Rio Olympics: a new test for the visual web?

Posted on August 9, 2016 by Xenia Kingsley

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the public web. While that fact alone may make those of us old enough to remember 1991 feel slightly ancient, bear in mind that this also means just over 30% of the UK population has never experienced a world without the internet.

Despite the World Wide Web launching a quarter of a century ago, the first image wasn’t actually uploaded until a full year later. Now, almost 1,000 photos are uploaded – just to Instagram – every second. The web has become truly visual. Thanks to smart phones, we take a staggering amount of pictures – more than 1.2 trillion every year.

But what’s this obsession all about? Technology has enabled us to both produce and consume more images than in the whole of human history, but there's more to it than that. Ninety per cent of information transmitted to the brain is visual. It’s evolutionary. We are genetically wired to respond to visual stimuli and identify patterns quickly as a matter of survival. The brain processes visual information 60,000 times faster than text – it's called the Picture Superiority Effect and it helped our ancestors escape from predators.

I bet you a fiver you took a moment to check out this fearsome lion before you read this sentence!

And of course, a lot of brands have caught on to this – back in 2013, Nestlé Purina reported that it was creating 1,500 pieces of content every day, most of which was visual (imagine how much that stat has increased by in three years).

But visual content for visual content's sake has little value. Buzzfeed has become synonymous with image-heavy articles (or 'gifsticles'), though the danger with content of this type is that it often treads a fine line between 'snackable' quality content and internet junk food.

As marketers, we need to know the difference between what's hot and what's useful – what's innovative, and what's jumping on the bandwagon.

The Rio Olympics will be an interesting test for the visual web, with the International Olympic Committee banning news outlets from using short videos or gifs of The Games in their coverage. The Guardian has chosen to go all in on data visualisations, while the BBC and Financial Times (in partnership with Google) have invested heavily in VR and 360 degree videos. Does the Beeb and the FT's confidence indicate that these formats are more than just passing fads, or will 360 videos be Rio's equivalent to 3D in 2012 (a lot of hype and subsequent flop)? Whatever the case, with the ongoing feature battle between Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram ramping up this month, it's clear that the consumer demand for visual innovation is only set to increase.

It doesn't matter that we work in B2B – we are all fundamentally visual creatures, and marketers who forget that are missing a trick.

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