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The four principles of visual storytelling and how to apply them to thought leadership campaigns

Emma Hicks

Research shows that 91% of B2B buyers prefer visual content, such as video, infographics and information design, to more traditional, text-based formats. But that has led some brands to show off their visual prowess at the expense of effective storytelling. We think there are ways for brands and marketers to excel at both.

Visual storytelling now seems to be a prerequisite in content marketing and thought leadership as we seek to connect with audiences on a deeper, more emotional level.

In B2C, the likes of National Geographic have been using visual creativity to communicate stories for years. And in news journalism, publishers including The Guardian, Reuters and the Financial Times are increasingly turning to on imaginative visual content to support its stories. Highly effective in increasing traffic and engagement, it was only a matter of time before visual storytelling seeped into B2B campaigns.

Visual storytelling is not about changing the look of your white papers, adding new colours to your brand identity, or doubling the number of stock images and bar charts you use.

It is about balancing a gripping narrative with innovative design and placing the audience at the centre. Here, we go back to basics with four key visual storytelling principles that will help you achieve this tricky balancing act.

“Visual storytelling takes complex ideas and abstract concepts and makes them simple and easy to understand.”

Emma Hicks, Head of Information Design, FT Longitude


1. Design from day one

In a previous blog, we said that there are three key ingredients for thought leadership: data, story and design. Without data, thought leadership can lack authority. Without a story, there is no narrative. Without design, it won’t capture attention and inspire audiences to engage.

The very best thought leadership campaigns are built around the audience journey, and that means thinking about design from the start. Eye-catching visuals that draw audiences in and make them want to read your content in full are just as important as a hard-hitting headline or snappy sub-heads. Great design will increase engagement and make your insight more consumable and, crucially, more shareable.

2. Design thinking puts your audience first

Is your mantra ‘audience first’? Or maybe it is ‘outside-in’, or ‘customer-centric’? Whichever one you use, they all mean the same thing: putting your buyers at the centre of what you do. That is design thinking.

So your thought leadership needs to be relevant to your target audience, with messaging that addresses their specific needs and challenges. And if is customisable and interactive, even better: this is a great way to encourage deeper engagement. If your research allows for it, consider creating tools such as comparative data visualisations and benchmarks, using industry- and role-specific data to provide audiences with tailored insights.

And think about who your audiences are. How do they consume content? What formats are likely to appeal most? How much of their time can they give you? And what are they most concerned about at the moment? What is top of their to-do list? Understand their needs, wants and consumption habits, and not only will your thought leadership cater to them, but it will also influence them at the right time and in the right way.

3. Be purposeful and make it simple

We all know that a picture paints a thousand words. But try not to get carried away: creative visuals should communicate with purpose, but also simplicity. Don’t design (or over-design) for the sake of it: use visual cues to elevate the story, instead of distracting from it with unnecessary complexity.

“Don’t create content for the sake of content.”

Áine Bryn, Partner and UK Marketing Leader, Mercer

The primary goal of visual storytelling is to help your audience understand the story and retain the information. You want your thought leadership to have impact and keep audiences engaged throughout, and by all means think how you can improve their understanding with interactive tools that aid the narrative – such as the ones we heard about above. But overloaded visuals risk overwhelming the story, and are likely to be counterproductive, so make sure you keep it simple.

4. You need inputs as much as outputs

Designing enticing campaign assets is exciting. After all, this is the ‘shop window’ for your campaign, and will influence whether audiences choose to make time for it. That means it is tempting to focus too heavily on these outputs, either with time or budget, and neglect what lies behind them: your data, your insights and your story.

These inputs need to be high quality. Otherwise, however good the design is, your final output will only be skin deep. The very best thought leadership programmes turn strong inputs into creative outputs. The principle is simple: if you put gold in, you might not necessarily get gold out, but you will stand a much better chance.

 – – –

Ultimately, you need to balance your time, budget and effort between your data, story and design. Not only will this reward you with a campaign that has more impact, but it will also make your audience more inclined to talk to you at the end of it.

For expert guidance on how to design high-impact campaigns that win hearts and minds, watch our on-demand webinar with FT Longitude’s Head of Information Design Emma Hicks: access here.

For helpful tips and practical advice on how to maximise creativity and increase engagement in your next campaign, access our Creativity Hacks here.

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About the author: Emma Hicks

Emma joined FT Longitude in 2019, bringing expertise and focus to our design offering. Emma oversees our design output across our campaigns, ensuring that creativity and design excellence is at the heart of what we do. Emma leads a team of skilled multi-disciplinary digital designers and is responsible for innovation, quality and product development.

Before joining FT Longitude, Emma ran a creative design studio and spent a number of years at select design agencies around London as a senior designer and creative director. Emma graduated from NTNU (in her native Norway), before completing a Masters degree in information design at the University of Reading.

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Emma Hicks, Longitude’s Head of Information Design, talks about how cutting-edge design techniques are now ensuring that content has an impact. Are you missing a trick?

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