Images are crucial to social media. This post looks at how charities can use images to grab attention or tell their stories. It uses lots of examples from Twitter but many of the rules also apply to Facebook
Just two years ago, images were a nice-to-have. Now they are a must-have to grab attention. This screenshot from my Twitter feed shows the difference. In 2014 in a random sample, just one tweet out of nine has an image. In 2016, four out of five, does.
Personally I used to scroll through tweets sifting by account. Now I primarily sift by images. Images have to be eye-catching and engaging to make me stop and read. But, what makes a good image?
Images which tell a story
Images can tell a story themselves or can be a gateway into a story – a hook to get the reader’s interest. For example, the image of 101-year old volunteer Maurice at St Paul’s Cathedral makes you want to read his story. The image from Toilet Twinning of a jar of coins is intreging, it makes you ask questions about how much they are trying to raise and how. This BHF image of Rio following his life-saving heart transplant shows him in hospital surrounded by medical equipment and with a breathing tube. Each is a powerful image, hooking us in to want to read more.
Images which are cute / beautiful
Images are like a reward, they can brighten someone’s day. Social media is made to share cute or beautiful images.
Unsurprisingly, animal charities such as Blue Cross, share lots of cute images. These are rewards for people who love guinea pigs / cats / hedgehogs etc. The images are useful to illustrate messages about rehoming and general education about animals. Images are also crucial to support social media fundraising. See this tweet from the Barn Owl Trust – awww.
Many museums and galleries share items from their collections via social media. For example, the East London Group and the Royal Academy connect with their followers with an #imageoftheday often connecting this with something that is topical. Heritage organisations are great at using images of their properties. The National Trust share their amazing collection of photos brilliantly on Facebook and get a high level of interaction.
You don’t have to be the National Trust to share beautiful pictures. Do you have a garden or view to share (see tweets from Canal and River Trust or Lewis-Manning Hospice)? Are you having a cake sale (see Maternal Worldwide’s Muffins for Midwives campaign)? Think about what is cute or beautiful in your organisation.
Images which are fun
Fun images are harder to get right as humour is very subjective and hard to translate through technology. You can be creative, playful, topical and fun but only if it is relevant and appropriate for your brand and audience. Take a look at Give Blood’s recent use of emojis or YoungScot’s use of animated gifs.
Images can be fun because the people in them are having fun (think fundraising or volunteering activities) or include notoriously fun people (see this tweet of Bill Bailey with an owl on his head from the Barn Owl Trust).
Images can also be fun because they join in with something lots of people are talking about. Memes, TV shows, the weather, news stories can all be used to join in with existing fun. See St John Ambulance’s first aid tips for Game of Thrones characters.
Organisations sometimes create an alter-ego for their brand which can do the fun stuff. Examples of this are RSPB’s Vote for Bob and Dave The Worm from Parkinson’s UK.
Images which are shocking
Images can be shocking because they show things we wouldn’t usually see (such as Dr Kate Granger’s moving deathbed tweets). Or because they show a truly shocking situation (think of the images of the young Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015). Images which are shocking may provoke feelings of disgust, anger or sadness. However, reactions may vary; it can be difficult to predict where an image goes too far (think of the backlash against Barnado’s adverts in 2000).
Whether you use shocking images depends on your cause and what you are trying to achieve. Remember that you have a duty of care. Images don’t need to be graphic to have impact.
Think about your audience and what they will tolerate. Think about what you are trying to achieve, what action you are trying to prompt. Think about balance. If your subject matter is only ever shocking, how can you illustrate it in a sensitive but impactful way which brings people in to find out more?
- Sometimes text can add impact to an image. This example from Oxfam International shows a beautiful image of a Burundian mother and child with the words ‘A refugee is a person who doesn’t have any options’.
- This Greenpeace campaign about the recycle-ability of disposable coffee cups uses images of Caffe Nero, Costa and Starbucks cups with a shocking fact (7 million coffee cups are used per day in the UK. 1% are recycled).
- An image can be shocking without being obviously sad. This example from The Brain Injury Hub shows toddler Harmonie-Rose who had meningitis playing with her dolls.
- This image shared by Aspire is a still from a Channel 4 news item. It shows a man cutting food with a sharp knife using his prosthetic hand.
