The Science of Memorable Marketing: Why You Should Be Using More Visuals — Weird Ones

January 29, 2014

Is there a simple secret to creating content that grabs your audience’s attention and leaves a lasting impression? Indeed there is. Use more visuals — the weirder the better. It’s science.

We Are Visual Creatures

It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that when it comes to grabbing our attention and making an impression, images speak louder than words. The evidence is all around us — infographics and slide presentations are more popular than ever, streaming video is dominating the internet, and have you looked at your Twitter feed lately?
Not only are visuals everywhere, they’re also driving the lion’s share of traffic and engagement. Just check out the stats below:
Twitter Images Stat

So, How Can You Create Content that Stands Out When the Web is Inundated with It?

The simple answer — your content needs to deliver a knock-out blow straight to the back of the visual cortex.
The fact is marketers and advertisers have been taking advantage of the power of images and video for years and years, but with the web becoming an increasingly visual place, the pressure is now officially on to make sure the online content you produce packs a visual punch capable of knocking your audience on their ass.
And how can you do that? For starters, by better understanding the science behind our attraction to visuals, and why we’re so hardwired to process and recall them in the first place.

How to Stand Out with More Memorable Visual Marketing

The more vivid the image, the more likely it is to cleave to its locus. What distinguishes a great [marketer], I was learning, is the ability to create these sorts of lavish images on the fly, to paint in the mind a scene so unlike any that has been seen before that it cannot be forgotten.”

— Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein

The more you know about why particular images catch your eye and seem to “burn themselves in the back of your mind,” the more you know in terms of how to go about effectively creating them.
But before we dive into what makes any one image more memorable than another, let’s quickly examine the staying power of visual content vs. written content to begin with. After all, not only do images grab our attention — they also remain in our memory far longer than words and slogans.
Let’s try a quick test to help illustrate:
Without scrolling back up, try to remember the first headline in this post. Can you do it? What about something a little easier — can you remember the first line in the quote from Joshua Foer that you just read?
Now, what about the image at the top of the post — can you remember the three black icons in the petri dish?
Chances are, if you were able to remember anything, it’s the icons in the image. But don’t be too hard on yourself, the fact is much of the information our minds are presented with is forgotten relatively quickly. The strange thing is, while it seems we’re not exactly built to remember numbers or text, images have a remarkable tendency to get stuck in our heads.

Create Content that Survives Longer Down “The Forgetting Curve”

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer in the experimental study of memory, widely known for his insights into the decline of memory retention over time — or in other words, how long it typically takes us to forget things like where we left our keys.
In his tests, Ebbinghaus attempted to memorize sequences of random three-letter syllables. What he repeatedly found was that even after just 1 hour, more than half of the information he had attempted to memorize was gone. It had vanished from his memory.  That, my dear marketers, is what we’re up against.
But all is not lost. The good news is there are certain circumstances and techniques we can utilize to help us — and our audiences — overcome the “forgetting curve”. The primary one is to convert the information we would like them to retain into a vivid, unique image.
In fact, that is exactly what great minds have been doing to remarkably improve their memories since days of the ancient Greeks.

Carve Out Your Own Wing in Your Audience’s “Memory Palace”

In Moonwalking with Einstein, author Joshua Foer’s bestselling account of transforming himself from average Joe to U.S. memory champion in the span of 12 months, Foer describes the simple secret of developing lasting memories as being more of a challenge of creativity than anything else. That’s because the key isn’t berating your brain through repetition, but rather improving your ability to come up with images to associate with the things you want to remember, and then envisioning them placed throughout the rooms of a “memory palace” — any building or location that you have a close connection to and know by heart.
For example, if you want to remember a grocery list of say, aluminum foil, smoked salmon, and peanut butter, try picturing walking up to your house, seeing your car covered in aluminum foil in the driveway, a giant salmon smoking a cigar in your doorway, and [insert your preference of attractive actress or actor here] provocatively eating from a jar of peanut butter with her fingers, standing on top of the coffee table in your living room.
As British author and “Grand Master of Memory” Ed Cooke explains to Foer while helping him train for the USA Memory Championships, “By laying down elaborate, engaging, vivid images in your mind, it more or less guarantees that your brain is going to end up storing a robust, dependable memory.”
The more unique and outlandish the imagery, the better.
So that’s all well and good, but you might be wondering — how can you use this to your marketing advantage?

