Why your preview image matters as much as the headline

Visual storytelling extends to selection of a photo or illustration that conveys to clickbait-weary readers the substance of your content. Here are seven tips for getting it right.

When we talk about native campaign performance, headlines tend to get all the attention.

The preview image, though, plays just as important a role in the reader’s decision whether to engage with brand content.

Compelling visuals have long been at the center of creating great social media content, which is all native—it matches the look and feel of the content around it. As advertising moves into feeds, images have become just as important for boosting engagement with native advertising in traditional (non-social-media) publisher platforms as well.

As with headlines, the art of a good preview image is becoming a science. Here are seven essentials to picking a successful preview image for your native campaign:

1. Be authentic. The goal is for readers to connect with content and to think a brand just gets them. Generally, that’s more likely to happen if readers feel they look like the people they see in photos. In other words: Use real people, not models. Know your demographic, and show you understand them.

2. Don’t make stock images the default. Stock images are a valuable resource when a brand doesn’t have assets for a specific campaign, but beware the photo that is not true to modern, real life. Does someone in the photo look a little too thrilled to be in a meeting, or as though he or she is dressed for an office circa 1980? You’re trying to create a brand experience to which people will relate, not a meme.

3. Avoid product shots. You don’t see a lot of Instagram photos of jars of tomato sauce. You do see a lot of Instagram photos of beautiful bowls of pasta with rich red sauce, a grating of cheese, and a bright green basil leaf; maybe even on a table surrounded by friends or family. Highlight the experience of the product, not just the product. The goal is to inspire positive associations and emotion. Images should also be hi-resolution and in eye-catching colors, to maintain the quality that readers expect from their trusted publishers.

4. Align with the headline to extend the story. If there’s a gap between the preview image and headline—regardless of how nice the image is—it’s a missed opportunity to provide insight into the content’s substance. Readers need that connection to engage; they’re tired of clickbait. Use the preview image to add dimension.

5. Honor the editorial context. If you’re running a native campaign across several content categories, make sure it applies to those placements to avoid looking spammy. Let’s say you have an auto campaign that is distributed not only to automotive publishers, but also to family and parenting verticals—maybe it’s a piece on teaching your teenager how to be a safe driver. A preview image with a parent handing over the keys will apply to both placements, but without that family element the story would look out of place among family and parenting content. Just make sure that there isn’t too much going on in the photo, as busy images are not cross-device friendly. Convey they substance, but keep it simple.

6. Establish seasonal relevance. Seasonal components establish why a piece of editorial content is relevant now. A preview image should similarly reinforce what’s meaningful to the reader when they discover the content, including the timing. That’s why you’ll soon see fashion and style preview images transition from people wearing light jackets and sweaters to down coats and knit hats (sigh).

7. Test, test, test. Good optimization strategies involve diligent A/B testing. Branded content is no different, affording you ample opportunities to test the elements that constitute the ad. Launching your native campaign with two preview images instead of one can boost the click-through rate (CTR) by nearly 20 percent, so take every opportunity to test and optimize. You will derive more meaningful insights if the two images are disparate, rather than comparing two versions of similar subject matter. Even with best practices there are countless variables affecting performance. You have no idea (nor control, unfortunately), over what else will appear in the news cycle or on a site while a campaign is live. Give yourself options to stand out in a publisher’s feed.

When brand managers and marketers talk about social media campaigns, there’s no confusion about the importance of visuals. It’s time to expand that thinking into native campaigns.

Social media campaigns are native, after all: They match the look and feel of surrounding content. As advertising continues to move into feeds to go where the consumer’s attention is, images are crucial to driving engagement on traditional publisher platforms, as well.

Still fixated on headlines? Well, here’s one: Let’s give preview images the attention they deserve.

As the idiom goes, a picture’s worth a thousand words, but it’s the resulting campaign performance that’ll really speak volumes.

Sarah Mandato is director of content solutions at Nativo. A version of this article first appeared on iMediaConnection.


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