A thousand words is worth a picture

Will the Dalai Lama and Bill Gates encourage you to join Twitter?Bill Gates and the Dalai Lama have something in common – they both joined Twitter in the same year. But will seeing their picture here encourage you also to join? The chances are, it will not. Indeed, knowing that there are thousands of celebrities who are on Twitter is of little or no consequence to most people – unless they can see some connection between themselves and what those celebs are doing online.

Often, web pages will include pictures, such as the one accompanying this article, to provide some visual interest. Indeed, how often have you heard the tired old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Well, new research from American psychologists suggests that all is not what it seems when it comes to looking at pictures on web pages.

The study looked at individuals who were fed up with their own body shape and it showed them two kinds of online magazine – one with adverts containing pictures of people who had the desirable body shape but no accompanying articles on the subject and another with the same adverts accompanied by articles relating to body image. The pictures which were not associated with text on the same topic did not get looked at for anything like the amount of time as the same images when accompanied by related text. In other words, it was the text which stimulated the  viewing of the pictures – not the other way round.

This is important, it suggests that people do not use pictures to make them read something, but that the text makes them look at the pictures. It also implies that people take into account “the whole” rather than individual aspects of a web page. So, in terms of design, for instance, you may have a page of testimonials and accompanying pictures or logos of clients. But merely having the logo of a big, impressive firm is not enough it would appear. You need also to have accompanying text which explains how what you did for that firm could be done for other people. It is, as ever, back to the “what’s in it for me” aspect of your website. Having pictures which convey connections between your business and what you do is fine, but this new study implies those pictures will only get looked at – and thereby have impact – if the surrounding text is about what your readers are really, personally interested in. So, for instance, testimonials alone are not enough – they need to explain what can be done for the reader.

Interestingly, this study about the lack of connection with web pictures follows a study I wrote about a year ago which showed that text provides a greater cognitive benefit than pictures because people often misinterpret the intended message from pictures. So, if your web designer is steering you towards more imagery on your website you need to ask the following question: what text will accompany that picture and how focused will that text be on what the reader wants? If you get the answer “a picture is worth a thousand words” choose another web designer, because evidence is mounting that this is not the simple truth we once thought it was.

Oh – and the picture of the Dalai Lama and Bill Gates? I doubt you really looked at it for very long because there is no personal connection to you and what you can achieve for your online business. Case proven m’lord.

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