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20. Case Study: Visual Communication

Visual Communication in 140 Characters?

Twitter is a text-based platform, which creates a challenge for visual communicators who wish to manage conversations and build relationships through Twitter. In this chapter, I focus on these questions:

Image Credit: Minigeek by Oliver Widder

Image Credit: Minigeek by Oliver Widder

A- How do visual communicators represent their brands or organizations on Twitter?  Specifically, how do they customize their profile pages, the only visual representation opportunity on Twitter?

B- What is the tone of voice in their conversations on Twitter? What are they talking about and how do they balance their personal and corporate identities?

In answering these questions, I examine in-depth how three organizations are using Twitter: @CreativeReview, @KodakCB and @lilipip.

Laying The Groundwork: What Is Visual Communication?

Visual communication is the communication of ideas through the visual display of information or, in other words, it is creating meaning with visuals [1].

Since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, some have assumed that information is best communicated in written formats. Words are a wonderful form of communication, but creating meaning is not limited to words. “The most powerful, meaningful and culturally important messages are those that combine words and images,” according to  Paul Martin Lester [2]. The role of visual messages in communication is expanding because of easy-to-use digital technologies, which makes digital media an interesting field for visual communicators.

With the shift from analog to digital communication technologies, visual communication tools have become more accessible and more integrated into business communication. Information designer Tom Wujec explains in a talk on TED.com the we create meaning with visuals as a questioning process. When we look at an image, we make meaning by seeing, by an “act of visual interrogation” [3].  The act of making images meaningful has three components. First, we use images to clarify what we want to communicate. Then, we make those images interactive so that we engage more. And third, we augment memory by creating a visual persistence. Thus, visual communication is all about creating meanings and making ideas clear, interactive and persistent by visualizing them [3].

Visual communication is a multi-disciplinary field. It encompasses photography, video, cinema, TV, multi-media, animation, graphic design, illustration, typography, drawing, visual arts, advertising and other visually creative industries. By “visual communication” I am describing a field of study where a variety of images are created and/or distributed for business purposes.

Three Case Studies

I selected @CreativeReview, @KodakCB and @lilipip for my in-depth analysis because:

  • They represent different categories in the sector;
  • They represent different scales in business;
  • They represent different levels of personal integration in their conversations on Twitter;
  • They are active users of Twitter;
  • They are aware of social media in general, and they are leading in their categories; and
  • They listen to the Twitter conversation and respond (they quickly responded to my requests).

@CreativeReview
Creative Review
is a visual communication magazine (both printed and online) for professionals in graphic design, advertising, digital media, illustration, photography and all other fields of visual communication. Neil Ayres is the Web Director at Creative Review [5].

@KodakCB
Eastman Kodak Company (NYSE: EK) is a multinational US corporation which produces image as well as photographic materials and equipment. Long known for its wide range of photographic film products, Kodak focuses on two major markets: digital photography and digital printing” [6]. Jennifer Cisney is the Kodak Chief Blogger and Social Media Manager [7]. 

@lilipip
Lilipip
is a Seattle-based start-up that creates animated online marketing videos for small businesses [8].  Ksenia Oustiougova is the founder and CEO.

@CreativeReview @KodakCB @lilipip
Date Data Downloaded 7/20/2009 7/13/2009 8/4/2009
Industry sub-sector Magazine Digital Photography and Printing Animation
Followers 13333 10013 2892
Following 6368 9840 3169
Ratio followers 2 1 1
Number posts 818 3004 2665
Account created
2/23/2009 4/29/2008 5/13/2008

Chart: Profile Statistics

I examined six other profiles in this analysis:

Based on my research, in the visual communication field brands and organizations are using Twitter primarily for marketing and PR, brand awareness and reputation management.

For example, Jennifer Cinsey (@KodakCB) explained: “There are tweets about new product announcements, firmware upgrades, tips and tricks for using our products and examples of how others have used our products. There are also live tweets from events such as Celebrity Apprentice and the Oscars!”

Neil Ayres (@CreativeReview) integrates Twitter into Creative Review’s promotion activities. Ayres provided details: “We ran an event in June where we had a professional studio set up as a photobooth. Images from this were uploaded to Flickr at the event and links to the set tweeted. Our conferences team has a separate Twitter account, @Click09, set up to promote our digital conference in NY, London and Singapore. These have far fewer followers than our main account, and probably work better being assumed by this.”

