This post was originally created in July 2017 and updated in March 2021.
Since humans started communicating, visual symbols made up a lot of what was said. After all, it was easier to hold up fruit to show your fellow man, rather than try to communicate that you found fruit through sound or written letter.
Our brains are naturally wired to receive visuals cues better than other forms of communication, due to our roots as hunter gatherers. We take cues from what we see, analyzing what represents a positive and what represents a threat.
Cavemen didn’t write words on the walls of their caves, they drew pictures.
When writing did emerge, it was in the form of hieroglyphics. These pictographic representations were responsible for passing on the collective knowledge of humans during that time.
Thousands of years later, magazines and newspapers were the primary way the population informed itself. These were splashed with large photos to break up the walls of text they would otherwise contain.
With the rapid adoption of the internet, these two mediums started to fade. And that’s where the upswing towards digital visual content began.
The History of Digital Content
We’re going to start in 2004, even though that’s obviously a bit late. That’s because this is when social media as we know it began, and where visual content became something the user could add to the web.
In this year, popular social network Facebook launched. In that same year, Flickr, an image and video hosting website launched as well. This was the start of the visual content revolution. From then on users had a place specifically designed for sharing images.
YouTube wasn’t far behind, launching its video-sharing service just a year after Facebook and Flickr emerged. It started as mostly a platform for music videos, but then grew.
Yahoo! purchased Flickr that same year, likely wanting to capitalize on its visual-based success.
Not to be outdone, Facebook released its photos feature, which allowed users to post an unlimited number of photos. At this point, users still couldn’t tag friends in photos though.
Facebook releases its “News Feed” feature, which compiled all a user’s friend’s posts into a single feed.
This was a huge change in the way media was consumed and now posts with photos in them are some of the most popular on the feeds.
Google purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion that same year, after seeing the platform’s almost immediate success.
Pinterest, a photo-sharing website launched. This network focused on photos, which users could discover and compile into their own personal “Boards”
This was also the same year that Instagram launched. These two services are both focused on images, which in turn changed how many other social platforms handled video and images on their websites.
Snapchat launched, creating a new type of video/audio sharing that would disappear after it was viewed.
Snapchat hops aboard the video train, allowing its users to share 10-second videos. This same year, Instagram is purchased by Facebook for $1 billion.
This same year, Vine is purchased by Twitter.
The next year, Instagram also releases video sharing. In October of this year, Snapchat introduced Stories to the platform.
By 2013, Vine is an overnight success after its launch on Windows and Android Devices. It was the most downloaded video sharing app on the market, where users can send each other six second videos.
Then, in August 2016, Facebook launched stories on Instagram, adding in more features, including live streaming.
This was too much for the short-lived Vine, which was shut down by Twitter late in the year.
By April, Instagram stories had more daily active users than Snapchat. Facebook has also launched stories features on Snapchat, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Facebook itself.
Now, streaming and short videos are everything. TikTok is the visual platform of choice for the younger generations and B2B marketers are trying to figure out if and how they should use that platform.
Streaming is even more interesting, as its replaced many in-person events. For a while, there was a lot of competition for the prime time slots during lockdown. It will be interesting to see if in-person events continue to have a live streaming option when things open up.
Why It Works
Visual content works for a variety of reasons. As mentioned above, our brains were not wired originally for language. They were wired for visual signals, so it makes sense that they respond better to visual content.
Visual content makes it both easier and faster to tell compelling stories. You can use all the words you want, but it won’t replace a highly effective picture. Combined with simple, eloquent copy, images can say a lot with very little.
Looking forward, augmented reality is likely going to be a top player. Now, on platforms like Snapchat, marketers are able to buy filters, which are a form of augmented reality. These are usually location-based, but they will likely change to be based on targeting at some point in the future.
I think more of these highly interactive experiences utilizing mobile devices will be implemented. They will be highly personalized based off user information, sponsoring the appearance of the user and their surroundings.
Slowly, visual content promises to create more interactive and immersive experiences. Beyond AR, the technology of VR is getting cheaper to create. This means that eventually, VR technology will be widely used by marketers.
As a marketer, your best bet to keep up with current marketing technology is to test and handle the latest consumer apps and solutions. Some of these, especially when they have to do with ecommerce and social, will become the technologies of the future.
Did you enjoy today’s post? What other factors contributed to the rise of visual marketing? Where do you think visual marketing is headed in the future?