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As the world spins faster and attention spans shrink by the day, social media has evolved from thousand-word blog posts to micro-blog tweets to the emerging trend of doing away with words altogether in favour of visual communication. Pictures fit our natural webpage scanning tendencies, helping us make sense of the vast loads of data we encounter daily. For the growing legion of predominantly mobile users, snapping a quick photo with a smartphone is more convenient than typing status updates on tiny keyboards. The explosion of image and video sharing as we move into 2014 has had the dominant social networks scrambling to appease demand and higher education institutions seeking strategies to reflect this content marketing trend.

Consider these compelling stats compiled by Hubspot:

  • 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual
  • Visuals are processed by the brain 60,000 times faster than text

Visual content drives engagement and inspires social media sharing across platforms. Now that most students have cameras in their phones, increasingly ephemeral image-sharing sites such as SnapChat and Instagram are all the rage, particularly for teens. As students become ever more visual in their content preferences, schools should be leveraging the magnetic force of images in all aspects of their content strategy and development. According to MDG Advertising, articles with images attract 94% more views and they are more likely to be clicked on search engine result listings. As international recruitment becomes more important to admissions teams, telling your school’s story with pictures is an effective method of succinctly communicating across cultures, increasing social engagement and interactivity.


Image Creation and Curation

Original creative content is ideal for establishing a unique visual online presence and is a must for enhancing your website’s brand identity. Consider commissioning diverse perspectives to showcase your school, including artistic illustrations, computer-generated designs and infographics. Make the most of a hired professional’s work by repurposing photo outtakes for future marketing initiatives.

Embrace the content culture of the new social media paradigm with the three-legged-stool philosophy of creating original content, inviting visitors to contribute content, and gathering relevant links and images from the web. In this age of information overload, collecting, organizing and presenting content from diverse web sources that is of interest to your community can position yourself as a valuable curator worth returning to, separating the signal from the noise and solidifying your brand in the process. Curation requires patience, resourcefulness and sound editing judgment to find and share posts at a reasonable pace. Ensure the selected images accurately reflect your branding but that doesn’t mean everything has to be a blatant advertisement for your college. Add your own commentary to put the picture into context, encouraging engagement, and always give credit where its due with a link back to the original source.

Crowdsourcing Content

Crowdsourcing has an inherent appeal for universities and colleges because of the easy access to an abundance of content creating students. Prospective students are looking for more than photos of an institution – photos taken by and featuring students provide valued insight for those curious about the type of community on campus and wondering if they will fit in. We discussed the value of establishing a content culture at your school in a previous blog post, encouraging all types of submissions to a designated editor or communications team. These are a great resource for understanding the younger generation’s preferences to guide your own content creation in the future. Student-empowered blogs and microsites make a great hub for user-generated content, such as “MyTRU Blog” by Kamloops, BC’s Thompson Rivers University, which excellently leverages student blogs, images and videos to give visitors a well-rounded look at campus life.


Photo Contests

Another great way of tapping into the insatiable demand for powerful visual content is a photography contest. Clearly define your objectives, such as promoting a particular program or showing off the fun of orientation week, and choose a prize that is relevant to your audience. Keep it fun and simplify the entry process as much as possible, promoting through your social media networks or a specific photo competition platform such as Beeliked, Offerpop or Postano. Take advantage of social voting to maximize your audience, tracking and analyzing traffic data to continuously improve your community outreach.

Example: Simon Fraser University recently posted the winner from its grad student “Show us your Research” photo contest. A brief but informative caption conveys the story behind the image, making the impact more powerful.

SFU Photo Contest

Top Tips for Optimal Pics

Well integrated images can vastly improve your website’s performance but poorly optimized ones can slow page load time, negatively effecting search engine rankings and the user experience. The page the image is on and the associated captions and image titles provide important context for search engines. Google recommends adding clear, descriptive titles and captions, and ensuring that images are positioned near the relevant text, preferably higher on the page for greater visibility and lower bounce rates. Descriptive filenames can be helpful to users and may be used in search results if no suitable text is found. Consider increasing searchability by creating a standalone landing page for each image, gathering together all related unique information and perhaps enabling comments, discussions or ratings. You can save similar images in the same directory, such as one for thumbnails or Convocation Day. Linking images to relevant sections of your website can be an effective method of improving navigation.

The ALT text describes the image’s contents, providing important information for SEO and valuable context for users with visual impairments or low-bandwidth connections. Avoid overly stuffing the attribute section with keywords as it may result in your site being perceived as spam. Here is a properly applied example with an instructional video:

<img src=”puppy.jpg” alt=”Dalmatian puppy playing fetch”>

YouTube video

Proper Quality and Image Size

Your first priority should be to make your images as beautiful as possible. Tasteful photo editing by applying filters and cropping can be done with several easily accessible software programs, making photos eminently more sharable. Use the proper image format (generally JPEG’s are best for easily compressible, small, high quality photos) and optimize loading times by uploading images of the appropriate size for your blog or website. This is a combination of file dimensions, resolution and file format. Large quality images should be 60-100 kb and smaller images should be no larger than 30 kb. Do an image site search on Google to gauge the dimensions of your website’s images.

Many schools share different types of content to match the particular focus of each social network. The top Pinterest pins of 2013 were recipe ideas, fascinating travel destinations, and intriguing innovations in fashion and technology. Include the appropriate social sharing buttons and call-to-action to improve the odds that your instructional image becomes the next viral smash! Specifying the width and height dimensions can speed up page loading, using this social media image size cheat sheet as a guideline.

Remember that being more socially visible means higher search rankings, so try to encourage interaction by always asking to repin or share your positive posts, engaging with fun, creative or interesting image descriptions. Stay abreast of trending images, following and sharing the content of top influencers for a better chance of reciprocal benefits.

Preventing users from using your images on their site, or linking to your images, will free up your bandwidth, but you’ll also limit the potential audience for your images, reducing their discoverability by search engines. One solution is to allow image sharing, but require attribution and a link back to your own site.

Google suggests some examples to do this:

  • Make your images available under a license that requires attribution, such as a Creative Commons license that requires attribution.
  • Provide a HTML snippet that other people can use to embed your image on their page while providing attribution. This snippet can include both the link to the image and a link to the source page on your site.

Similarly, some people add copyright text, watermarks, or other information to their images. This kind of information won’t impact your image’s performance in search results, and does help photographers claim credit for their work and deter unknown usage. However, if a feature such as watermarking reduces the user-perceived quality of your image or your image’s thumbnail, users may click it less often in search results.

Images and video will continue to become more ubiquitous in social media marketing so the time is right to develop a content creation, curation and distribution strategy. Decide if one of the new chat apps or visual platforms make sense for your school and start optimizing your images for sharing!

How has your school leveraged the power of images?