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Visual Storytelling for Brands in the Facebook, Pinterest, Insta-gallery Era

In November 1995 I had a job selling ad space for tech magazines. One afternoon the office fax machine scrolled out 12 pages worth of insertion orders from a software company I’d been pitching for two months, and I did a happy-dance in my cubicle. With those orders, the company had committed to running a full-page ad in every issue the magazine would publish in all of 1996. I called the client to confirm the mailing address for our traffic coordinator and the creative instructions — right-reading film, emulsion-side-down — and got the further good news that the ad creative was already on its way in a FedEx pouch. The ad creative. A single photo with ad copy that would serve as the campaign’s creative all year.

I don’t miss the inky mess I’d make of my hands when I had to change the cartridge on that fax machine. But they sure were simpler times in the world of advertising and publishing.

Back then the brands on the other end of those fax machines could afford to sink significant time and resources into the production of each creative unit. Hiring a renowned photographer, a model, a team of set designers, makeup artists, art directors and post-production editors might set them back $25,000 for a single photo for a single print ad. But given the enormous role played by that one photograph — it would likely anchor a $15-million national ad campaign across many magazines for months — the time and dollars invested in getting it exactly right could fairly be called a rounding error. Twenty-five thousand dollars in creative development divided by 15 million in media spend is less than two-tenths of a percentage point.

While the math still works for brands advertising in glossy fashion magazines, there is trouble in paradise. Or rather, paradise has moved to the Internet. If brands want to engage with consumers online (which, more and more, is where their consumers spend time) they need to compete with publishers and social media sites that refresh their bins of eye-candy every few minutes. By the time they’ve art directed, developed and shipped a piece of right-reading, emulsion-side-down film to a publisher, Gangnam Style has been replaced with parody videos of Gangnam Style.

The digital landscape changes fast, and pictures are a main catalyst. Netscape released the first commercially-available web browser in 1994 and fewer than 15 years later Flickr housed more than 6 billion photos — more than 450 times the number of photos held by the Library of Congress. In 2009 more than 2.5 billion camera-enabled devices were in the hands of would-be photogs and in the course of a year would go on to take ten percent of all photos ever taken by humans. Instagram, the photo-sharing apps for smartphones that Facebook bought earlier this year for $1 billion, measures its customer engagement in uploads-per-second; 60 uploads per second, back in the quaint old days of December 2011, pre-acquisition, and before comScore released data showing Instagram’s daily usage is now greater than Twitter’s. By early 2012 Facebook members were uploading to the site more than 300 million photos every single day.

This slurry of data signals “the end of the Kodak Era, where we took photos birthdays and vacations, and shared them only with a small group of friends,” says Bob Lisbonne, CEO of Luminate (my boss) and former SVP for Netscape’s browser group in 1990s. “We’ve now entered a phase in which visual communication is supplanting the written word — what some are calling the dawn of the Imagesphere.”

(Source: 1000 Memories Blog.)

But it’s not taking or uploading pictures that should worry marketers. It’s the fact that there are consumers on the other end of these photos — viewing them, engaging with them, and generally spending more time with images they see on Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest than they used to spend reading glossy magazines that arrived on the newsstand once a month. comScore’s Mobile Metrix 2.0 survey says Facebook users are spending more than seven hours per month visiting the site by way of mobile phones alone. Om Malik, founder and editor in chief of GigaOM, asserts that photos are the fuel driving the mass migration to social media:

Malik writes, “Photos are the reason many of us continue to engage with Facebook. Facebook has tried many verbs to increase and maintain our engagement with the service — read, listen, watch. But in the end, it’s the photos that work wonders for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based social-networking giant.”

Research from a team at Harvard Business School supports Malik’s claim. A 2009 study finds that 70% of all activity inside social networks revolves around photos. Keep in mind, that was in 2009 — when Facebookers were uploading a mere 31 million photos a day, and My Space was still relevant enough to be included in a study of social-media sites.