Images which give information
Effective images can also be ones which give infomation or are just interesting. This could be a photo of something which helps someone to understand a situation or topic (such as this tweet from Thames21 showing microbeads), or an image which illustrates data (see using graphics to illustrate data on social media for lots of examples) or illustrates text (such as Mind’s series of quotes).
Information pictures also play an important role in inspiring people to get involved. Images of people doing fundraising or volunteering can inspire other people to do the same (‘there’s a picture of people running, they look like me and like they are having a good time, I could do it too’). This example from GoodGym is great as it shows runners in bright T-shirts running along a street, smiling!
Your image strategy
An image strategy may be an over-inflated term but it is important to spend some time thinking about and documenting how you will use images.
- Do your images fit into the categories above? They can of course just be window-dressing, there to look pretty or eye-catching (see this tweet from MindApples).
- Do you have something in your housestyle or brand guidelines about the types of images you use? What about your social media or content strategy?
- Do you have a different style for social media or do you use the same image for the same story across all your channels?
- Do you use an image for every tweet or post or just when you have something appropriate ready to use? What is your policy?
What thinking or analysis have you done about images? It is worth testing out what style actually works for you and on what channels. What works on Facebook might not necessarily work on Twitter. And what works on these ‘news’ channels might be different than what works on other types of social channels such as Instagram. Don’t assume that your audience are the same.
Spend some time testing out different techniques and using the analytics within Twitter and Facebook to find out the impact / level of interaction.
Images are very subjective. What appeals to one person, might not work for another. Whether you are taking the picture yourself or are choosing from your image library, there are some basic rules which apply.
- Don’t use pictures which are unclear or blurry or dark – on social media you have seconds to get your message across or to attract attention. Images need to be instantly appealing with strong contrasting colours (like this RNIB tweet of a bright green broccoli in a red colander). If you only have poor quality images, why not make them into a collage to make them more interesting. This this collage from Muffins for Midwives which tells more of a story than a single image.
- Don’t use images which are cluttered or hard to understand – photograph your subjects on a plain background if possible. Your tweets and posts will be looked at on all kinds of devices and may appear very small. Sometimes this rule can be broken if the background tells a story. For example, the BHF image of Rio above or this image from the Trussell Trust of a big group of children in a warehouse.
- Avoid pictures which are too complicated or badly cropped – these can lose meaning. Strangely cropped images may attract attention but might just be too wacky (see MyCommunity’s spade image).
- Don’t be boring – do you really have to use that giant donation cheque image?! (Just do a search for ‘charity cheques’ to see how universally boring these are.) Of course it can be politic to take a cheque photo but does it really work on social media? There are lots of ways of showing a fundraising total without having to show the dreaded cheque / handshake (see this press release about JD Wetherspoon’s CLIC Sargent fundraising which shows the total in giant golden balloons or this big thank you from SeeAbility).
>>See more about cheques in this newer post – Say no to GIANT cheque pictures
Remember also, that not everyone following your social media channels will be able to see your images. Twitter and Facebook do now have some accessibility features, although on Twitter it is applied manually and only via apps. Unless you use alt text, avoid using an image on its own. Instead include meaningful text about what the image is showing and ideally a link for more information (the Mind tweet above is a good example of this).
- Do you know what is right for your cause / brand / audience / channel?
- What is your image policy and style?
- Do your images follow the rules of good pictures?
- Do you use images which tell a story?
- Are your images cute / beautiful?
- Are your images fun – do you use humour or respond to topical stories or memes?
- Do you use images which are shocking?
- Do your images give information?
- Are they just window-dressing?
- Are you using images accessibly?
Bottom-line is, don’t be boring!
Experiment, be creative and involve the team to take new images. Use analytics to check what is working. Find your image style.
See also, my previous posts on using graphics to illustrate data on social media and how to illustrate difficult causes and subjects. Also, my chapter on images in the Charity Social Media Toolkit on the SkillsPlatform.
Do you agree?
When have you broken the rules and it has worked? Do you have a style guide for images? How do you manage your images and how they are used? What images have you seen or used recently?
Please do share your experience and examples by adding a comment. I’d love to hear from you.