Visual Representation: Profile Page Analysis

When users visit a profile page, they get an eyeful. An avatar, bio, latest tweets and a background [9].  It is optional to have a custom avatar, bio and background image on Twitter, which presents the opportunity to express your identity and differentiate yourself from others.

The profile background image is not clickable nor is any information on the image accessible to non-sighted visitors. Also, visitors cannot scroll the background image. Designers don’t know the monitor resolution of visitors or how “open” they have set their browsers. Therefore, not only is there is a limited field to present identity both visually and textually, designers have to make assumptions about how much of their background image will be visible. These constraints force hard decisions about what to include on a background image.

Then there is the account avatar. Brands and organizations are in a dilemma as to whether to use the corporate logo or pictures of their social media representatives. This is a natural result of the transition period from traditional media to social media. The logo is a representation of brand identity while social media presence requires human representation. According to the Cluetrain Manifesto, “Corporate firewalls have kept smart employees in and smart markets out. It’s going to cause real pain to tear those walls down. But the result will be a new kind of conversation. And it will be the most exciting conversation business has ever engaged in” [10]. Logos don’t have conversations, people do.

Through my analysis I put myself in the viewer’s shoes. As a viewer I didn’t expect to see perfect and professionally designed background images on Twitter. Social media is about building one-on-one relationships, and human identity is important to brand identity. That is why I prefer to see the image of the representative on the avatar as a social media user/contributor. Our face is one of the best representations of our identity in both the physical and the online world.

Therefore I set the success factor as the representation of brand and human identities in both visual and verbal communication; in other words, a synthesis of brand identity and the identity of the person who is managing the conversation is a success factor in this analysis. The ‘marketing brochure’ tone of voice is not in coherence with the human characteristics of social media [10].

First up, @Creative Review:

screenshot captured on July 20, 2009 by @filizefe

screenshot captured on July 20, 2009 by @filizefe

Background: The custom background represents the identity of the organization well. The related fields and company’s web address are mentioned on the background image, which helps to augment the viewer’s memory visually, but remember that a background image is not clickable. That means the text has to be very easy to read; in this case, the background image re-interprets the navigation for the magazine website, turning it into keywords that hint at the type of tweets to expect from the account.

Avatar: The human representation is poor; using the company logo as the avatar puts distance between the brand and Twitter visitors. Although using the logo is not wrong, a team/representative avatar could be more human, more “social” and “twitterlike.” Creative Review social media representative Neil Ayres explains the choice of logo: “My identity is not secret, nor is it promoted particularly. We use the magazine brand, which carries more weight than me, as our identity.” And yet the tweets are clearly written by a person; this isn’t the RSS-feed stream one associates with a logo.

Bio: “The best in visual communication” Although the background is self-explanatory, it is not verbally supported in the bio section, which is extremely important in order for the profile to be accessible via search. (@CreativeReview rewrote their bio after our suggestions.)

Next, @KodakCB

screenshot captured on Jul 13, 2009 by @filizefe

screenshot captured on Jul 13, 2009 by @filizefe

Background: The company logo is prominant in the background image. Colorful photographic images appear randomly on the left; there is also a simplified social media web address. @KodakCB’s profile background is a simple, yet smart design.

Avatar: Kodak shows the smiling face of their social media representative, Jennifer Cisney, as the company face. This immediately gives a warm effect, a human touch to the profile. It is an ordinary and casual profile picture, possibly captured by a point-and-shoot camera and framed arbitrarily. The ordinary look (hair style, no heavy make-up) of the representative encourages potential conversation with their followers. However, the logo is part of the avatar as well.

Bio: “Jennifer Cisney – Kodak’s Chief Blogger and Social Media Manager. Design Geek. Photography Nut. Check out kodak.com/go/followus”. It’s clear that this is a person speaking, reflecting the human face of the corporate identity. Cisney reveals her character, and the topics that she’ll be tweeting, with clues like “Design geek” and “Photography nut.” Social media means interpersonal communication and with this profile Kodak seems to be on the right track.

And finally, @lilipip

screenshot captured on Aug 04, 2009 by @filizefe

screenshot captured on Aug 04, 2009 by @filizefe

Background: The customized background of @lilipip reflects both features of the brand and the personal identities. Although I find it too minimalistic, this background demonstrates how simply it can be to create a custom profile background.

Avatar: The avatar as a representation of identity and social media presence requires human representative. @lilipip perfectly fulfills this definition. The profile is represented by Ksenia Oustiougova using artistic lighting and an infinite white/transparent background. The light source provides a fresh, positive and confident feeling. The infinite/white transparent background is coherent with the simplicity of the general background.