These millions of new photos — or at least those shared by friends and organizations we choose to follow — are pushed to us each day in an unending, ever-updating stream of visual storytelling. We watch our friends’ kids grow up, in near real-time, and news stories unfold throughout the day as fresh photos replace those from hours or minutes before. Publishers, too, are responding to their readers’ growing appetite for image content with larger, high-res photography and the gallery-ification of stories as disparate as celebrity news, travel destinations and business analysis.

Roughly one-third of pixel real estate on the web is image content, according to the Wall Street Journal, and those images get old fast. In its first three days on the Internet, the average photo has attracted half the total views it will ever attract. If you look at content shared via social media platforms rather than the entire web, the half-life for content is measured in hours not days.

(Source: Bitly Blog.)

And there lies the rub for brands. The changing dynamic of media consumption has changed the rules of marketing in three fundamental respects.

One: “Professional grade” doesn’t get the mileage it once did.

Sure, the list of most-viewed clips on YouTube includes Justin Beiber music videos, but it also includes quirky independent interviews of people waiting in line for iPhones and home-movie sensations such as ‘Charlie Bit My Finger… Again.’ The same goes for photos. Consumer interest no longer tracks with traditional definitions of “photo quality.”

There was a time when all media was professional media, created and distributed by large publishing companies. It only made sense, then, for advertisers to polish their creative units to a professional, high-production-value shine. Good advertising should always seek to imitate the editorial content around it; ‘native advertising’ has been around long before the Internet. There’s mounting evidence, however, that recall rates for TV spots and display ads in magazines are declining, despite the professional expertise that goes into their creation. Nowadays relevance trumps production value.

Now that amateur photographers have gained access to distribution — Google might lead you to an independent photoblog, Instagram might introduce you to some great photos from an excellent hobbyist — consumers are dividing the world of photos into ‘interesting’ and ‘not interesting,’ not ‘professional’ and ‘amateur.’ Interesting no longer requires the talents of a professional.

Two: Attention Deficit Disorder has become a lifestyle choice.

A trend that’s probably as old as the publishing industry has achieved fever pitch: Content miniaturization. Articles get shorter and shorter, and readers still can’t get to the end of them. I mean, who has time to read the entire tweet anymore? Audience ratings seem to suggest that frequency and freshness of content are trumping quality and depth. In a world where tapping our thumbs on the Instagram icon on our iPhones unleashes an endless stream of photos taken in the last four hours, looking again at last month’s print ad for Prada strikes many modern consumers as boring.

Three: Consumption is giving way to interaction.

There’s something that’s even more popular than posting pictures: Liking them and commenting on them. It’s a sign that we define ourselves not only through our own pictures, but also through association with the pictures of others. It’s this instinct that explains the growth of Pinterest, the social network that rocketed to 10 million users faster than any social network before it. It’s not built on photo-sharing in the sense that Instagram or Facebook are (“Hey, check out my pictures”); it’s about photo-assembling (“I’ve collected these pictures so you understand who I am and what I care about”). Forty-one percent of us, says new research from Pew, find photos and videos online and re-post them on sites designed for sharing with others. It’s one of the most popular things we do on the Internet.

In order for brands to embrace these new platforms for photo mixing and mashing, they need to get comfortable with their images being separated from the carefully assembled context of yesterday’s print ad or the Spring catalog, and being extracted from the traditional models that protect ownership rights and pay out talent royalties. Your customers want to befriend you and play with you, but that game is going to be on their terms.

So what’s a brand to do?

The creative departments at traditional agencies simply can’t adapt to this new world, says John Battelle, founder of Federated Media (disclosure: I was his co-founder there) and the first managing editor of Wired Magazine. The old rhythm of branded storytelling — devise the Big Idea, take a month to convert it into an art piece of advertising, and then enlist the media department to implant it deep into the skulls of consumers through mass media — is losing its efficacy. Agencies will continue to find success producing professional-grade assets and distributing them around tent-pole events, but they’re ill-equipped for the in-between times, the 363 days a year that don’t feature the Super Bowl or the Oscars. The beefy muscles built up over years of pumping out thirty-second TV spots and full-page print ads aren’t well suited for the marathon running required by lasting social-media conversations. “Brands need to catch up to media,” he says, and they’re going to need some help.