Tips for Creating More Compelling & Memorable Marketing Images

1) Remember that Sex Sells — and So Does a Sense of Humor

Despite all our differences, early man and we modern cubical dwellers do share two common interests — jokes and sex. Attraction is just as powerful now as it was thousands of years ago. And early man enjoyed a good laugh just as much as we do today. While that’s not exactly breaking news, you can still get fantastic results from leveraging provocative and funny visuals effectively. See these examples below:
Why You Can’t Resist Persuasive Techniques (Even When You Spot Them)
Strategic marketing and design expert Pamela Wilson scored a big hit with a recent post on CopyBlogger with this juicy feature image (and, yes, a compelling title):
Sophos: “Security So Complete You Feel Invincible”
Data security company Sophos showed how having a sense of humor and going off the beaten path can pay off big with its “Feel Invincible” campaign:
Sophos Be Invincible
Sun Microsystems’s “Server of the Month”
Sun’s Playboy spread parody is a hilarious example of what happens when you cross the two approaches:
Sun Server of the Month
(Thank you eCoast for both the Sophos and Sun examples.)

2) Even Better, Tell a Story and Include a Twist

It’s fairly obvious why the first image above works, but remember — according to the mnemonic techniques Foer describes in his book, in order to create a truly lasting impression, you need to create images that are unique and even outlandish. What sets the two images in the Sophos and Sun examples apart is that they have an unexpected novelty about them.
Foer stresses this point further by describing how he would go about remembering that he needed to pick up six bottles of wine — by picturing them as animated and arguing amongst themselves over which one is best:

“What makes six snooty, anthropomorphized wine bottles more memorable than the words ‘six bottles of wine’? Well, for one thing, visualizing such an outlandish image demanded more mental indulgence than simply reading four words. In the process of expending all that mental effort, I was forming more durable connections among the neurons that would encode that memory. But even more important, the memorableness of those talking wine bottles is a function of their novelty.”

A man in a meat suit standing in front of a lion? Now that’s certainly novel, and as a result, it’s an image that sticks in your mind.
Here’s another great example of an unexpected, unique, and memorable image from collaboration software company Central Desktop:
Central Desktop
You can also make a big impression by creating images that stand out as unique and out-of-the-ordinary but that also tell a story. In the two examples below, it can take the viewer an extra second or two to put everything happening in the image together, and as Foer’s anthropomorphized wine bottle example illustrates, that extra amount of mental effort is exactly what makes for an even more durable memory:
Cingular’s Dropped Calls Campaign
And this example from Web Urbanist magazine is pretty spectacular:

One Last Thing

Before you go getting weird with a bunch of strange and unexpected images…
Do what’s right for your brand. If you’ve done the research required to know what your audience expects and is interested in, then focus on delivering on that and stay true to your established voice and tone.
That said, get more visual and creative with your marketing. Not only will you catch your prospect’s eye, you’ll also ensure that when the time comes for them to buy, you won’t be easily forgotten.

Resources for Creating More Memorable Visual Content

flamingos_partyingBeginner’s Guide to Stunning Visual Content Marketing
When it comes to your content marketing strategy, creating striking visual content is no longer a “nice to have”. This guide explores the visual content revolution and offers easy how-to examples and advice for capturing and engaging your audience.
Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 5.41.31 PMHow Colors Affect Conversion Rate by Neil Patel
Did you know that color accounts for 85% of the reason why you purchased a specific product? Neil Patel breaks down the impact colors have on buying behavior — and how you can use that impact to your advantage — in this illuminating infographic.
Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 5.47.53 PMThe Marketer’s Crash Course in Visual Content Creation by HubSpot
HubSpot’s in-house designers teamed up with their marketing team to provide a great package of helpful content creation resources, including 20 free tools for creating vibrant visuals on a budget and pre-sized PowerPoint templates for creating quick & easy images for social media.
Feature image courtesy of Calsidyrose

Senior Content Manager

<strong>Jonathan Crowe</strong> is Senior Content Manager at <a href="">Barkly</a>. He was previously the Managing Editor of OpenView Labs.