We’re in a brave new world of communications, where online tools make it possible to test images quickly and inexpensively.
You may recall this case study from the printed visual communications guide. Almost two years ago Resource Media began working with the Power Past Coal campaign to block the export of Powder River Basin coal from ports in the Pacific Northwest.
. As with most major, long-term campaigns,we hired an opinion research firm at the outset to test messages to see what resonated with folks in port communities. We also did something that many campaigns overlook: we tested visuals. In the focus groups, we introduced the verbal messages first. And, no surprise, most of the locals initially supported the proposal to export coal from Longview because of the promise of jobs and their impression that the process of moving and storing coal would be a clean, high-tech process, with enclosed coal trains and modern, sealed terminal facilities.
But, then we showed them pictures. They saw open rail cars.
They saw coal dust coating the surrounding area.And they proceeded to change their minds.Because of the pictures, not the compelling messages we presented them…
The lead public opinion researcher Dave Metz wrote to us in his analysis of the focus groups, “It is impossible to overstate how effective these images were in building opposition to the project.” Awhile ago, one of the field organizers sent an email saying, “Visual content is king!” not the old “Content is king” mantra.
The lessons from those focus groups have helped to inform our visual strategy throughout the campaign.
But we have used tools like Facebook ads to continue refining our strategy. I’ll talk more about how we did that in a bit.
Consider this image. Does it make you want to fight coal? Why or why not?
How about this one? We didn’t have to guess, or rely on a focus group of three communications staffers. We have tested over time to learn what moves our supporters.
And that is the beauty of the digital age: real time feedback.
Back when I started my career at the Trust for Public Land, we’d send direct mail or a newsletter and wait weeks to see how many checks came in.
Now, within an hour of sending an email, I can see how many people are clicking, sharing, and how it compares to past messages.
All this information can be overwhelming, so I’ll talk about how to sort through it and focus on what’s actionable.
The key is to first get clear on what you hope the data will do for you.
And that means you need to have clear goals for your campaign. Is it about awareness, action, fundraising?
We know photos work. Science has confirmed it, and so has our own experiences. This is an image that made the rounds at Resource Media. It’s from a photo essay on fracking by Nina Berman that ran in Slate Magazine. She spent weeks in rural Pennsylvania and said her overwhelming impression was that people felt trapped, so she wanted to capture that emotion.
Consider this photo, from GetEQUAL. It also shows emotion. And these are the photos that tend to perform best on Facebook.
Image posts reach far more people than links, videos, or other updates. They catch our eye and make us want to share.
Tweets with image links have twice the engagement as tweets without (according to research from Buddy Media). This is the most tweeted photo of all time. Again, look at the emotion.
There are a slough of new social media platforms that are entirely visual, and they are growing by leaps and bounds. Pinterest: drives more web traffic than LinkedIn, Google+ and YouTube combined.
A lot of our partners have platform overwhelm. They worry they need to be everywhere at once. Not so. It comes back to goals. Figure out who you want to reach and what you want them to do, and then focus your efforts accordingly.
Here’s how a nonprofit’s online ecosystem should work together. The social platforms are like on-ramps that route people to the website for more information and email capture. Email is the best tool to drive action or fundraising.
And email, as well as social media platforms, provide a low risk place to test different kinds of content to see what works best.
Here are the three image testing opportunities I’ll discuss today.
A couple disclaimers: if your click through rates are in the low single digits, like most nonprofits, you may not get statistically significant results. That means you need to repeat the tests several times and interpret the body of results together.
It also means you need a clear hypothesis. Science suggests this adorable girl, looking right at the camera, should get our attention. But our testing showed that the coal dust images were actually more effective than people.
Some other hypothesis we’re currently testing: are positive images more effective than negative ones?
Overall, studies suggest that positive content is shared more frequently.
But, we know that, in the wake of disasters, the problem photos are incredibly effective. Like this oiled bird photo.
Or this one from Hurricane Sandy.
However, the Red Cross, which definitely tests images, has also used a lot of these solution photos showing what your money buys in terms of relief efforts: a family in a shelter, warm and dry.
Another question we like to test: people versus scenery and animals.
And text overlay.
Finally, we can test photo size and placement. You may have noticed if you’re on the list for Change.org or another petition site that photos are getting larger—that’s because the larger photos translate into more engagement.
The Obama campaign famously tested everything. And, in this fundraising appeal, a change in photo resulted in 19% more revenue. You are unlikely to get that kind of result unless you have millions of people on your list and an incredibly urgent cause.
So, let’s start by discussing ways to test images in email.
Our supporters have email overload. The e-nonprofits benchmark report shows that open and click through rates are on the decline.
And, as more people are buying smartphones, more emails are being skimmed and deleted before they are ever opened on a computer.
A good email makes you want to read it immediately upon opening because it has good design, not too much text, and engaging photos or graphics.
Consider this petition about chemicals in dairy products. Adorable little boy drinking milk.
Versus this chicken factory. Do you think the gross out and shock value would generate more signatures than the cute kid?
Here are two petitions about food policy. Which one do you think is more effective and why?
The good news is that we don’t have to guess. We can test. A/B or split tests are where you choose one variable to test and keep everything else the same.
You can test: Subject linesSender nameTime and dayCopyCall to actionImage
Next, Facebook. How many of you are on Facebook?
You’ve probably noticed these ads along the right side of your newsfeed. How many have purchased ads on Facebook?
They’re remarkable inexpensive—you could budget $200 and spend about 25-50 cents per new “like”—and allow you to easily test headlines or images side by side to see which generate the most clicks. The nice thing is that you can also be super targeted, so you can test how images play with middle aged parents that camp around Minneapolis, for instance.
We have used Facebook ads for several campaigns. And we also tend to study the engagement with Facebook posts to learn what gets our community clicking the like, comment and share buttons.
You can see which posts perform best in Facebook insights.
Across Facebook, these text over photo memes are getting a lot of traction. The nice thing is that you don’t have to read the introductory text or be connected to the organization that posted to understand what it’s getting at. The message is self contained.
Here’s an example from Appalachia Rising that got thousands of shares. It has more text than we’d recommend—in fact more than Facebook policy allows—but it worked. And that’s why you have to test. Because your gut is not a reliable predictor of success.
Finally, I want to talk about website A/B testing. I’ll focus on Take Action or Donate pages, because those have measurable results. The visitor either sends the letter, signs your petition, donates money, or they don’t.
Again, here’s an example from Obama. They found a larger image and simpler form raised more money.
The easiest way to conduct website A/B testing if you don’t use an advocacy platform like Salsa is with Optimizely. It’s affordable, and doesn’t require technical skills to create the tests, although you will need technical skills to implement the resulting lessons.
Modest changes to landing pages can make a huge difference. What comes after someone signs a petition? The share with a friend page. And a new service called Share Progress helped groups optimize it to maximize the people who choose to email, Facebook or tweet about the cause. Sierra Club has had tremendous results.
So, a quick review of testing tips.
If you are looking for more goodies, check out visualstorylab.org.On there, you’ll find a number of resources that hopefully will assist you in your visual communications:There’s how-to’s for:testing photos on facebookoptimizing flickr albumsGuidelines for creating shareworthy infographics
Visual Storytelling 202: How to test images online
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