Your Brain on Internet: Visual Content Marketing for a Plugged-In World

How Internet Affects the Brain

It can be hard to remember just how new the internet really is. But there’s a lot we still don’t know about its effect on our brains, and scientists don’t always agree on whether its impact has been summarily positive or negative. When it comes to visual content marketing, these studies are key. Marketers want to understand how a visual design is affecting their audiences — and how it can be even more engaging.

Here are 3 fascinating things scientists have learned about the effect of the internet on your brain, along with our recommendations for how you can apply this knowledge as you’re creating visual content.

Eye-Tracking & Visual Content Marketing

Eye-tracking studies can determine where the eye goes as a viewer peruses a web page. Such studies have been taking place for decades, and teach us a lot about how people interact with content.

First, viewers follow a surprisingly predictable pattern in the shape of an F. That is, they start by reading left to right across the top of a page, then begin to scan downward. As they read down, their horizontal eye movement from left to right decreases, and they stick more and more to the left margin. Here’s a heat map of eye movement from UseIt.com:

Heat map of eye tracking on internet

This can teach us a lot about where to place the most important information in a piece of visual content. Calls-to-action and the most compelling information — that is, what’s most likely to make them keep reading — should fall within this space. Keep this in mind next time you design an infographic or other static piece of visual content. The header area and the first sections will be key in determining whether they’ll keep reading. After that, you’re more likely to lose their attention.

People do break this pattern if they have a particular goal, such as finding a specific piece of information. So make sure to set expectations early about the topic or theme of your infographic. That way, they’ll step out of usual patterns in order to find what they’re looking for.

No matter what, though, include some kind of visual content in every post. Video is especially effective. Eye-tracking studies also find that, in search results, the eye will skip over the first result if it has no visual component and pay more attention to video thumbnails.

Mental Overload & the Virtues of Simple Design

The human brain has a talent for processing lots of information at once. Still, interacting with any web page can put this talent to the test. Neuroscientific research indicates that the working memory can process up to 4 different sources of stimuli at once. After that, though, mental work becomes more strained and quality decreases.

It’s easy to see, then, why minimalist design has real staying power across the web. Even so, just about any web page out there will present you with more than 4 stimuli at once — from ads to sidebars to videos. All of this reduces the effectiveness of our short-term memories. It might even cause new information to be stored in the wrong part of the brain.

The takeaway for visual content marketing experts is that simple design is powerful. If you want your message to be more memorable, simplifying to only the most essential elements may be the way to do it.

Empathy & the Power of Story

The level of distraction that being on the internet almost inevitably delivers may actually make you less able to experience empathy.

“Distractions could make it more difficult for us to experience deep emotions,” explains Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain. “This kind of culture of constant distraction and interruption undermines not only the attentiveness that leads to deep thoughts, but also the attentiveness that leads to deep connections with other people.”

This is where the power of storytelling comes in. People have always connected with stories, from the earliest days of mythology to the widespread obsession with such television series as Game of Thrones and Westworld. It’s a way of participating in a shared humanity. So if your visual content marketing needs to connect with audiences on an emotional level, you should focus on creating a captivating story. A strong story holds our attention, deepens our engagement, and — perhaps — makes us more empathetic.

Apply these strategies to your next visual campaign and you’re likely to see more meaningful engagement.

Erin McCoy

Author Erin McCoy

Erin McCoy is director of content marketing and public relations at Killer Visual Strategies. She earned her BA in Spanish with minors in French and Russian, and holds 2 master’s degrees from the University of Washington: an MFA in creative writing and an MA in Hispanic literature. She has won nearly 2 dozen awards in photojournalism, and has dedicated those skills to boosting Killer’s brand recognition and thought leadership in visual communication. Since Erin took on her marketing/PR role, Killer has been named a member of the Inc. 5000 for 4 years in a row; has been featured in such publications as Inc., Forbes, Mashable, and the Huffington Post; and has been invited to present at such conferences as SXSW and SMX Advanced.

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