Bio: “Founder and CEO of http://www.lilipip.com, mom, entrepreneur, animation lover. Follow our team @Lilipip_Team.” Excellent combination of business and personal identities. This Bio gives the significant business information with a soft touch of personal characteristics.

B- TONE OF CONVERSATION: Tweet & Interview Analysis

In this verbal section of my analysis, I examined 100 tweets per each profile. I also held an in-depth interview with each of my three profile representatives, where I received detailed explanations about their personal and social attitude on Twitter: Neil Ayres from Creative Review, Jennifer Cisney from Kodak and Ksenia Oustiougova from Lilipip. There are common denominators between these three profiles:

@CreativeReview @KodakCB @Lilipip
WHY started Twitter? To promote blog To build 1:1 comm To promote blog
Other Social Media facebook, Flickr, YouTube, MySpace, facebook,  Flickr, YouTube facebook, Vimeo, YouTube, Biznik,
WHY to follow? -good source for sector news -good source for sector news -good source for sector news
– Subscriptions -Promotional surprises
-Customer Service -Customer Service
WHO do they follow? Anyone relevant to the sector (unless it’s a robot) Anyone who follows them (unless it’s inappropriate) Anyone who has something worthwhile to say (unless it’s a robot)
Auto-Tweets NO NO NO
Success Measure qualitative qualitative qualitative
Favorite @zappos @zappos

Chart: In-depth Interview Findings

@CreativeReview, @KodakCB and @lilipip all started Twitter to enhance one-on-one communication and/or promote their blogs. They all have representations on other social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Flickr/Vimeo. They all endeavor to create and post good source for sector news. Relatively bigger-scale companies are more active on customer services and promotion.

They show differences in their criteria for following people: While @CreativeReview is following anyone relevant to the sector, @lilipip expands the criteria by following anyone who has something worthwhile to say and @KodakCB is following anyone who follows them unless it is inappropriate. This shows that relatively bigger-scale companies are less selective in who they follow.

They all have never used auto-tweet and they all try to stay away from robot Twitter profiles. They even measure their success by using qualitative methods.

Both @KodakCB and @lilipip favorited @zappos on Twitter.

I examined the types of tweets in four categories in an attempt to better understand the overall tone of the conversation: Marketing/PR, Sector Links, Replies and Personal. Although there is not a clear distinction between these types of posts, this analysis reflects the general tone of the voices of these profiles’ use of Twitter.

Marketing/PR

Marketing/PR tweets either carry a marketing or public relations message or link to the corporate website to increase traffic. I put the broadcast style tweets under this category. These tweets are more like press bulletins or advertisements. The following tweet is a typical example of marketing post.

kodak_marketing_tweet

by @KodakCB

On one hand, relatively bigger-scale companies create social media guidelines with the marketing communications teams. They use Twitter as one of their marketing communication channels. Jennifer Cinsey (@KodakCB) mentioned in our interview that Kodak’s marketing and social media teams are working in co-operation. “Our social media team is always actively involved in our marketing communications activities. We have a seat at the table as we plan campaigns and discuss product marketing needs. That way, we can add strategic value from the beginning.” (@KodakCB Interview)

Also, Neil Ayres (@CreativeReview) integrates Twitter into Creative Review’s overall marketing plans. He mentioned in our interview “I promote the print magazine and subs benefits of our website through Twitter and we have arranged a couple of Twitter-only offers” (@CreativeReview Interview)

On the other hand, Ksenia Oustiougova (@lilipip) runs her company’s Twitter account and use Twitter in a more spontaneous way. She mentioned that “There is no plan, or integration – Twitter is simply a window into our company’s soul, without any planning behind it. If there would be planning, it would be inauthentic.” (@lilipip interview)

Sector Links

These tweets either give resource links or interesting news related to the sector.

by @CreativeReview

by @CreativeReview

by @lilipip

by @lilipip

Replies

Replies/Mentions and/or Retweets reflect the one-on-one communication. Although it might be a part of a marketing/PR strategy, I take replies as a different category than marketing/pr because they are unique and they are not automated feeds from the site.

by @CreativeReview

by @CreativeReview

Creative Review in this tweet achieves two purposes in one post. While responding a tweet, they are also directing to the corporate website, which is a successful implementation of conversation in one-on-one marketing.

by @lilipip

by @lilipip

Lilipip, in above tweet demonstrates a great example of building community; she not only replies, but also recommends a new member on Twitter.

