The truth about content marketing design

Tim Whitlock20/05/2019

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that many popular ‘facts’ about the value of content marketing design aren’t strictly true. Marketers will have to do better if they want to make the case for developing a strong visual brand.

Building strong visual elements into your content strategy is hugely important – but not for the reasons you might think.

There are hundreds of articles online about the benefits of infographics, data visualisations and visual content marketing. Unfortunately, the marketers who wrote them generally haven’t bothered to check their sources.

You might have read that the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text. But as blogger Alan Levine has extensively documented, there is zero experimental evidence to back up this claim. It’s just been repeated so many times on the internet, many people assume it’s true.

The idea that 90 per cent of all the information our brains process is visual is also up for debate. As University of Michigan researcher Michael Sivak argues in this paper, there simply isn’t enough evidence available to calculate this figure accurately.

Meanwhile, it is true that 65 per cent of all people are ‘visual learners’. But that just means that most people need to see something written down in order to remember it later.

Visual learners do recall information better if they see it depicted as an image or infographic. But the same is true if they see it as text.

Getting caught making claims like these will undermine your argument when making the case for investing in content marketing design. But the thing is, there are actually plenty of great reasons to establish a strong visual brand that are based on facts and research.

So, today I’ll run you through why design really matters. I’ll outline what great visual content looks like. Then, I’ll provide you with clear pointers about how to become a more design‐led organisation.

Why content marketing design really matters

At a very basic level, most marketers grasp that when content doesn’t have any images, it doesn’t get read.

Blog posts that contain images get 94 per cent more views than those without. Meanwhile, 90 per cent of the top performing YouTube videos have thumbnail images to draw the viewer in. And digital ads and landing pages with images generally perform far better than those without.

But visual design elements are more than tools for luring people into clicking on your content. They’re also essential for generating audience engagement and effectively communicating your marketing messages.

Take the two most important organic sources of web traffic for most B2B brands, for example – search engines and social media.

Research from BuzzSumo shows that articles that combine prose with regular images receive far more shares on social media than those with fewer images or no text at all.

Meanwhile, Tweets with images receive 150 per cent more shares than those without. And Facebook posts with images receive more than twice as much engagement as those without.

Since there’s a strong correlation between how widely shared B2B content is and the number of inbound links it gets, this increased audience engagement can also translate into higher search rankings.

What’s more, Google’s search algorithm deliberately favours content that includes plenty of charts, images and data visualisations. So, content with strong visual elements naturally tends to rank more highly than less visual content anyway.

As a result, developing design‐led, visual content marketing strategies has become a key focus for marketers in recent years.

Adobe reports that 71 per cent of companies are creating ten times more visual assets than they were just a few years ago. One in ten Fortune 500 companies cite design as their top priority. And research from Venngage shows that 56 per cent of marketers now use visual elements in their content almost 100 per cent of the time.

What great visual content marketing looks like

There is one big caveat to everything you’ve read so far in this post: images only work if they’re good. And sadly, many marketers don’t have a firm grasp of what great content marketing design looks like.

Despite the widespread adoption of visual elements in content marketing, 47 per cent of marketers find it hard (or very hard) to produce visual content consistently for their brands.

Right now, 40 per cent of marketers say they use stock photos more than any other kind of imagery – making them the most frequently used visual assets in content marketing.

Yet, eye‐tracking research from Nielsen Norman Group shows that people actively ignore generic stock images.

The fact is, people are good at spotting when an image is just there to make things look pretty and simply won’t engage with them.

In contrast, the same study shows that users pay careful attention to information‐carrying images that are relevant to the task at hand. In fact, when the images are relevant, readers often spend more time looking at them than they do reading the text on the page.

The experiences of marketers confirm these findings, with 40 per cent saying original graphics are the best‐performing visual content format and drive the most audience engagement.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with using stock imagery, there is a right and a wrong way to go about it.

Stock photos must be carefully chosen to work with the text they’re accompanying and visually convey what the piece is about. At the same time, it’s important to choose images that fit with the tone of voice and brand values you want to convey in your content.

Bespoke illustrations and photography almost always provide a better solution to these challenges, especially for B2B brands. When you control the scene your images will depict, you can ensure they are high‐quality, relevant to your audience and consistent with your brand guidelines.

With illustrations in particular, you have absolute freedom to tailor your images to your content and incorporate interesting information and datapoints into your visual assets.

The principles of great infographic design

Infographics are often hailed as the ultimate shareable visual content. And in a sense, that’s true.

Slideshare reports that the infographics brands publish on its platform receive twice as many shares on social media as presentations, and three times more than documents.

But creating an effective infographic is about more than just throwing a bunch of datapoints and illustrations onto a page.

You also need to curate and arrange the statistics you use so that they tell a story. And the illustrations you use must be both information‐rich and directly linked to the theme of your infographic.

The key is to start with a clear idea about what you want to convey and compile a strong bank of facts about that topic area. You can then work with your design team to communicate that idea effectively using the principles of infographic design.

How to combine marketing and creative design

It’s only in recent years that B2B brands have started to take visual branding and design seriously.

But as Dropbox’s bold 2017 rebrand proves, the way you present your business can have a dramatic effect on how people perceive it. In one fell swoop, the brand shed its dry, utilitarian image and reinvented itself as a catalyst for idea sharing and creativity.

“Our new brand system shows that Dropbox isn’t just a place to store your files,” explain Dropbox creative director Aaron Robbs and VP of design Nicholas Jitkoff. “The look is expressive, with vibrant colours, rich imagery, a versatile typeface and playful illustrations.”

Developing a striking visual identity like this is one of the best ways to differentiate your brand and its content from that of your competitors.

The key is to create brand guidelines that can be applied consistently across everything you do, while also ensuring they’re flexible enough to allow your team room to be creative

Of course, you’ll also need to involve your design team at the outset whenever you embark on a new content project. This will ensure you don’t miss opportunities to work visual elements into your content that can be brought to life with charts, data visualisations or infographics.

Two‐way communication is also vital during the content creation and design process to encourage experimentation. Great design can’t save bad content. So, your marketing and design teams will need to work together to create content that resonates with your audience.

Finally, be sure to pass feedback about your content’s performance onto your design team after it has been published. This is a missing piece of the puzzle at many organisations. But it’s probably the best way to ensure your designers are constantly learning and replicating past successes.

Adopting this kind of collaborative approach to content marketing design will require a shift in mindset for many organisations. Some may need to work with an agency to develop their brand identity and design capabilities.

But the (true) benefits of building great visual elements and infographics into your content strategy are clear. Great ideas resonate loudest when you amplify them with beautiful design.

Key takeaways

  • Content marketers should prioritise design. Visual elements like infographics and data visualisations are some of the best ways to engage your audience and boost your search rankings.
  • A striking visual identity will help differentiate your brand. Develop bold brand guidelines that can be applied consistently across everything you do.
  • Take steps to establish a collaborative creative process. You’ll know you have a healthy design culture when people are sharing feedback and developing their ideas accordingly.