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Text still beats imagery for actionable engagement

by Joanne Jacobs on 09 July 2012

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 ArnoldDoug 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.

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  • http://abdallahalhakim.tumblr.com/ Abdallah Al-Hakim

    I agree – text, blogging, commenting and all other elements that lead to conversations are where the true rewards lie. Simply liking or pinning an image is nice but it does not usually open the door for further engagement and ends up being a one-way street

  • http://twitter.com/hollingsworth Tony Hollingsworth

    Thoughtful stuff Joanne, thank you.  I’ve been experimenting with visual sharing tools like Pinterest and wondering where they fit in amongst all the tools we are sharing with today.  As I scroll through the various streams on my networks, sure, it’s the images that can inspire us first, but I find myself looking for the textual context accompanying that image, and get much more value when there is text rather than just the image itself.

    It’s easier to just click that “Repin” button and go for quantity in your sharing, but I believe it we take the time to add contextual text to why we’re sharing the content, we’re adding more value and other benefits flow.

  • http://www.joannejacobs.net/ Joanne Jacobs

    Thanks guys! :)

  • http://www.danieljohnyoung.com/ Daniel Young

    Its important to remember that all internet users are not created equally. So called ‘low level interactions’ have increased participation amongst audiences that are not pre-disposed to express their opinions in long form (text). The user determines the response as much as the content. 

  • JonTheDots

    Lets start with the end, different people want different things. (what Daniel is saying)

    It’s important to remember that normal people do exist and they are in the majority. The massive success of twitter?? Yes it’s great but it isn’t a massive success for Mr Average Joe, especially down under.. Lets not get wrapped up in this social media clique crap.
    Mostly though it comes down to what you describe as actionable, if you are talking about a deep conversation then maybe, but again, normal people don’t do that and is that really what we all want as mainstream brands?

    Normal people have seconds to check something and move on, in this modern world that is action, getting some to ‘like’,'share’ or just view is an actionable engagement. It stopped them, it made them do something, it adds to the layers of other stuff we are all doing from a communication point of view..

    At the end of the day, nothing is actually engaging, it’s a nothing word, we all live our lives in moments and then move on, those moments are getting shorter. Some are memorable, some are not, pictures after all are easier to remember than text for most people..

    What is our job as marketers? To be remarkable and to be memorable.

    In my opinion of course .

    PS: Blog had too many words, remembered the pic though..;)

  • http://twitter.com/strets123 Andrew Stretton

    I would say that in general, the important thing is to actually care deeply about the stuff that you commit post whether it be an infographic, an information visualisation, a photo or a blog post. Blogging tips articles like this miss the point entirely 
    http://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/33333/How-to-Squash-Anxiety-and-Kill-Your-Inner-Blogging-Critic.aspx?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+HubSpot+%28HubSpot%29 satisfying your inner critic is the key to producing great work.

    The problem with infographics is the moment when you say “we ARE going to do an infographic about this” when you could afford to be a lot less afraid of failing. Visualising data is an experiment, it should work a lot more like writing a scientific paper or a pop song than producing a marketing pamphlet. The great data vis blogs post erratically when their experiments are successful, it’s just that some of them are so proficient with the HTML5/javascript (not photoshop) skills required that they can reach a good level of output. Clearly as you say, writing blog posts doesn’t have such a high barrier to entry.

  • David Satterly

    Yea now a days it is necessary to collect the people or users to engage in topics like blog commenting, forum topics, Pinterest (image sharing), facbook, twitter…All these are working too and digital marketing is the expansion or modernization of internet marketing.