Words & Images: On the Path to a Perfect Marriage By Michael J. Reilly, FSMPS, Reilly Communications, and Anna Marich, Perkins+Will
Combining narrative and visual content, when smartly executed, is a joyful thing. Like Apple Inc. blending complex technology with elegant aesthetics, or Lin-Manuel Miranda mixing rap music and the Founding Fathers, a precise pairing is a magical competitive advantage.
s we have learned from working in a longtime partnership producing storylines for over a decade, advantage is earned by understanding our audience. Our readers connect best with objective stories told with engaging visuals and graceful text.
out. Our creative work—blogs, videos, photography, project sheets, and social media posts—needs to draw in clients suffering from marketing content overload. Reaching them is hard, and engaging them to act is even harder.
With every business producing more content, the challenge is how to stand
One essential, yet often neglected action in audience engagement, is aligning
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strategy with content production. We frequently see A/E/C firms making photography, writing, and video investments before setting an overall message and strategy. Before spending, we recommend asking a few revealing questions: § Who is your intended audience, and what two or three things do you want them to know? § What problems do these clients have that you solve? § Do you have stories (not just projects) you can tell using visual and narrative content?
The story behind the new 410,000 Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, NC, includes the journey of the client, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, as they set a national model for planning and designing the state’s regional psychiatric hospitals. Conveying this story required capturing images emphasizing the wellness of patients and staff, and writing the narrative story of a behavioral healthcare transformation. Photo: Perkins+Will/ ©Mark Herboth.
By thinking about stories and solutions in addition to aesthetics and features, A/E/C firm marketers will squeeze additional value from the limited time allocated for photographing or filming on site. Images that emphasize your firm’s ability to understand client needs, challenges, and aspirations are also more advantageous for social media use where a quick story is told via a single image and thoughtful caption posted on Instagram or LinkedIn.
Marketing professionals bring value to this discussion, translating technical accomplishments to audience interest and asking important questions on relevance. In many A/E/C firms, final decisions on shot selection rest with the project team. In others, marketing makes these decisions. Either can work as long as decisions are based on a healthy dialogue. For the project team, the images and words we produce represent the last step in their project experience. For marketers, the content developed is something that will be used in many different formats and for years to come.
Bringing together project staff and marketing professionals to decide how to tell the story in words and images is essential. Each brings a different perspective and experience, and each informs the process in often unexpected ways.
Business communications for generations followed a linear structure, for example, in narratives that use a beginning, middle, and end approach: this was the team challenge, and this was the solution.
plans, and team suggestions for shots, consider how the photographs will support the differentiators and problem-solving identified in your audience review.
§ How will your stories reinforce who you are as a firm, and support what you say in your mission statement? § What do you want to accomplish, and how can you measure your success? The answers to these questions will lead you and your colleagues toward a stronger definition of strengths and differentiators, and into decisions on the ideal way to communicate in word and image.
Image Planning When the long-awaited project is finally ready to photograph, a few extra steps in information-gathering will help. In addition to studying the site plan, floor
Determine together what the team delivered in the form of creative solutions that helped the client. For example, if a big part of the story is adaptability and flexibility solutions, plan to photograph a space as utilized in different ways by the client. If your firm solved a technical challenge relevant to other clients, determine how you might capture this and whether you will need to show end users in the photo to demonstrate outcome.
Problem-solution offers a glimpse into the storyline. But it leaves out the best parts: the journey taken, the vision expressed by the client protagonist and fulfilled by the supporting cast of A/E/C firm characters, or the lessons learned by the team while overcoming unexpected obstacles. Take time to storyboard the progression of solutions and surprises behind the project. Include supporting image ideas and narrative themes; these make it easier to map out what we intend to say and show. MARKETER DECEMBER 2016
Three images from the Watt Family Innovation Center at Clemson University in Clemson, SC, illustrate authentic user experiences within a higher education learning environment. The photography strategy is to feature the design of the spaces and show the how the design harnesses the energy, collaboration, and technology engagement of Clemson students. Photos: Perkins+Will / Left and top right ©Michelle Litvin; Bottom right ©Jonathan Hillyer.
People Moving even further beyond convention is telling the story of a new project or building as experienced by the end users. Images and videos of people experiencing the spaces as designed offer a rich context and add a critical human dimension. On the photo shoot, supplement the expected shots with images that show a lifestyle approach. By shifting the focus from the building alone to the experience of the end user, you will create strong visuals that trigger emotion and engagement. For example, when the strategic story involves moving a client organization from siloed offices or research labs into a new hub for collaboration, show it. Online video may be the best option for telling this story since it captures the voice, image, and inflection of the end user. We hear firsthand how they made the journey from the old model of working to another. 32
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When planning a photography shoot, discuss the options for showing relevant diversity among user groups and subjects. Work with the client and the photographer to capture end-user images that truly represent your client’s brand, demographics, and culture.
Authenticity Photos of natural, realistic, lived-in and worked-in spaces are more interesting to an audience than a pristine still life. By bringing the right props for staging, and/or waiting until after client move-in, we capture a more genuine and familiar context within a space. This framing creates a more authentic connection with your audience. For today’s data-driven and evidencebased clients, we have an opportunity to convey stories with creative visuals in place of conventional text. Instead
of describing the features of a complex HVAC system in a hospital setting, an infographic image can show data points on the new system’s energy performance, water reuse, and contribution to LEED Certification. The shelf life of our images and story narratives is long; thousands may see, read, and reflect on what we produce. Invest the time to establish your distinctive strategy, identify opportunities to support the firm’s advantages, and execute writing, photography, and image-making with a long-term view. And consider the advice of Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame: “You can fume at the world if you like. You can also use your words, art, and gifts to let us in. Build us a bridge to where you are.” n