“Most creative agencies don’t see themselves as ongoing, real time publishers — that’s the business of, well, publishers,” Battelle continued. “I predict the two will merge over time — agencies must become more like publishers, and publishers are going to have to learn how to service brands like agencies do.”

Federated Media says the solution is a distributed, crowdsourced model for branded content creation. It invites advertisers to tap the talents of “the world’s largest creative department,” the 30 million some-odd bloggers affiliated with FM, from the vast army of small WordPress publishers to large-reach sites such as Boing Boing or Notcot.

(Source: Tom Ryabo, featured on Intel’s My Life Scoop.)

Three years ago, David Veneski, Intel’s director of US media, took FM up on the offer for a program called My Life Scoop. While the site features periodic updates on products like Intel-powered Ultrabooks, the bulk of the content is created by a broad array of independent content producers who speak the native language of Intel’s customers — those young, affluent people who seek out cutting-edge tech gadgets to enhance their lives. The imagery that accompanies the site’s content is not highly produced. Instead the emphasis is on fit, tone and relevance — photos and videos collected, curated and presented to My Life Scoop readers at a fraction of the cost associated with a professional shoots. The content is on-message (‘Sponsors of Tomorrow’ and ‘Ultrabook’), it’s frequently refreshed and it’s inviting social amplification. Nearly 50,000 Twitterers are following the My Life Scoop feed, and 100,000 Facebook members have Liked it.

“It’s important to us that we provide an authentic and compelling brand story for our target audience,” says Veneski. “We find that visuals and imagery, both photos and video, alongside written content, offers a way of telling a story that is more interesting to the people we want to reach.”

(Source: GE’s Tumblr.)

General Electric has taken an even more stripped-down approach. On Tumblr they’ve created (with help from the Barbarian Group) a corporate site that is nothing but photos. You’ll only find text only where it’s used to caption or hashtag a photo. What’s initially surprising is that airplane engines, smart LED bulb testing facilities, and gardens decked out with PulseArc Multi-Vapor metal halide lamps are quite photogenic, especially when they’ve been dolled up with an Instagram filter. Without set designers, models or professional photographers, GE is telling its story with frequent, low-cost iPhone pictures. More importantly, GE fans are spreading this story to their networks, with comments and hashtags included.

And the ‘interactivity’ isn’t just something that occurs after the brand unleashes the content — GE uses Twitter to invite its social-media followers to pick the locations of future photos.

(Source: GE’s Twitter Account.)

Without breaking the bank or getting reckless with its brand, GE found a path to social-media relevance. The brand is leaning into the consumer acceptance of spontaneous, inexpensive photo storytelling, which isn’t just reducing production costs either. It’s giving GE a stream of highly sharable content nuggets to satisfy the short-attention-span types and the sharers.

In other words, they’re speaking our language — the one in which every missive is worth a thousand words.

(This article first appeared on iMediaConnection under the title Why Visual Storytelling is the Future of Digital.)

American Express Adds Its Voice to OPEN Forum Blog

For most of the past year, the voices of the American Express OPEN Forum blog have come from outside business experts such as Guy Kawasaki, Anita Campbell, Techdirt and the professors at the Wharton School of Business. Recently, American Express found its own voice and added it to the conversation. Not the voice you’d expect — “Hey, check out the Gold Card!” — but a voice that sounds like a human being with some advice for small business owners.

Amex Finds Its Voice

Related: How American Express uses Twitter to reach new audiences.

Acuvue Adds High-Res Feature to Graffiti Facebook App

Johnson & Johnson’s Acuvue contact lens brand has sponsored the development of a new feature on the Graffiti Facebook app: One click to larger, higher resolution versions of your favorite Graffitis. The Acuvue High-Res button runs at the base of every Graffiti image. (There are tens of millions of them.)

Acuvue2 High-Res Buttons on Graffiti

When you click on the High-Res button, a message pops up to tell you what’s about to happen — with an Acuvue ad unit to the right of the message:

Acuvue High-Res Pop Up

And what happens is this: The Graffiti image enlarges and (because the resolution is better) comes into greater focus, like that feeling you get when you pop in your contacts and see a more focused version of yourself in the mirror. If you’re the Joker, it looks like this:

Acuvue High-Res Version of The Joker
(Graffiti credit: Rainna Langley.)

