With visual storytelling across social platforms exploding, we speak with MarieClaire.com's social media editor, the digital director of Martha Stewart Weddings, and a Spanish visual expert for tips on how best to use visual content for engaging social audiences.
Below, Rosa Heyman, social media editor at MarieClaire.com, Jennifer Cress, digital director at Martha Stewart Weddings, and Mari Quiñonero share their suggestions for Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, and why your strategy should be dynamic, ever-evolving.
According to TechCrunch Snapchat has some 255 million monthly active users, Instagram 700 million and Facebook two billion as of June; audiences we, as publishers, know all too well we cannot ignore. Moreover, people are more likely to share visual content that appeals to their intelligence, makes them laugh, or helps them learn. As the American Press Institute notes, “a strong graphic goes a long way in inspiring a reader to share or comment on a story.”
However, with billions of photos and videos shared on a daily basis in the social sphere, publishers need to work hard at getting their images and posts to stand out. Mari Quiñonero, a fine artist and collage maker based in Madrid who has a background in art history, believes there is no secret formula for one image to work over another on social media platforms.
However, “I do think that factors like good quality images, having a good story to tell (including the story behind the product) and finding the correct tone to communicate the story are crucial.”
Quiñonero believes brands should think about platforms in isolation from one another rather than simply sharing the same visuals across all of them, taking into account each platform’s unique features, the audience and the audience’s likely intention. “While for Instagram the main premise is high quality photos plus storytelling, on Twitter the main features are immediacy and brevity.”
And with people today likely active across a number of social platforms, understanding their intention is also very important. For example, someone might use Pinterest for inspiration and Twitter for news – same person, different intentions in the particular moment.
Here are Heyman, Cress, and Quiñonero’s top tips.
"In my experience, rules of composition don't necessarily apply," said Rosa Heyman, social media editor at MarieClaire.com. "Of course, a gorgeous shot can yield great engagement — it’s Instagram, after all — but photos that are unusual or surprising in their composition also perform well. Marie Claire's audience responds to content whether it be a beauty look or a celebrity they admire, rather than composition."
"Every brand is different, but for Martha Stewart Weddings we've found that the less 'styled' an image feels, the better it does," said Jennifer Cress, digital director at Martha Stewart Weddings. "Our audience responds best to real wedding photos which are a mixture of candid moments of a couple, a beautiful bouquet, or a statement-making wedding cake. Users engage most with photos that feel authentic and make them feel inspired.
"Now that Instagram accommodates vertical, horizontal, and square crops, orientation isn't really an issue,” Cress said. “It's more about the actual photo or video itself rather than the format. Again, only speaking for Martha Stewart Weddings, we've found that our users respond best to light and airy colors. (We are a weddings-centric brand so it's not surprising that bright and cheerful color palettes tend to do best!) It's best to save the text for the caption - we've found images with text overlays do not perform as well. We're all for emojis but we try not to overuse them in a single caption."
"Content without a good quality image will lose credibility, especially in front of an audience that consumes so many images so voraciously," said Mari Quinonero. "Quality is fundamental. I consider text (embedded in the images), colours or emojis are just props. They can give a different meaning to what we are trying to convey, or can help set a tone (colloquial, serious, commercial), but are mainly props."
From Quiñonero's point of view, there are two types of photography that do well on Instagram:
- Object photography, where the object is the protagonist, with close-ups, zoom. These photos are very direct and need to draw your attention and be understood very quickly (and cause an impact) in such a saturated feed.
- Atmosphere photography, where you are recreating an environment or a world and you are telling even more. You need to spend a bit more time looking at this photo. These photos are slower to digest and they will attract eyes, but not in the same way or even the same audience. These are more aspirational while the object photos are more commercial.
