Why location marketers need to embrace whimsical, visual storytelling

Recently, Facebook and Google made announcements that show how important it is for businesses to think visually with their location marketing.

On April 10, Google rolled out a better way to do search using images: a “similar items” feature that makes it possible for people to use images to find items that resemble a product that interests them (for instance, you can use a photo of the leather jacket that Vin Diesel wears in “The Fate of the Furious” to find a similar jacket).

Meanwhile, Facebook announced that the world’s largest social network is launching a Camera Effects platform to accelerate the uptake of augmented reality. The message is clear: being visual is not only useful, it’s a requirement to compete today and tomorrow.

The fact that major publishers such as Facebook and Google are pushing their ecosystem toward a visual future is reason alone for businesses to take a closer look at how they use all forms of visual storytelling to attract and retain customers locally. An equally influential catalyst consists of consumer behavior. Consider some of these compelling signposts:

In response, more brands are treating visual assets as importantly as their written content and data, as well they should. Many brands are getting creative with tried-and-true forms of visual storytelling, such as video. Others are embracing newer forms, such as emoji and GIFs. Still others are pushing the envelope with augmented reality. Here are some examples:

Emoji and GIFs

Emoji and GIFs are especially useful for connecting with millennial audiences, who are very comfortable using emoji and GIFs to communicate with each other, usually through texts and on social media. Businesses can use emoji to add color and tone to their messages, as an Oakbrook, Illinois, Nordstrom does by sprinkling its Facebook posts with emoji:

Emoji also make a business more relevant to platforms such as Instagram that are engineered for visual storytelling. If your business builds customer awareness and retention on Instagram, consider emoji to be a mandatory part of your vocabulary. As restaurant Labriola Bakery Cafe demonstrates, you don’t need to go overboard using emoji — a simple sunburst can work perfectly:

Emoji are now becoming a form of commerce. For example, Domino’s famously rolled out a functionality with which people can order pizzas by tweeting an emoji. And Emogi recently launched a platform with which brands can drop sponsored emoji into text messages. Emogi scans the content and sentiment of messages of anonymous users and offers businesses a platform to share branded emoji that correspond to users activities.

For instance, if a consumer is texting a friend about going out for lunch, they can use a branded McDonald’s emoji to inject more authenticity into their texts (and, of course, plant the suggestion that they stop by their closest McDonald’s).

GIFs, meanwhile, are like mini-stories told within a second or two. By their nature, GIFs can create more engagement and are highly shareable. Starbucks is a GIF leader. The company uses GIFs of cats, dogs, whales, rainbows, starbursts and floating skateboards to convey the energy and fun that comes with the wide variety of flavors that can be had at your local Starbucks — an appropriate form of content sharing for a business that offers Unicorn Frappuccinos.

The big trend that I see with GIFs is making them more targeted. A company known as Tenor recently launched a tool that helps companies understand how people associate sentiment with GIFs. With this kind of data, businesses can monitor and adapt the creation of GIFs that more closely match the mood of its audience.


By now, video has become a visual storytelling mainstay for creating engagement. But video continues to change rapidly. Businesses such as automotive dealers and retailers can and do use longer-form video to share information, such as “how-to” content. Here are some things that really impress me:

  • How location-based businesses have so quickly embraced forms of live video to share information and create engagement with real-time immediacy. For instance, the Mayo Clinic uses Facebook Live to host informative sessions on topics such as pediatric care. And a number of businesses post video snippets on platforms such as Snapchat to give you an inside look at event-based activities, as the annual Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo did recently by giving Snapchat users a brief tour of the fun going on at the expo.
  • How brands are learning how to distribute video across multiple platforms. Tiffany & Co. recently created awareness for its products across its stores by livestreaming an event that was broadcast across social channels and then edited the content into smaller snackable segments for people who didn’t have time to watch the entire live stream. In doing so, Tiffany created nearly 24 million impressions that will build awareness with consumers in an omnichannel world.

To win with video, think real time — and share everywhere.

Augmented reality

As Facebook believes, augmented reality is the future of visual storytelling — even more so than virtual reality, whose uptake remains hampered by barriers to entry such as cost and equipment requirements. Retailers such as IKEA are using augmented reality to help businesses turn brick-and-mortar locations into more immersive experiences and to help customers visualize the use of products in their home before they visit a brick-and-mortar location. To be sure, augmented reality is still a technology in development — but it’s not going away.

What you should do

Emoji, GIFs, video and augmented reality represent a small sliver of image-based content options that business are employing. It can be overwhelming for a business to know where to start. I suggest that businesses:

  • Start with their customers. How do they use image-based content to communicate with each other? With you? And how often? As I noted, emoji and GIFs may be especially applicable with millennial audiences. Consider also where in the customer life cycle to use visual storytelling. Emoji and GIFs are great for capturing attention. Video and augmented reality may be more applicable closer to the purchase stage.
  • Match the content with the platform you use. If you’re on Instagram and Snapchat, you’re already using images. But it’s important to keep up on the features that platforms are developing. Instagram and Snapchat are locked in an arms race to develop the most engaging video and image-based features, and Instagram is quickly ramping up sponsored content. Meanwhile, Facebook has established a strong lead in the use of live video. Understand each platform and its strengths.
  • Test and learn constantly. Successful businesses are not coming out of the gate with perfect video content. They’re making their share of mistakes as they test the possibilities of visual content, especially live video. In fact, the imperfect nature of live video creates a certain you-are-there appeal. Don’t wait for the tools to become perfect. Learn along with the tool providers.

Whatever you do, get savvy with visual storytelling now. Take another look at your content- and data-creation approaches and figure out how to weave visual assets into how you create and share location-based information. You’ll make your locations more findable and engaging with consumers who live and breathe visual storytelling.

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