Personal/Humanness:

These tweets contain personal information/humanness about the profile representative.

Following tweet is one of the greatest examples for humanness. Kodak achieves a good balance of corporate and personal conversation. The tone of the communication is human and conversational. Jennifer Cinsey combines her comments and feelings with the sector links in her tweets. She is not talking about her private life but giving the humanness appropriately to Kodak’s corporate communication.

by @KodakCB

by @KodakCB

Also, Jennifer Cisney (@KodakCB) mentioned in our interview that she tweets just like she talks: “Personally, I tweet just like I talk…we try to keep our tone very conversational.” (@KodakCB Interview)

Ksenia Oustiougova (@lilipip) prefers a more personal tone in her Twitter communication. She points out they didn’t develop a Twitter voice and includes “I am just being myself, and everyone is being instructed to do the same – be themselves.” (@lilipip interview).

by @lilipip

by @lilipip

tweet_analysis_chart

*Analysis contains 100 tweets per profile

@CreativeReview

@CreativeReview

@KodakCB

@KodakCB

@lilipip

@lilipip

@CreativeReview weighs on the corporate tone in their conversation on Twitter, where @lilipip prefers more one-on-one interaction and gives more clues about her personal life. @KodakCB keeps a personal yet corporate tone in their conversation by including personal comments in most of their sector related posts. Following chart is my overall idea regarding the tone of conversations of these profiles.

In conclusion, although they operate in different scales in business, @CreativeReview, @KodakCB and @lilipip manage successful conversations and build good relationships through Twitter.  They put an effort to maintain their authenticity in their tone of voice and visual representation of their brands on their profile pages, weighing either on the corporate or the personal side.

End Notes

[1] Griffin, M.  (2008). Visual Communication. In The International Encyclopedia of Communication, Donsbach, Wolfgang (ed). Blackwell Publishing. Retrieved on 02 August 2009 from http://www.blackwellreference.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/subscriber/tocnode?id=g9781405131995_chunk_g978140513199527_ss17-1

The International Encyclopedia of Communication defines visual communication as: “The study of visual communication comprises such wide-reaching and voluminous literatures as art history, the philosophy of art and aesthetics,  semiotics,  cinema studies,  television and mass media studies, the history and theory of  Photography, the history and theory of  graphic design and  typography, the study of word–image relationships in literary, aesthetic, and rhetorical theory ( Rhetorical Studies), the development and use of charts, diagrams,  cartography and questions of geographic visualization (images of place and space), the physiology and psychology of visual  Perception, the impact of new visual technologies (including the impact of digitalization and the construction of “virtual realities”;  Digital Imagery), growing concerns with the concept and/or acquisition of “visual literacy,” and the boundless social and cultural issues embedded in practices of  visual representation.”

[2] Lester, P.M. (2005). Visual communication: images with messages, 4th edition. Retrieved on Aug. 14, 2009 from http://books.google.com/books?id=6oibH9roTmkC&dq=visual+communications+Paul+Martin+Lester&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=hI-PSr71KoWQsgPymc0L&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4#v=onepage&q=&f=false

[3] Wujec, T. (Jul 2009). 3 ways the brain creates meaning. TED Talk (video). Retrieved on Aug. 14, 2009 from http://www.ted.com/talks/tom_wujec_on_3_ways_the_brain_creates_meaning.html

[4] Griffin, M.  (2008). Visual Communication. The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Donsbach, Wolfgang (ed). Blackwell Publishing. Blackwell Reference Online. Retrieved on 02 August 2009 from http://www.blackwellreference.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/subscriber/tocnode?id=g9781405131995_chunk_g978140513199527_ss17-1

[5] Creative Review Official Website http://creativereview.co.uk/about

[6] Eastman Kodak in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastman_Kodak

[7] Kodak blog by Jennifer Cisney http://jennycisney.1000words.kodak.com/

[8] Lilipip Official Website http://www.lilipip.com/about/

[9] O’Reilly, T. and Milstein, S. (2009). The Twitter Book, pg. 177. O’Reilly Media

[10] Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger. (2001). The Cluetrain Manifesto:The End of Business as Usual. Retrieved on Aug 22, 2009 from http://www.cluetrain.com/book/95-theses.html

Image Credit: Minigeek by Oliver Widder – http://geekandpoke.typepad.com/geekandpoke/2009/08/minigeek-1.html

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