Featuring Photography as a Primary Content Element

Content marketing today requires great visual media. That’s why most marketing efforts I work on feature photography as a primary component. Taken in Havana, Cuba.

When launching a digital content marketing project, I often feature photography as a primary storytelling tactic. Optimal content in a smartphone world requires visual media. It’s the old adage, “Show me, don’t tell me.”

Marketing copy bores people. Smart brands delight their customers with more than just a need/solution pitch so that customers notice them. Yet, the Internet is filled with boring text-based marketing drivel:

  • Social media streams fill up with links to boring brand-centric blogs
  • Websites offer laden lame product-centric white papers that no one really reads
  • Promotion and spam boxes annoy with super lame emails, short or long

Beyond boring, many brands simply litter their long text-heavy material onto screens across America. Sometimes, good quality information gets lost along the way.

How does one overcome the drivel?

Delight Customers

This photo was used to help promote Legends of Learning at an Atlanta trade show.

Let’s be honest. Average content fails because it’s not necessary. It’s not needed. Customers don’t want it. Even if it’s useful, if it’s not presented well – with presentations, graphics, photos, or a story — it struggles to rise to the top.

Customers want information to be useful, accessible, and enjoyable. They want stories to better relate to and enjoy their media experience. Brands that simply make useful content are on the right path, but they need more. Delighting customers and creating brand affinity requires a step further, which means crafting the message in an accessible manner.

That’s why when someone asks me how to market something or launch an initiative, my playbook usually leads with some of the following content elements:

  • Photo essays revealing each element of the story
  • An actual conversation or narrative driven podcast
  • Video narratives
  • A dynamic event (told afterwards through attending influencers, photos and videos)

No matter the value of the written word, it performs better with killer visuals. SEO guru blogger Neil Patel knows this:

Because we had custom illustrations to complement the content, plus a ton of different topics within the guide, people were excited to share. It was a lot more compelling than a standard blog post.

Speaking of SEO, quality imagery formatted correctly can improve site rankings in Google. That in its own right offers another post topic for a different day.

Using Photography to Create Lift and Brand Affinity

Legends of Learning

Certainly, marketers have more working options at their disposal than photography. In fact, a long-form written article may be just what you need. You can read a second follow up article about the larger media implications of the current digital environment on my Livingston Campaigns marketing site.

Nevertheless, photography offers an easy form of content to create.

When I worked at Legends of Learning, one of the more popular forms of marketing was giving teachers free lesson plans that included our games. Teachers wanted them to make their jobs easier. But tons of education sites offer lesson plans, and this tactic in its own right would not build a brand.

At the same time, some of the most popular and attention driving content was the imagery, from original “cape-wearing” photography to our animated super-heroes. This content always received an exponential lift online when compared to stock photography or worse, text-based communications.

It’s been a year since I left and the brand still uses the original images I created. Why? The imagery with its fantastic red capes helped the brand create the hero’s journey narrative. The emotional pull is overt, but it works.

A Library of Congress Example

This is the ceiling of the Great Hall in the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building.

The principle holds true for blogs and text-based information. Without visual storytelling of some sort, the medium just doesn’t work as well. I recently published a photography-rich article on the merits of the Library of Congress as a DC destination for the Single Traveler Network. The post [and its lead image] was my most popular content marketing pieces in February.

A LinkedIn post featuring the Library of Congress article.

Many readers commented about the quality of the imagery, and several reached out to me privately. They committed to visit the Library in the near future as a result of the article.

Visiting the Library again and capture the right images was worth it. If I was shooting for a customer, it would have cost them just a few hundred dollars to dramatically increase the lift on this initiative. Yet how many brands choose to skip the imagery and just publish yet another cheap boring marketing article? Sad.

My Long Turn Towards Photography

A portrait of me and zen bhuddist nun Chan Khong during a podcast training taken in 2009 by my wife Caitlin with my old Nikon D90.

I began my career as a public affairs writer and then blossomed in digital marketing. Digital marketing required me to master several new media forms. As it happens, my photography found its genesis in publishing a very well read PR and marketing blog. You can still read the archives that span more than a decade on this site.

I started taking original shots because I didn’t like the creative commons and stock photography options available to me. While I could usually make an image fit my articles, they rarely helped to tell a larger story. I wanted to deliver more impactful original content.

At first, the images were illustrative at best, but friends encouraged me and remarked on the original photography. I bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D90 and the storytelling evolved.

A Professional

Wildlife Works Rangers enjoy a sunrise. [Audi USA]
As the years evolved my photographic skills improved. By 2014 I was shooting every day with my 365 full frame project. In 2015 I was hired for my first major content marketing initiative with my camera as the lead, a hybrid media adventure to Utah and Kenya to help support a larger documentary on carbon offsets.

Moving forward, almost every content effort I worked on used photography. In some cases, the projects responded to photography more than traditional email and content. One conference I marketed struggled to gain registrants until we deployed a hybrid video/photography advertising campaign. Then registrations experienced hockey stick growth. Literally, the imagery delivered the exact same message, it was just done so in a visually pleasing manner.

Increasingly, blogs lost their effectiveness in comparison to my photography, which continued to and still continues to evolve over the years. It’s no coincidence that this coincides with two trends 1) algorithms getting deployed on social networks that favored strong visual user content like photos and videos, and 2) the overwhelming glut of cheap blogs flooding social media streams.

Strong writing still matters to me, and to marketers. It should, too.

But today, when I consider content marketing and the best ways to serve customers with a meaningful attention-grabbing piece of content, I lean towards photography. My experiences working on campaigns prove it. Photos just work.