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How Photos Can Make or Break Your Marketing Campaign

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I'm trying to find a word other than revolution to describe what's going on with the use of images online these days. It may sound overblown, but I can't think of a better term. More than 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, so in the five minutes it has taken me to write this, a million more were added--not to mention the charts, graphics, illustrations, doodles and other images that were pinned to Pinterest or posted to Instagram, Twitter, foursquare, Tumblr and Google+. The fundamental shift toward the visual was punctuated this year by Facebook's $1 billion acquisition of photo-sharing app Instagram.

So how do you put visual content to work for your company? Rather than relying on boring stock photos, the smartest businesses are employing images that help them evolve their brand and tell a visual story of who they are.

Marketing is all about communicating your value. Tapping into the visual zeitgeist is an excellent opportunity to create messaging for your business that is, well … nothing short of revolutionary. Here are some guidelines.

Why go visual? Online publisher Mashable and EyeTrackShop recently found that participants in a webcam eye-tracking study spent less time looking at Facebook wall posts and advertisements and more time looking at the cover photo on brands' timelines. So this stuff matters. As every brand becomes a publisher charged with creating content to attract customers, the quality of that content becomes increasingly important. In other words, you have to produce stuff that helps you stand out.

Your own website or blog is an excellent place to start sharing images that craft your narrative. So are social media networks; some of the top platforms positioned for sharing rich visual stories are Pinterest, Instagram, Google+ and, of course, Facebook, whose Timeline update this past spring gave all of us -- including businesses -- the ability to produce more aesthetically pleasing pages.

See content moments everywhere. Many organizations have photographers they contact in times of need -- for events, product launches, etc. "That won't suffice anymore," says brand strategist Nick Westergaard of Brand Driven Social in Coralville, Iowa. "Photography can't be an afterthought."

The key is to see content moments everywhere. How about showing a behind-the-scenes peek of your warehouse before a big shipment, the way T-shirt company Threadless does? Or look at how the small U.K. company McKay Flooring gives itself a bigger digital footprint by using Pinterest, Instagram and its blog to display cool flooring materials such as leather, reclaimed bowling lanes and whiskey barrels.

This approach even works for business-to-business companies that sell inherently unphotogenic products: At MarketingProfs, we share photos on our Instagram feed of industry events attended by our staffers, or we give a peek into how the proverbial sausage is made by showing our webinar training videos from our point of view, documentary-style.

You have a great fount of inspiration right in front of you, if only you train your eye to look for it. Take active photos that show real customers or staffers doing real things -- as opposed to staged shots or logos.

Show how your product lives in the world. Consider how Ben & Jerry's integrates images on Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook to showcase the beauty of doing business in Vermont. The ice cream maker also uses Instagram to recognize customers by calling out a favorite pic on "fan photo Friday."

Even old-school General Electric has used online photo sharing to create excitement and build momentum. Last year, GE encouraged social media users to take photos inspired by the company's missions of Moving, Curing, Powering and Building. The fan with the best photo was awarded a trip to the U.K. that included a chance to photograph a world-class jet engine facility.

Embrace images as brand art. For a lot of businesses, content equals text. But photographs and other visual materials should be staples of your marketing mix. Share your company's history on Facebook Timeline with visuals from your archives, for example. Or better yet: Populate your e-mails, blog, website and marketing collateral with your own images. To capture attention and entice engagement and click-throughs, you need to have bold, unique visuals in your corner.

Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs and the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, Content Rules (Wiley, 2012)

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This article was originally published in the September 2012 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Picture This.

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