Dieter Petereit January 4th, 2017

Marketing: Visual Storytelling, Doesn’t Everyone?

A nice buzzword is receiving a reality check. In doing so, we might notice that it's not as new as we thought. At the same time, it's easy to be put into practice. We'll show you how.

Visual Storytelling From Waaay Back When to Today

Move into any Stone Age cave. As soon as you discover some cave paintings, you're right in front of the first known proof for visual storytelling. Storytelling via images, as well as understanding them is rooted deep in our DNA. You'd have to ask an expert if you wanted an answer to the question why.

I suppose that it's because characters were not a part of the core equipment of the early days of human history. Communication was done with hands and feet, just like you know from your last trip to Italy; it was visual.

The first movies were silent. Of course, this wasn't done on purpose. There simply was no proper way of recording image and sound synchronously. So they just played some music to the running pictures.

Silent movies are the purest modern form of visual storytelling. As the images had to work without sound, storytellers had no other option than making the images as expressive as possible.

And after all, that's what visual storytelling is all about. Tell a story that is supported by visuals, such as images and videos. The word "supported" might be a little too weak. Basically, the visuals are supposed to tell the story, and, in the best case, work without any written context.

But you shouldn't think of it as a photo novel without speech bubbles, as visual storytelling is much more subtle than that. Good visual storytelling works with one single image.

Modern Platforms Bank on Visual Storytelling

This leads us to the old wisdom "A picture is worth a thousand words." Modern forms and platforms for visual storytellers, like Instagram, Pinterest, or Snapchat, have not actually invented storytelling with the use of images, but merely provide a contemporary tool for this ancient way of storytelling.

Because of that, the success of these services is not surprising. This is something you should make use of. Use visual storytelling wherever it makes sense. This may not work on a package insert for medicine, but especially in product marketing, there's no better more promising way.

If social media is a part of your marketing mix, there's no question about using images or not. Depending on the channel, think Instagram, you can't even post without images. So, when using Instagram for the marketing of your business, you already know about the power of images. But are you using the "right" ones?

The Right Visuals for Storytelling

A good visual for modern storytelling usually needs at least one, or even better a combination of these elements:

  • Context
  • Authentic display of people/personality
  • Tension
  • Background information
  • Clear imagery

Let's take a closer look at the single elements.


Context is what I call the image elements that are not the focus of the picture at a glance. Context can be the display of an individual cultural background or the usage of a particular color palette. Context can be considered everything that supports the visuals without words, automatically leading the viewer into a particular direction.

Authentic Presentation of People and Personality

When looking at modern ads, you'll notice that the overly perfect display of people these days only happens in perfume ads. And, let's be honest, doesn't it seem ridiculous?

Today, images that display authentic humans are more successful. The more the viewer can identify with the displayed person or situation, the more successful the image will be.

Related to brand communication, this also means that you shouldn't put your brand into the focus, but rather the people behind the brand, or customers that profit from your brand. The stories you tell can even be just moments, displaying things like a worker that checks the coffee bean delivery, or a customer enjoying a cup of coffee at the lakefront.

If you are the brand, you'll present yourself as a humble, average guy. This makes you likable. People only like superheroes in movies.

The more personal your approach, meaning the closer you let the viewer get to you, the more likable you will come over. People like you and me are more effective than supermen that don't even exist in reality.


Tension is always effective. Of course, you can't always provide it. The level of tension you can create heavily depends on your product or service.

Not Everyone is a Volvo:

Background Information

Whenever possible, you should give people a look behind the scenes. Let your potential customers look behind the store, behind the stage, into the work or production process. This satisfies the strong urge of curiosity while building trust, as more of the value creation process becomes visible.

For example, you could accompany a worker on his way to his working space with a camera, and show what tasks his job consists of. This covers the authentic display of people as well.

Clear Imagery

Artistic photos may be pretty and may emit very special aesthetics. In a gallery, people would chat about the different interpretation approaches, acknowledging each other's intellectual skills while drinking Prosecco. This is not the way to go with visual storytelling.

Don't leave any room for interpretation when there's more than one way to interpret it. Your visuals have to be clear, and unambiguous in delivering your message as fast as possible.

Of course, you could consider photography techniques that increase attention, or move the focus of the eye to certain elements of the image. Don't play around, though, and rely on established techniques like the rule of thirds, instead.

Statistical Data Evaluation: Elements That Are Sure to Work

The stock photo provider Getty Images published an article titled "The Power of Visual Storytelling" in their online magazine Curve. Author Sarah Lawrence displays trends and developments in image usage based on an evaluation of purchasing behavior of the Getty customers.

Lawrence presents four factors that define a good visual. According to that, the following elements always work. "Authenticity" was already covered above. Getty noticed that the stock customers of today prefer images of people that are not perfect, but authentic, instead of buying the ones with perfectly lighted and styled models.

"Cultural References" also seem to be a growing trend, according to Getty. I'd still sum that up in authenticity. Wherever there are many multicultural families, this should also be represented in visual storytelling, just to be realistic.

Images of people doing artisanal work, especially precision work, also enjoy an increase in demand. Getty traces this back to people wanting the past back when many products were made manually, and the connection between creator and customer was closer.

The demand for stock material that shows classic archetypes, like the caring father or mother, remained high.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Dieter Petereit

Dieter Petereit is a veteran of the web with over 25 years of experience in the world of IT. As soon as Netscape became available he started to do what already at that time was called web design and has carried on ever since. Two decades ago he started writing for several online publications, some well, some lesser known. You can meet him over on Google+.

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