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FEATURE18 May 2017

The new visual language of consumers

Big Data Opinion Trends

As consumer language shifts from words to images, the research industry must become visually literate, says Nick Gadsby.

In 2015 across Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, over 3 billion photos were shared every day. That’s over 1 trillion photos a year.

If every picture paints a thousand words, that would be over a quadrillion words (and that’s a lot of data). You get the picture.

There has been significant discussion in our industry about data, generally focused on how big it is, but here I want to focus on the form of the data we use. Historically our industry has prioritised textual (including numerical) data. Even when we collect audio and video data it is invariably transcribed and transformed into text.

The introduction of social media data hasn’t changed this habit much; the tendency to focus analysis on words or numbers at the expense of images remains. One thing is clear, however: consumers are turning to images and their communication is becoming more visual. One has only to look at the growth of social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, which are almost primarily devoted to the production and sharing of visual media. A recent study across nine different countries by the digital anthropology department at UCL demonstrated the multiplicity of ways social media is used across the globe, but one of the findings that was consistent across all field-sites, from England to India, from China to Brazil, was that language was becoming more visual.

Visual Language, then, is a global trend. By overlooking visual data, research will miss out on an incredibly rich source of insight. Images enable people to express feelings they might shy away from disclosing in words; they also capture contextual data that consumers don’t feel it’s necessary to share; and, unlike consumers, images do not suffer from poor recall.

More worryingly, as future generations, such as Gen Zers, become more reliant on visual communication, we may find ourselves completely unable to speak their language. At the same time as images are growing as a communicative medium, words appear to be on the wane. As consumer language simplifies and words succumb to abbreviation, there is an urgent need to start devoting more of our time to analysing and understanding the rich visual material consumers produce, and we must adopt formal methods for doing so.

So, how do we do this? It’s really rather simple. On social media, consumers create visual narratives about their lives that, using a combination of semiotics and linguistics, can be ‘read’ in a manner similar to the way we read text. The images people choose to share draw from a fixed range of visual genres that act like an alphabet.

The way images are arranged follow some simple syntactical rules. Consumers have quickly become adept at employing photographic techniques such as composition, filters, framing, and proximity and distance to convey meaning and feeling. Not only is visual language now a part of consumer life, it is also a source of new insights that our industry cannot afford to miss out on. Here are five reasons why:

Real Consumer Lives 

Verbal accounts of everyday life in social media often come off as trite and insubstantial, but images of the everyday lives of consumers are richer, deeper and tell a story. They capture the detail, meaning, emotions and reality of everyday life including contextual data – setting, occasion, time of day – that language misses out. Visual data provides an authentic window on consumer lives.

Brands are Stars 

In research it can sometimes be difficult to get consumers to voluntarily talk about brands, but in social media images, consumers enthusiastically show us the brands that are meaningful to them in highly expressive and creative ways. In fact there is an entire sub-genre of visual language dedicated to images of brands.

Visual Literacy is Bigger than Social Media 

Social media may be the home of visual language, but it’s a transferable skill that can be used in more conventional research methods, where image collection and sharing tasks can be framed as social media activities.

Debunking the ‘Social Signalling’ myth 

It’s high time research abandoned the outdated view that consumers’ decision-making and perceptions are individual actions. The evidence from both the hard and social sciences incontrovertibly demonstrates that they are shaped by internalised social norms and shared concepts and classifications. We are social animals; serial consumers and producers of social information. Social signalling is the norm – social media has just made it easier for consumers to do and easier for researchers to analyse.

A Never Ending Visual Story 

As with any social media listening, visual data can be tracked over time and scaled up to quantitative levels providing an ongoing window on the real lives of consumers and the role of brands in their lives.

Dr. Nick Gadsby is founder and principal of semiotics and cultural insight agency The Answer

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