In today's digital marketing landscape, many marketers still downplay the importance of images. In a recent survey by Venngage covering hundreds of marketers, fully 31% of respondents did not agree that visuals are "very important or an absolute necessity" for their marketing strategy, and just 56% said they used visuals in every piece of content they publish.

Yet decades' worth of scientific research consistently demonstrates that people are much better at remembering pictures than words. Recognition memory tests dating back to the 1950s found that people are able to correctly identify 98% of images they've seen before, compared with just 88% of sentences and 90% of words.

Visuals might just be the most important—and most neglected—marketing tool we have.

Are 600 Pictures More Memorable Than 600 Words?

In the 1950s, psychologist Roger Shepard used recognition memory trials to test subjects' recall of words, sentences, and images. He showed participants 600 words, 600 sentences, or 600 pictures and then tested their recall of the stimuli they had seen. He would show the "old" word, sentence, or picture next to one that subjecst hadn't seen before, and ask them to identify which they had already seen. Though participants demonstrated strong recognition of words and phrases (90% and 88%, respectively, as noted above) image recall at 98% was off the charts.

Since the publication of Shepard's paper, studies have consistently demonstrated that subjects recall pictures better than words or phrases. Brain-mapping research suggests that more effective and automatic engagement of areas important for visual memory, such as the medial temporal cortex, may be responsible for our superior visual memory—why it's easier for us to recall something we've seen than something we've read.

And that isn't surprising. In the grand scheme of human history, mass literacy—or even just literacy—is a relatively recent phenomenon. "From an evolutionary perspective, the ability to remember various aspects of one's visual environment must be vital for survival, so it is not surprising that memory for pictorial material is particularly well developed," according to researchers from the University of Toronto.

For thousands of years before the written word, our ancestors' existence depended on their visual memory.

The Power of Human Visual Memory

Our visual memory is vast. A groundbreaking study in the 1970s showed that participants were able to recall 10,000 distinct images with 80% accuracy. But our image recall is not only deep, it's also detailed.

More recent research has shown that even when people are shown many similar images—such as scenes of golf courses or amusement parks—they are able to distinguish between what they have and haven't seen before with 96% accuracy.

The clear implication for marketers is that in order to be memorable, you need to create visual-first experiences.

Be More Memorable With Visual-First Marketing Experiences

Pair information with images for maximum impact

Adding a visual to text helps improve peoples' memory of the text. As Dr. John Medina reports in his book Brain Rules, only 10% of people typically recall a piece of information when quizzed three days after learning it, but that figure jumps to 65% when the information is accompanied by an image.

When publishing a piece of content, think about the ways you can use visuals to help illustrate the information you want to communicate.

Make your images meaningful

But the content of the image matters, too. In eye-tracking studies, consultancy NN Group found that users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but ignore filler images used to "jazz up" webpages—frequently stock photos that have only a tenuous association with the topic at hand.

Yet 40% of marketers surveyed by Venngage said they used stock photography most frequently, more than original graphics, videos, gifs, etc. Relying too heavily on stock can sabotage the visual impact of your content—even more so because many companies draw from the same few stock libraries, making images appear repetitive and irrelevant.

For maximum impact, select visuals thoughtfully and opt for original photos, illustrations, or data visualizations whenever possible. If you're working with a tight budget, sourcing images in-house or through a custom stock provider is an affordable alternative to a traditional photographer or agency.

Think multisensory

A recent University of Iowa study found that visual memory could be strengthened further by pairing visual experience with tactile ones. For instance, foreign-language learners are more likely to remember a new vocabulary word—say "apple"—if they not only hear the word and see the object but also touch it with their hands.

But these multisensory experiences are not limited to the physical world. Researchers found that digital experiences, such as videos and interactive graphics, also strengthen visual cues and improve visual memory. By strategically referencing multiple senses at once, you can make your message more memorable to your audience.

* * *

Human memory evolved specifically for processing and storing visual information. Yet nearly half of marketers are sabotaging themselves by not prioritizing visual content. If you want to improve engagement with your audience—and, ultimately, make your brand more memorable—the science is clear: Visuals are nonnegotiable.

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Why a Picture Really Is Worth a Thousand Words According to Neuroscience

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image of Chad Newell

Chad Newell is a co-founder and the CEO of Snapwire, and on-demand photo and video assignment marketplace connecting 800,000 visual creators with businesses, brands, and image buyers worldwide.

LinkedIn: Chad Newell