A Bigger Problem than Content Shock

There may be a bigger problem than content shock coming down the pike. First, it’s great that industry leaders are addressing the increasing proliferation of bad content populating the interwebs. More spammy content spoils the waters for the rest of us.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that a bigger problem faces the sector.

In the next twenty years our conceptions of literacy will become challenged and evolve. A media world is coming where visual and audio forms will dominate, and text will become a secondary form of communication.

Some conversations touch the tip of this massive iceberg with the current by focusing on visual media’s growing social network strength. But smaller mobile media devices and content glut continue to force a permanent focus on rich visual and audio.

I imagine many writers will writhe as they read this. Let us agree that long form blogs, eBooks and content will continue to engage stakeholders.

But in 20 years will these textual forms will become increasingly marginalized as mass consumption moves to video and imagery? I think so.

In essence, blogs, white papers and eBooks will become niche tools for specific purposes and persons who prefer reading. Further, Generation X and millennials will be the last generations that read content online first. Instead, children and adults will watch, listen, see, and then read.

I know that last paragraph will inspire debate. People are afraid of what the visual era means. When people are fearful they have negative reactions.

We cannot ignore the trends. To run from change is to be passed over by it.

Consider this: People are as likely to seek an answer today on YouTube as they would via Google. They will learn more about a research report from an infographic than a four page executive summary. Some people prefer listening to a podcast during their commute or at the gym rather than reading late at night or during their lunch break. They prefer to have business intelligence delivered via slideshare than a long blog post. The list of trends signalling the movement away from text grows with each passing season.

By the way, I would have made a deck about this trend, but when wrestling with complicated topics, I still think textually and have to write my ideas out. That is a problem for me. It’s a problem that every communicator faces right now. How do I learn how to communicate visually?

The Visual Imperative


Last week, my company Tenacity5 had the great honor of serving as the social media counsel for Give Local America, an incredible day of giving from Kimbia that raised more than $53 million from more than 300,000 donors for well over 7000 nonprofits. To wrap things up, we created a pinboard of the best stories from the many nonprofits across the country.

The pinboard highlights many passionate stories from nonprofits, stories of beneficiaries who need the programs created by passionate causes.

I am sure there were many, many other stories that are not included in the board.

Because they were not visual and didn’t use the Give Local America social media hashtags and keywords, we did not find them. By my estimate, there were hundreds of thousands of social updates, including pieces of visual content created for the day. The visual tagged pieces of content stood out, and will be memorialized.

This is the problem. We must communicate visually within the Internet context now if we hope to be found.

It’s why AirBnb is going beyond creating unique story paths for SEO. They also contract 3000 freelance photographers to help them communicate these stories visually.

The visual imperative is one of the primary reasons I decided to focus on improving my photography skills this year. Since that time in March, my photography blog on Flickr has increased its traffic by another 50% and is now outpacing this blog 8 to 1 on traffic this month.

Learning to speak through pictures is becoming easier.

Whatever or however communicators decide to evolve their visual skills, evolve they must. Communicators can learn to storyboard, or write video scripts and screenplays, or podcast, or use InDesign, or critique visual arts, or build outlines through visual wireframes, or… There are many options to learn visual thinking well beyond photography.

Stop Making Excuses


Many people tell me I have a natural eye for photography, that it is a gift or an art. They say that communicators can’t do the same thing.

This is an excuse.

It rankles me when people say they can’t learn or won’t be able to do so. Let me be clear: Six years ago I took crappy photos like everyone else. I learned to think visually through a camera.

Deciding you can’t take photos is an excuse for not wanting or being afraid to learn photography. This is true for any visual discipline. No one wants to find out they really cannot see the world visually. Lack of desire and fear can thwart an effort right out of the gate. Let’s be honest about these very real internal barriers.

It’s also important to be consider the market dynamics. Communicators will see this trend evolve, and they must decide whether or not to embrace visual media. If not, are they prepared for competition from other companies and members of the workforce?

I’ve heard some other interesting excuses since last March, too. Some people think that iPhones make authentic images, and that real cameras don’t.

A camera is a tool. If you want to use dull knife to cut your meat, go for it. Me, I like a sharpened knife. I’ll opt for real cameras every chance I can. They do a better job, and people want good pics. I only need to look at the performance my Nikon captured social photos versus the iPhone shots. This is why every communicator needs a camera, in my opinion.

