Smile, People Like Your Pictures More Than Your Words (All Things D Version)

On March 7, Facebook announced a major overhaul to its newsfeed, the scrolling page of friend-news where we spend the bulk of our Facebook time. The central change: Facebook is making room for bigger pictures.

It’s a logical move when you look at the data. In November 2011, one-fifth of posts uploaded to newsfeeds were photos. Today, every other status update is a photo. My math friends tell me it that it’s hard to meaningfully affect percentage gains when you start with a really big number. Even with my quantitative limitations, I have to believe Facebook qualifies. Last year it told investors (as part of its IPO roadshow) that users were uploading more than 300 million photos every single day, and from that very large starting point photo activity just jumped 150 percent in 15 months. So much for the law of large numbers.

If you’re a brand, though, it’s not the fact that photo-enabled devices will soon outnumber humans on the planet, or that we’re piping all those pictures into social media. The important trend is that consumers are looking at them. In other words, your art-directed fashion spreads have a lot more competition these days.

There was a time when professional photography had a monopoly on our attention. When mass media meant national magazines, TV networks and big-city newspapers, only deep-pocketed corporations could afford access to large audiences. Back then it made economic sense to build your story around professional-grade photography: A single print ad would reach millions of readers, so a few tens of thousands of dollars spent on art and photography chewed up only a negligible percentage of a campaign’s costs. And for a few generations, this approach worked great.

It turns out, though, that cost-to-produce and magnitude-of-consumer-delight don’t plot analogous curves in an Excel graph. In fact, it’s hard to find a direct correlation between the two. A photo that captures something important or interesting or timely wins our attention — regardless of who took it or how much it cost to make. It also turns out the spans of our attention are shrinking. Google economist Hal Varian observed as far back as 2010 — before SnapChat, and back when we uploaded a mere 30 million photos to Facebook every day — that we pay less attention to stuff when we consume it online. “The average amount of time looking at online news is about 70 seconds, while the average amount of time spent reading the physical newspaper is about 25 minutes a day.”

So corporate storytellers need to master a new narrative technique. It’s as if they need to shed those florid sentences that played so well in Victorian novels and dial it down to the Hemingway-esque. The good news: This new approach to storytelling still employs a language in which brands are fluent: Photos. There are three ways that brands should modify their visual storytelling.

One, feeds move faster than print magazines, so you need to tell your story in a series of frequent episodes, anecdotes and updates — not the grand gestures of Ogilvy or Draper. Photos are the currency of social media, but it’s a currency doled out in nickels, not twenty-dollar bills.

Two, let photos do more of the talking for you. Humans process visual information much faster than we process text. And when we’re online (remember those stats from Hal Varian), we navigate more quickly from story to story. If you’re going to capture attention in a digital landscape, you have to do it fast. So steal a page from the playbooks used by Pinterest, Flipboard, USA Today’s new design or the NYT’s TimesCast: Use visual content instead of words to invite consumers into the story.

Three — need I say it? — let them interact with your story, let them re-mix your assets and choose their own adventures. Let them steal your photos so they can more easily share them with friends. Let them explore inside your images to find links to products, deals and related links. And let them contribute their own. If the Web conversation is going visual, encourage them to talk to you in the local dialect — images snapped on their phones looking for a place to be uploaded.

(This post was originally published at All Things D.)

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