Visual Content for Social Media [New Research]


We all think we have great taste.

In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Jess (Bruno Kirby) move in together and argue over keeping his wagon-wheel coffee table. Jess insists, “I have good taste!” And Marie responds, “Look, everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they couldn’t possibly all have good taste.”

When it comes to marketing, questions about who has the right “taste” for breakthrough visual content and which design will move an audience to action plague the creative side of the business.

Challenge for the creative side of #marketing: Determining who has the right “taste” to determine the visuals, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. #Research Click To Tweet

Every marketer can recall a visually creative design released by a brand that prompted them to say, “What the heck were they thinking?” You can probably look at your own brand and ponder the same question: “What was I thinking?”

Taste aside, most marketing is ultimately measured not on aesthetics but on how well it motivates an action (what the audience wants to hear). Get enough action, and arguments about aesthetics will subside. It’s the classic argument of “data wins.”

But sometimes it doesn’t. That usually happens when a senior leader wants the design to look a particular way.

Design and performance both have a place

A time and place exist for prioritizing creative tastes over performance. For example, a brand should design a logo or visual representation of what the company stands for without consensus from the buying public. That creative strategy begins and ends with internal decision-makers. The only issue is who makes the final decision. (In When Harry Met Sally, Marie’s taste won, and the table was gone.) The brand’s goal should be to ensure that the person (or team) with the right “taste” makes the ultimate creative decision.

The flip side occurs when the brand designs visuals to convert customers or deepen engagement with audience members. Whether it’s an ad with “buy now” or “subscribe now” or social media image with “please give us feedback” or “comment below,” the brand wants the visuals to help persuade the audience to do something.

In this case, one could argue the brand’s taste doesn’t matter nearly as much as what motivates the audience. The brand’s goal is to make sure its creative decision-maker is someone (or a team) who can balance the company’s taste with what the audience will find most compelling.

Brands need a creative decision-maker who balances the company’s taste with what the audience finds most compelling, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. #Research Click To Tweet

The need for creative taste tests

Marketers often need to test this tension between brand taste and customer resonance.

My consulting team recently worked with an e-commerce company in the home design space. Much of its content features photos, videos, and images of the work done in homes by contractors and designers. The chief marketing officer adamantly insisted no people appear in any imagery. The format (social media, brochures, website, etc.) didn’t matter – he only wanted pictures of designs. This no-people creative preference became part of the brand guidelines.

One day, a new agency made a mistake. They didn’t review the brand guidelines and published content with images featuring people. The campaign outperformed similar campaigns by almost 1.5 times. Following that happy accident, the marketing team finally convinced the CMO to test social media imagery and found images with people alongside the designs scored exponentially higher in engagement and conversions than the no-people imagery.

That home design company is not unique. I often hear marketing teams say things like, “This creative ship is just so hard to turn. Our CEO/CMO/director (or even agency) wants all our creative visuals to look a very particular way.”

But these decision-makers will do better when they recognize they need to test their assumptions. The creative process must include something that assesses whether these executives’ good taste reflects what moves the audience.

New research on visual social media content

To see how in tune marketers are with their visual content strategy, we partnered with VistaCreate to find out the following:

  • How they feel about their capabilities to create visual social media content as a repeatable strategic process
  • How they create and use images on social media organically and within paid advertising/content promotion efforts
  • Which types of images and platforms perform best

You can review the findings in the report, Strategic Visual Content for Social Media: Creating a Balance. Here’s my take on the points I found compelling.

Are brand standards impeding excellence?

One-third of marketers rate their social media visual content as average or below average. But interestingly, 88% of marketers say their visual content is consistent with their existing brand standards. These findings indicate that following existing brand standards (the brand’s taste) works against the goal of creating high-quality visual content on social media (to motivate an action).

In other words, many brands’ attempts to enforce their taste in visual creative may prevent their success.

You aren’t your target market

We also tested marketers’ assumptions about visual content versus consumers’ opinions.

Here’s how it worked. First, we asked a set of marketers to rank five social media ads for a cleaning service as if they marketed the brand.

Marketers ranked the Easy Cleaning ad No. 1 as the one they would most likely to use.

Marketers ranked the Cleaning Services ad No. 2.

Marketers ranked the Cleanhug ad No. 3.

Marketers ranked the Fast Cleaning ad No. 4.

Marketers ranked the Wiper Cleaning Services ad No. 5.

In a separate poll, consumers (non-marketers) ranked the same five images based which they’d be most likely if they were interested in the cleaning service.

Consumers ranked this ad No. 1 based on how likely they would click it if they were looking for a cleaning service.

Consumers ranked this ad No. 2.

Consumers ranked this ad No. 3.

Consumers ranked this ad No. 4.

Consumers ranked this ad No. 5.

The (not scientific) results were fascinating. But, given my earlier example of the e-commerce home design company, they weren’t surprising:

  • The ad marketers ranked No. 1 landed (the lime green Easy Cleaning ad) in the No. 4 (next-to-last) slot among consumers.
  • The marketers’ No. 2 ad (the sage green Cleaning Services ad) ranked first among consumers.
  • Both marketers and consumers ranked the same ad (an ad depicting a man with two thumbs up) in the worst slot.

A #SocialMedia ad experiment found the No. 1 visual pick by marketers ranked fourth (out of five) by consumers, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Those results indicate that marketers must move beyond our assumptions when determining the visuals for their social media publishing. That means finding effective ways to iterate creative ideas quickly, then working to validate hunches, assumptions, and guesses by testing the ideas.

Remember, as one of my marketing professors told me at least a hundred times, you are not your target market.

You are the person to ensure that in-house teams have the necessary skills, align with repeatable processes, and can access the platforms and tools they need to do their work.

That’s the heart of great creativity – a process fueled by tools (yes, maybe even AI) and, most importantly, handled by curious people committed to the best outcome.

That’s the way to design a great design.

I hope this research is helpful in your work.

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 Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute





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