Visual Storytelling: The Key Weapon to Content Marketing

Many of us have years of experience chasing technology for marketing purposes. Thanks to social networks, we’ve naturally been driven to a host of metrics that include attributes of “engagement” and conversations shared online.

This, in turn, has fueled the content marketing race – and ultimately, the quest for producing what is most relevant or valuable to a company’s current and prospective customers.

As we compete in this context to draw attention for our brand and offerings, perhaps one element has remained constant above all others: the power of visual storytelling.

Why? Because no state-of-the art technology can substitute for state-of-the-heart storytelling. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the story behind it may be worth a million more. Pinterest and Instagram continue proving this out, and every competent marketer on Facebook can point to the power of imagery.

If you’re already producing video as part of your marketing, and your efforts are sophisticated enough to track resulting engagement and lead generation – watch what happens when your focus changes from just features and benefits to creatively telling a story. Hint: Higher levels of viewership, engagement, and sharing.


Key Storytelling Elements and Example Videos

First, it’s worth acknowledging that storytelling is practically in our DNA. In pictures, even songs – we’ve relied on stories for thousands of years to help us understand, retain, and share information.

To help us learn more and consider how all of this applies online, I spoke with Brandon Whalen, who recently developed a training course on visual storytelling for the Online Marketing Institute.

One of the first resources he referred me to was Christopher Booker’s book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, which does a good job of covering seven story types that have proven successful over the ages:

  • Overcoming the Monster: A good example can be seen in Nike’s story focused on helping people overcome themselves. The idea in this example is each of us having a little monster inside of us that says we don’t want to work out today. Nike’s focus is slaying that monster to achieve greatness:

  • The Quest: This concept relies on the danger you must face to find the truth and reap the reward. Red Bull leverages this well by exemplifying the push for man to do what might be considered impossible:

  • Voyage and Return: Dove’s Campaign for real beauty demonstrates the distrust of the false gods in the beauty industry. By voyaging into their world, we see that our real home is where true beauty lies:

  • Rebirth: Stories of rebirth are often tied to losing everything, and the need to start over. Prudential tapped the meaning of this in the context of retirement, using the true story from a man on his first day of retirement:

  • Rags to riches: These stories are about being true to one’s self, with one of the best known examples through Willy Wonka. If you remember, Charlie is tempted by greed but stays true to himself. Chrysler has recently released some ads that tie directly into this idea:

  • Tragedy: It’s a tough place to position your brand, but we see a powerful story by St. John Ambulance to convey the importance of first aid:

  • Comedy: Old spice continues to be a recent great at poking fun of manliness:

Additional questions to consider in creating an effective story relate to having a key character:

  • How might this character relate to the audience with which you are telling your story?
  • What is this character’s ambition and points of tension?
  • How might you demonstrate conflict, and the corresponding resolution to help your audience resonate with your story?

Additional Tips and Applications of Visual Storytelling

As all the examples above rely on video, let’s consider other ways to effectively apply imagery as means of helping tell a story associated with a brand.

Experimenting with Imagery on Facebook

There have been several cases of higher engagement levels on in-the-moment photos (like the kind frequently captured on Instagram) compared to professional studio images. Try experimenting with these kinds of photos yourself. You’ll also often find that uploading the image (vs. ignoring the auto thumbnail) produces better results.

Although there remain several negative reviews on Timeline, consider how you might better leverage this attribute in Facebook to visually tell a story about your brand. You can go back in time to add an event and effectively reposition your photos on timeline.

This might seem rudimentary, but when it comes to imagery in social networks in general, it’s important to use the right dimensions to avoid negative effects from down-sampling.

Also, for you community managers out there, you know one of the common challenges can be simply in finding good images to include you your posts. Ben Bowes just wrote a great article about free photo resources for community managers.

Twitter and Instagram

It can be difficult to be visual on a text-based medium like Twitter, but there is still room to be a storyteller. Some of the more popular Twitter accounts we see are based on a certain story and character – for example, @shitmydadsays and @dosequisman.

Connecting your Twitter account to a service like Instagram will also assist with enabling imagery as part of your stream. Also consider the use of contests and hashtags (Red Bull’s #summeriscoming contest) to get users to join in on the story.


As with any good content marketing, one of the keys to creating relevant boards is not to focus on too much branded content. Instead, consider how topics relevant to your brand might also help to shape its story.

If you are an organic clothing store, for example, you can create boards for other organic-related assets, healthy living, sustainability, recycling and other items that might relate to your values. Whole Foods does a solid job of showcasing several related topics that are still consistent with the brand:

Some good examples of boards used to tell a story with content can be seen at:

Additional opportunities for collaborative boards also exist within Pinterest.

Additional Properties

Additional assets can be leveraged in numerous other owned, paid and social properties. The carousel feature in Linkedin, for example, can be used very creatively.

An entirely different, but highly related aspect of this conversation also includes the concept of data visualization, most often exemplified in infographics. What kind of stories will you tell in your Google+, Tumbler, email, websites, ads, etc.?

Final Thoughts

You don’t have to have a huge meaningful story to create genuine interest. Sometimes a small anecdote accompanied by reinforcing images to reflect it are all that’s required to create some emotion.

Storytelling is something that everyone understands and connects with, and when you focus on yours, you may find you have an entirely different perspective on creating excellent content.

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