(Other credits: Rob D’Alto, Scott Haldeman and Eugina Valliades at McCann; Mark Kantor and Tim Suzman at Graffiti; and Jon Ohliger, Stephanie Loleng, Jana Hartz, Michael Cohn, and Paula Pentogenis at FM. Well done!)

Verizon Sparks Positive Conversation With Ads on Fred Wilson's Site

Fred Wilson on Verizon2

FM worked with Verizon Wireless (and its agency, Moxie Interactive) to place Verizon ads promoting the BlackBerry Storm on Fred Wilson’s site, A VC, even though Fred had recently criticized the product on the site:

“In fact, that post which is critical of the Storm is still on the front page of this blog where the ad is running. And this blog has been no friend to wireless carriers and their abusive business models like demanding exclusives from device manufacturers.

“Conversational media and conversational marketing is coming of age. Marketers are understanding that you have to be part of the conversation even if it isn’t flattering about you and your products and services. And participants in conversational media are starting to recognize that marketers and their brands have a seat at the table and a role in the conversation. In this case, they are helping to fund it (sort of).

“Kudos to Verizon for understanding that you can’t control the content your campaign runs next to.”

An interesting conversation broke out among A VC readers, including BlackBerry fans that came to the brand’s defense and others who applauded Verizon for supporting the discussion.

“It could be very effective for Verizon. This blog hits a bullseye on the product’s target market. Plenty of people will disagree w/ Fred’s view on the Storm (I do, fairly strongly!) And there’s a LOT of people who feel married to Verizon or can’t/won’t use AT&T or T-Mo (and thus iPhone, G1 etc) and will now choose the Storm despite reservations…. I am convinced that there is TONS of potential here. People are sick and tired of all these years of ads making grandiose, inherently biased claims for their products. ‘Marketing’ as it’s done in the US has become equated w/ mistrust. I’d bet that a company’s active endorsement of a balanced discussion, pro and con, about a product will cause the public to listen rather than tune out.”


“I’d be impressed if people from Verizon made this decision based on the content & context of specific posts on your blog as opposed to simply picking your site from some broad technology category.”

And this, from my FM colleague John Schneider:

“Yes, this was a conscious, and human, decision that was made. With fewer than 200 properties, FM always handpicks the best fitting sites — there are no fancy algorithms. In Fred’s case, he has an engaged and influential audience that has strong opinions on new technologies and product offerings. Ultimately, it’s Fred’s audience we are trying to reach. They clearly respect his opinions, but form their own as shown here in this comment thread.”


“Well, I think it’s brilliant that you did because of the tension created by Fred’s recent post about the BlackBerry Storm. There’s hope for advertising.”

Hope for advertising?! I’m welling up over here!

Congrats to the teams at Verizon Wireless and Moxie Interactive. And thanks, John Schneider, for putting this program together, and Fred, for MC’ing the conversation.

Target's Holiday Blog, Assisted by FM Authors, Wins Fans

Target has launched Christmas Wrapped, a site with tips and tricks for holiday entertaining. The tips and tricks come from home craft and parenting bloggers such as Mighty Girl, Parent Hacks and The Pioneer Woman, and Target uses the site’s advertising and promotional sections to point to gift ideas like the Home Stars and Moon Fireplace.

Target’s Christmas Wrapped

The concept — a retailer acting like a publisher, providing useful lifestyle tips in addition to product offers — is adding to the ranks of the I Heart Target club, like this Twitterer who felt compelled to tell her network about it:

Twitterer Loves Target Site

WePC Boosts Buzz for ASUS and Intel

Matt DiPietro, FM’s PR manager, surveyed the web to see if the launch of the crowdsourced-laptop-design project, WePC, made an impact on press and blog coverage for ASUS and Intel, the site’s sponsors. Was there a halo effect in which news of the WePC project got more people thinking about and talking about Intel and ASUS?

Of course, coverage of WePC itself spiked — it didn’t exist prior to the last week in October.


