empowered the amateur photographer as demonstrated in this ad for Panasonic Lumix which uses humour to illustrate that consumers don’t necessarily need technical knowledge to produce great shots.

Visual social strategy

With this increased focus on the visual, brands are harnessing their customers’ ability to take photos by encouraging consumers to participate and engage with the brand via user-generated content. A good illustration of this is Tiffany, the luxury jewellery brand, who ran an Instagram-centric campaign, 'What makes love true'. Tiffany encouraged fans to upload photos of themselves, and show what love and romance means to them. Such campaigns encourage participation and arguably live or die by the amount of user generated content.

Competitions are also a way brands can leverage visual sharing communities, and generate engagement. In a very different category, Ben & Jerry’s, the luxury ice cream brand, ran a competition on Instagram to "capture euphoria". The brand invited fans to post photos of euphoric moments. The top 20 photos went on to feature in the photographers’ local community, making him or her, a local celebrity.

Quoting Richard Banks of Microsoft Research ‘… the act of taking a photograph is no longer about the image at all, it’s about participation.’ Indeed in the social era these photos enable us to tell stories about ourselves, to express our identities, to participate.

Merrill stated that authenticity and emotion are the key ingredients to successful visual engagement. Comparing Getty Images’ client requests over the past five years, he observed a growing trend for more authentic, unstaged photography, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also the emotive imagery that creates the greatest impact.

Cultural relevance is vital for brands

Prudential, a financial services brand used visual storytelling in its award winning campaign, 'One Day'. This campaign turned a somewhat mundane subject, retirement, in to an interesting narrative, by making it personal, and emotive. Full case study is available to Warc subscribers.

And when an online advertising campaign for Cheerio’s, the cereal brand that featured a mixed-race family attracted racist online comments, the brand unintentionally sparked a race debate in America. 

Retaliation to the racist remarks led to a “crowdsourced collection of inter-racial families” in the form of wearethe15percent. As Merrill put it, we are at a “fascinating point in photography”; images can deliver a “social punch” that can have a direct impact on society.

Timeliness is also important. Connecting with consumers via real-time events or memes, is often a way for a brand to create interest, relevance and generate talkability. Such timeliness was demonstrated by toy brand, Lego, through its tribute to astronaut, Neil Armstrong.

Clearly there are a lot of opportunities for brands to harness the power of the visual image. Through visual storytelling brands have the power to start a conversation, raise a laugh, inspire ideas, stir emotions or ignite debate. Now, more than ever, the opportunities to engage with consumers in a meaningful and impactful way are abundant.