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The big picture: using images in social media

Guidelines for social media success

In the world of social media, images are worth a thousand words. That idea kicked off a presentation by Stephanie Hatch on "The Best Uses of Images in Social Media." Hatch is the social media and email marketing specialist in MIT's Communication Production Services.

Hatch used her forum to "get the hamster wheel turning" about effective ways to use images in social media. This article aims to do the same by highlighting some of her key points.

Why Images Are Important
First, to be clear, photos are not the only images. Other examples include drawings, infographics, charts, historical prints, postcards and even text when designed as an image.

Whatever type of image you use, it's a fact that posts with images get more responses — more likes, comments and shares. Hatch recently tallied a month of posts on the MIT Facebook page, ranked from most- to least-talked about. Of the top 20 posts, 70 percent had photos. Similarly, on Facebook, the engagement rate is 37% higher for posts with images.

In addition to their visual impact, images take up more space in viewers' news feeds. This increases the odds of a post getting noticed, especially on mobile phones with their smaller screens. What's more, studies show that people are more likely to remember the content of a post when it's accompanied by a striking image. And sometimes images convey concepts better than any text can.

Images are also important when it comes to integrating your web presence with your social media efforts. If you create a Facebook post using the URL of a webpage that includes an image, that image will show up as a thumbnail in the post. For even more impact, you can upload the image first, where it will display at a larger size, and then add descriptive copy and a URL in the "Say something about this…" section. (Hatch recommends that you shorten URLs using a service like bitly or Another reason for images on your web pages: you won't be able to pin an item on the popular social media site, Pinterest, if the web page doesn't include an image.

Boosting Response Rates
Effective images evoke responses from viewers. That's the goal. Hatch notes that there are three types of responses:
  • Emotional: Images can elicit any of a range of feelings, from awe to amusement to sadness. The emotion doesn't have to be positive to create a connection.
  • Mental: An image can make its mark by challenging, instructing or informing.
  • Social: People tuned in to trends and memes, who have a pop-culture awareness, may respond to images that play on that awareness. Social responses can also be cultural: an image that speaks to a Finnish audience won't necessarily resonate with Fijians.
Think about the response you want, given the audience you're likely to reach. You can always ask colleagues or friends for their reactions to an image before you post it.

Keep in mind that many viewers are accustomed to picture-perfect photos, so this genre doesn't pack as much punch as you might think. Eye-catching photos are often shot from an unusual vantage point; for example, while standing on a chair or lying on the ground.

When an unusual angle isn't an option, Hatch recommends focusing on a detail instead — for example, take a shot of an oscilloscope in a lab rather than a photo of the whole lab. Photos that focus on details can be intriguing and fun.

Telling Stories
Sometimes you may have an image you want to use, but it doesn't tell a story by itself. Say it's a photo of a crowd of people sitting in chairs in Killian Court. By adding a caption (e.g., Welcome Class of 2016), the story gets told.

Attractively designed text — taken from a poster or postcard — can also tell a story. In Facebook, for example, you can't add rich text format to typed content. However, if you turn text into an image, you can make the post visually compelling.

One ingenious way to turn text into an image is through the website Quozio. Type in a quotation and the name of the person who said it — or just enter text. You can then choose from multiple styles (with assorted backgrounds and fonts) to create an image for use in social media.

Another social media strategy is to use a series of images to tell a story. Hatch highlighted two examples: This year Boston University's Facebook page has been featuring the "BU 365" series. Every day of the year, BU posts a historical photo from its archives taken on that day. Brown University's "Scene by you" series is a crowdsourced collection of photos taken by the Brown community and uploaded to Instagram using the #BrownUniversity hashtag. It's a great instance of user-generated content.

More to the Story
Hatch covered many other topics in her presentation, including principles of photography as they relate to social media and advice about how and where to post. She provided a quick tour (with tech specs) of Pinterest, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

You can get a summary version of Hatch's talk by viewing her slides — posted using SlideShare — on the MIT Communicators Toolkit. And there's even a sidebar bonus. Each section of her three-part presentation offers a column on the right of related slide shows. That hamster wheel keeps on turning...

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