For Martha Stewart Weddings, Cress explained that Snapchat is best used to take their audience behind-the-scenes at an event, party, or photo shoot. "If an Instagram photo is perfectly styled, the accompanying Snapchat shows our audience how that photo came together,” she said. “We've also had a lot of fun experimenting with Instagram Stories in this way. Snapchat and Instagram Stories allow us to show our users how our content actually comes to life - piece by piece or step by step."
At MarieClaire.com, Rosa Heyman said she uses Snapchat for live, authentic and behind the scenes access. "We use Snapchat primarily for coverage of live events, whether an editor is having a deskside about a cool new product or is attending a concert in another city," she said. "We always try to make sure the content on Snapchat feels authentic and gives the reader access to something she might not otherwise see. We don't get super hung up on the visual composition of our Snapchats because content on that platform is supposed to feel off-the-cuff and real."
For MarieClarie.com, Heyman said their rule of thumb for Facebook and Twitter is similar: "Include a compelling photo that would help pique the reader's interest so that she would click to learn more OR include a compelling photo that the reader would want to share on her own social channels," she said. "On Twitter, we post a mix of GIFs and photos. GIFs are very useful when covering live events, such as award shows."
Jennifer Cress at Martha Stewart Weddings emphasised the purpose of Facebook and Twitter is quite different than Instagram's. "Instagram is purely visual and the goal is to get the user to engage with the video, story, or image," she said. "The goal of a Facebook or Twitter post is to get the user to engage with the post, but also to drive traffic back to our site. Images on Facebook and Twitter act as a teaser to the accompanying piece of content, while an Instagram photo is the piece of content. However, we are strategic with the images we use in our Facebook posts. We always try to use beautiful imagery in Facebook posts, which help garner more engagement in shares and clicks."
What love song was popular the year your parents got married? https://t.co/WQ0TV2gK6N— Martha Weddings (@MarthaWeddings) July 23, 2017
But, these practices alone aren’t enough to guarantee uplift in engagement or audience numbers. Facebook, for example, makes regular adjustments to its algorithms. And, lately, publishers are leaning towards Instagram over Snapchat, despite Snapchat’s initial it-platform status. So, editors need to be on the ball, and continually shift their strategy and the types and formats of content they publish, day in and day out.
"Social media editors are always evolving their strategy," Cress explained. "Social platforms like Facebook and Instagram are constantly updating their functionalities and algorithms, so it's important that editors are testing new content to determine what works best for their audience."
Although the digital space is constantly shifting, she explained, their number one rule is to know their audience and know their brand. "Instagram is a visual extension of our brand," Cress said. "It's vital that our feed feels distinct and unique. What does well for us, may not do well for our competitors and that's OK."
Rosa Heyman, MarieClaire.com's social media editor, is constantly refining their social strategy in response to changes in audience behavior, as well as algorithmic adjustments, she said. "Cropping out an element of interest in the index photo of a Facebook post used to guarantee that a reader would click now, such a post might be considered clickbait, which would not only irritate the reader, but would also ding Facebook's algorithm," she said.
"In other words, enticing the reader to click so that she could see the hem of an unusual dress used to work; now I work to give the reader as much information as possible in the Facebook post itself. So while I certainly work to assess the 'best practices' given the current circumstances on a specific platform, I have to pay attention to the social media landscape as a whole."
Here is a summary of their current top tips:
- Know what you are going to communicate, how, the type of content and the audience. The rest depends on your own aesthetics, your common sense and your gut feeling, said Quiñonero.
- Composition rules may apply for some platforms, like photo-perfect Instagram, and then won’t for behind-the-scenes, real Snapchat.
- For Instagram, aim for the atmosphere or the object. The less styled it is, the better it does. Images with text may not perform as well.
- For Snapchat, keep it real. Snapchat is used for behind-the-scenes stories that show how things came together or streaming authentic, live events.
- For Facebook, aim for posts that are compelling, inspiring, or promote engagement, to drive traffic back to a website. Use stunning imagery on Twitter, to tease content found elsewhere.
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