I hear the same thing about filters and Photoshop, that these editing tools make inauthentic photos.

Look, I don’t like crazy enhanced images that are so over the top they look like something from a science fiction novel. But I do think people should use Lightroom and Photoshop to take the dust specs off your pictures, make them less grainy, and fix the lighting.

We are talking about creating and telling stories through visual means. If you think that’s not a photo, then call it a graphically enhanced image. Who the hell cares?

In my opinion, the filter touch up argument is another excuse for not learning visual media. By the way I learned how to use Lightroom in a two hour Kelby One training session. That’s it.

Sharing How-To Experiences


It’s one thing to tell people that dynamic change is coming. Most don’t want to deal with it.

But I really believe this trend is happening, and I am doing everything I can to meet the market. If you are of the same mind, expect more blog content about the lessons I am learning, including how-tos.

I cannot compete with the many expert photography blogs out there. But I can share my experiences evolving from a single dimension communicator to a multifaceted one that weaves the visual into larger strategies.

Perhaps this will be helpful. I hope so.

What do you think?


  • I think in some ways, we’re already there. Tumblr, Snapguide, Instagram, Vine, Melt, and a host of other multimedia apps show a willingness in younger demographics to explore a textless future, and create interesting and compelling content.

    The big question is, how long is the long tail of blog/whitepaper/book text? It’s long, but I’m not sure it’s 20 years long. Most likely, within 10 we’re going to have bifurcated audiences: a visual/multimedia “channel” and a “blog/text” channel. Which content you ship, and in which channel, will depend on who you are trying tor reach.

    • I agree, and I think that bifurcated audience will be defined as much by age as anything else. Older folks like you and me will want their text, dammit! And don’t discontinue my paper route, either!

  • Geoff when you spoke about how your photography site was gaining more views than your regular blog on #BBSradio earlier this year, in one moment I got it, in another moment I felt resistance.

    Something told both of us, this would be another corner we were turning and of course human behavior has shown people do not always like change.

    Working with a client this week, I had an epiphany of a visual way she needed to be reaching her ideal audience. As we mapped it out it felt we were on to something that will serve as a hybrid style as we maneuver between visual and text these next couple of years.

    I find it exciting to be learning to feel the pulse of the change and taking this next corner with a giddiness – “What will I learn in this process?”

    • It is exciting, and I do think this as big of a sea change as social was. It’s medium wide, so we will have to adapt. Having an attitude of excitement will make it much more enjoyable. Kudos to you for taking this approach!

  • I agree with everything you’re forecasting here Geoff and welcome the participation of visual and audio storytelling and see them becoming a more dominant faction of communication.

    My wishes or hopes are that these methods serve to inspire more reading, not replace or lessen the practice. It will remain to be seen how it affects literacy but I can’t help but wonder if it becomes predominant will (long form) reading go the way of handwriting skills and spelling as we have witnessed in our education systems. Personally I have been disappointed in the lack of the writing skills (handwriting, spelling, grammar, paragraph formation etc) that I have witnessed at a collegiate level yet admire the alacrity and acute ability of knowledge search that has resulted from the speed and ease of technology.

    • And perhaps literacy changes, as in how well do you speak? How well can you retain and communicate ideas visually? This may be our future paths. I think so long as the net gain is we become more intelligent and thoughtful, it’s a win.

  • Nice
    read! Very informative. Something interesting: Danone Said in Talks to Sell
    Medical Nutrition to Nestle. Read it here: http://bit.ly/1iHdqGZ

  • One of the reasons I’m starting a podcast :) Hopefully it measures up.

  • I find that what you recognize the profound truth about the book: blogs, white papers and e-books as well as the impact or change.

  • It would be interesting to compare format types by awareness vs. engagement vs. leads and by B2B vs. B2C? Any sources to find this?

  • Pingback:When the Last Pillars Fall | Geoff Livingston's Blog

    […] Still no one likes to see an editor tell reporters to invest less time and copy in their stories. One cannot help but think that quality will suffer. Perhaps this is just another indicator of TL; DR syndrome caused in part by the move towards visual media discussed here last week. […]

  • Pingback:Visual Literacy Means Better Thinking | Geoff Livingston's Blog

    […] few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the world moving from text-based to visual communications, an underlying angst was touched upon. A fear exists that […]

Comments are closed