What sort of content engages people best in social media? Conventional wisdom says it has to be short, sharp and, most importantly, visual. Photos, illustrations, infographics, videos: we all know that anything involving imagery is conversational catnip.
The rise of Pinterest and Instagram has put visual content at the top of the social agenda. And over the past couple of years, research has emphasised the value of images in stimulating social engagement – see this 2011 study from New York Times Insights and 2012 reports from Morgan J Arnold, Doug Schumacher and Jeff Bullas. There’s no doubt, if you’re talking about volume, that images and video encourage interaction in a way that leaves text sprawled in the dust.
But what sort of interaction are these studies measuring? Are we in danger of focusing on quantity rather than quality?
I’d argue that the massive success of Twitter – a very simple text medium – is evidence that text is still king for delivering interactions which are actionable. While pictures and video primarily allow for low level interactions – likes, resharing and kneejerk emotional responses – it is text that enables businesses and individuals to learn most about the people who, for one reason or another, ‘find them’ online. After all, interactions, likes and resharing are all very well for generating a warm fuzzy feeling, but they don’t generate the kind of interactions that help you learn much from your audience.
They’re great for providing positive reinforcement; not so much for enabling active improvement.
It is text that forms the basis of our arguments. Text that reports on news, that informs and educates, and that inspires in-depth problem solving. If you are going to engage with social beyond mere promotion, and move into the realms of business optimisation, you have to think about how you can learn from your audience, not just treat them as an undifferentiated mass of yes-people, or mindless ‘Likers’.
Of course, this is not to say that images can’t be used to generate deep interactions. Plenty of how-to sites demonstrate that visual cues can generate truly engaged and informed responses from social users. But such use of imagery is designed to involve the reader in a creative journey. They are as much participants in the visual experience as they are consumers of it. Again, the difference comes down to active versus passive interaction. The more active the experience, the more likely it is that audiences will want to engage. And their most likely form of interaction? Text. Whether it be questions, comments or idea sharing, audiences are most likely to share content in a manner that is easy to deliver and that communicates their responses effectively.
If you want to inspire active, thoughtful responses to complex ideas, I still believe that text is the most effective mechanism. And it has the added advantages of never going out of date, as well as being a lot cheaper in terms of data use and creative production.
This may not be an original observation – that you can learn more from interactions that involve the articulation of complex ideas – but it is important if advocates of social are to demonstrate ongoing value of social communication. If we’re not prepared to take a hit with fewer, but more meaningful interactions, then we miss the whole point of social – that we connect for a reason, not just because we can.