But press hits for “ASUS” alone also spiked the week WePC launched — up 10% over the prior week, and up more than 100% over the final week in September.


Articles and blog posts that mentioned both “ASUS” and “Intel” jumped roughly 65% versus the average week in October.

Meltwater_Asus Intel

It will be interesting to watch how this plays out. The giant press bonanza hit the week of launch, which explains the peaks on these graphs. As visitors to the site build their dream-machine concepts and share those concepts (or others they like better) with friends, I wonder, will the buzz expand outward from the mainstream press and professional-grade bloggers to the far reaches of the conversational media landscape? If so, will the WePC project carry the ASUS and Intel brands with it as the bloggers chat it up?

American Express Adds Economy Section to OPEN Forum Site

Amex OPEN Forum banner

Last week American Express announced the launch of the Economy section to its OPEN Forum site for small business owners.

“the Economy section of OPEN Forum features blog and news commentary, expert tips and advice for surviving the downturn, personal experiences from business owners across the country about how they are managing in times of the downturn and polls about what the state of the economy means for small business.”

Amex The Economy

Several leading authors (and FM partners) such as Guy Kawasaki, Anita Campbell, Mike Masnick, John Jantsch, Scott Belsky and the team at the University of Pennsylvania’s Knowlege@Wharton are contributing content.

Press Coverage for Crowdsourced Laptop Site WePC

Man, this project — sponsored by ASUS and Intel, with participation from several FM authors — is striking a chord.




PC Magazine.



PC World India.



The Tech Herald.






The Guardian.


Marketing VOX.



The Inquirer.

(Disclosures: UberGizmo, Mashable, Core77 and Searchblog are affiliated with FM.)

Engadget on ASUS and Intel's Crowdsourced Laptop Project

From Engadget:

“True power is derived from the people, yes? Asus and Intel know this well, so they’ve launched a website called WePC, where users can draw up concepts and specs for new netbook and notebook models then argue about how fantastic or utterly impractical they are. In a sense cooperative laptop design is not new — we’ve seen groups of companies work together to develop products, and Best Buy’s Blue Label is somewhat similar to this — but Asus and Intel are going full-on populist (or at least the appearance of it) with WePC. The promise is that designers will lurk on the site and implement some ideas — probably (and thankfully) not including the ones that are completely whacked.”

My colleague Liam Boylan’s dream machine, the Waterproof Laptop:

UPDATE 11:55am: ClickZ coverage as well:

“Coming soon to a Best Buy near you: The world’s first crowdsourced computer, courtesy of Intel, IT company ASUS and Federated Media Publishing.

“The three partners yesterday launched a site called to solicit the public’s idea on what the ideal computer would look like. Visitors to the site can upload their own ideas or discuss and vote on what others say.

“Sometime next year, Intel will review the proposals and produce computers based on the most popular suggestions — limited, of course, by what is actually possible (don’t hold out hope for a laptop that predicts stock market fluctuations).”

Crowdsourced Notebooks: ASUS, Intel Launch WePC

WePC logo

Battelle, FM’s founder and CEO, announces the news at Searchblog:

“For the better part of a year, we at FM have been working on an innovative new project with Asus and Intel. Today it launched. is an experiment in crowdsourcing an entirely new piece of hardware, and I’m very proud of the work we’ve done together.”

According Intel’s release:

“Consumers become product designers at, a Web site launched today by Intel Corporation and ASUS. is where consumers can collaborate with each other and with Intel and ASUS to design innovative new products. The plan is for the two companies to deliver to market what could be the world’s first community-designed PCs.”

Early reviews are coming in, starting with Mashable and Wise Startup Blog.

Congratulations to Kevin Huang, Wanting Yang, Mike Hoefflinger, Deborah Conrad, Mona Mameesh, David Dechant, John Cooney, Ryan Baker, Jeff Hsueh, Jonathan Schreiber, Jason Ratner, Josh Mattison, Sacha Lien, Liam Boylan and Josh Stivers. Who can identify, at this point, which of them work for ASUS, for Intel or for FM!

And keep your eyes peeled for the ChasNote Deluxe.