What exactly is visual literacy, and how does it affect content marketing? Learn the history of visual literacy and discover how marketers can stay on top of cultural image trends.

As children, we learn to read the printed word. We analyze the meaning of the text, absorb its message, and convert it into knowledge and opinions we can use.

But there’s another type of literacy in which humans can be fluent. By “reading” photographs, illustrations, sculptures, and video, we can extract ideas and emotions in much the same way.

This concept is called visual literacy, and understanding how consumers use it is crucial to marketing and branding success.

A History of Visual Literacy

Are You Keeping Up With Your Customer's Visual Literacy? — A History of Visual Literacy

Image via Benoist.

The term “visual literacy” is close to 50 years old. It was reportedly created in 1969 by Eastman Kodak Company’s John L. Debes, who shortly thereafter became the company’s coordinator of visual learning. However, the notion of using images to convey information is timeless. Aristotle relied on drawings and diagrams to help him explain the theory of biology. Similarly, Plato used sculpture to describe his theories about geometry.

As visual communication has progressed, so too has our approach to visual literacy. A few years ago, filmmaker Martin Scorsese praised the benefits of visual literacy in film in his speech at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “We’re face-to-face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before,” Scorsese said, noting that films are an important part of our culture and should be appreciated and preserved because they “tell us who we are, ultimately.”

Visual literacy has been a mainstay in the education field for decades. Every year, New York’s Guggenheim Museum displays artwork created by young students by way of its Learning Through Art program, a 40-year-old program designed to promote visual literacy in New York City’s elementary schools. Many schools across the country are also using graphic novels to “support reading skills and even embed lessons more clearly into students’ minds.”

With the advent of digital media, consumers became accustomed to interpreting — and even creating — visual content online and via mobile devices. Three years ago, The New York Times reported that people were expected to take 1.3 trillion digital photos in 2017, and YouTube users watch more than a billion hours of video daily, much of which is created by consumers.

We “read” images on screens, in print, and all around us every day. Without visual literacy to guide us, we’d be missing out on a world of meaning.

Visual Literacy Meets Marketing

Are You Keeping Up With Your Customer's Visual Literacy? — Visual Literacy Meets Marketing

Image via Jacob Lund.

Faced with all of that visual content, consumers are continually processing what they see and forming opinions. Marketers who want to connect with customers through branded content should keep this in mind.

Visual marketing includes photographs, videos, and data visualizations shared on social media and websites. It’s any image you use to garner your target audience’s attention and expand your reach through online shares. Business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies utilize it too when they provide infographics to relay data. No matter if the information relates to safe coffee consumption or the applications of blockchain technology, it’s still visual marketing.

The Content Marketing Institute reports that 76 percent of B2C marketers now use video content, and 67 percent rely on photographs and illustrations.

Using a visual aid helped Aristotle and Plato get their points across. Visuals can also help marketers communicate messages about their products and services. Research says only about 65 percent of the population are visual learners, but in general the human brain is hardwired to recall images. We’ve all heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.” When neuromarketers use measures like biometrics, facial coding, and eye tracking to evaluate a consumer’s response to marketing messages, they often find that images — especially those that excite audiences — get the biggest non-conscious response.

For example, the Neuromarketing Science & Business Association noted that this year’s Super Bowl ads that Tide’s “Time of My Life” Dirty Dancing spoof and M&M’s “Human” ad featuring actor Danny DeVito did especially well. Both ads relied on visual literacy — in this case the audience’s understanding of visual references like the Dirty Dancing “lift” and Danny DeVito’s physical similarity to an M&M character — to entertain and engage viewers.

Making Sense of Modern Visual Content

Are You Keeping Up With Your Customer's Visual Literacy? — Making Sense of Modern Visual Content

Image via Vlad Teodor.

Marketers working to understand how their customers interpret visual content don’t have it easy. The digital landscape can be a minefield of misinterpretations. “Human beings are always in the business of making meaning and interpreting meaning,” writes Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen. But as Tannen points out, communication is rife with “metamessages.” Tools like GIFs and emoticons can help us say what we want to say, but there’s plenty of room for error.

It’s no wonder visual literacy evolves along with the times. Just consider the evolution of mobile messaging. Traditionally text-based, it now features visual content like animated gifs, videos, and emojis. We use these visual cues to add color and texture to our conversations. But, their meaning can change based on the situation and context, and understanding this requires razor-sharp visual literacy skills.

Last year, experimental psychologist Dr. Monica Riordan explored the influence of emojis in text messaging. As an example, Riordan points to the unicorn emoji. Many people use the unicorn to signify rarity, while others think it has mystical overtones. “The meaning of the unicorn emoji can only truly be known if you are one of the interlocutors. Without that insider knowledge, all we can know for sure is that it symbolizes positive emotion between them,” Riordan told Vogue.

If you use emojis in your social media posts as a marketer, be wary of those hidden meanings. Another study conducted by Goldsmiths, University of London and the University of Birmingham discovered more than half of survey’s participants regularly “repurpose” dozens of emojis; a bathtub emoji might represent a coffin, while a slice of pizza might mean love.

Marketers can’t know every alternative meaning. So, it’s a good idea to stick with common emojis that are familiar and relatively safe. Viking Books knows audiences interpret the “Bottle With Popping Cork” emoji to signify a celebration, so it’s a good choice to accompany news of a book launch.

Regardless of whether you use video, photography, emojis, or another form of visual content, your customers will lean on their visual literacy skills to make sense of your marketing messages. Try to understand how they perceive visual content. The more you understand, the better you can create content that sends the right message. Your visual message might even be more meaningful and memorable than the words that accompany them.

Top image via Tom Wang.

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