The Power of Images

In the context of media and information literacy, understanding the visual elements that can trigger engagement, reaction, and action is crucial. Visual media, whether still images or moving images, have a significant power to evoke emotions, create connections, and provoke thought, often more quickly and viscerally than text. Here's a breakdown of what makes visual content impactful in this context:

Emotional Resonance
Images or videos that evoke strong emotional responses tend to be the most effective. These could be feelings of joy, sadness, anger, surprise, or nostalgia. For instance, campaigns around issues like child poverty often utilise images of suffering children to evoke empathy and spur donations.

Reference: Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39(3), 281-291.

Relevance to the Viewer
If the viewer can see themselves in the image or video, or relate it to their own experiences, they are more likely to engage. For example, public health campaigns might use images of families or individuals that reflect the target audience's demographic.

Reference: Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). Communication and persuasion: Central and peripheral routes to attitude change. Springer-Verlag.

Clarity and Simplicity
A clear message or image that's easy to interpret can be highly effective. Think of the iconic "I Want YOU" U.S. Army recruiting poster featuring Uncle Sam; its clarity and directness made it memorable.
Reference: Gernsbacher, M. A., Varner, K. R., & Faust, M. E. (1990). Investigating differences in general comprehension skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 16(3), 430.

Use of Color
Colours can evoke emotions and reactions. For instance, red can signify urgency or importance, while blue can impart calmness and trust. Advertisements and campaigns will often carefully choose their colour schemes to elicit specific emotions or reactions.

Reference: Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2007). Colour and psychological functioning. Current directions in psychological science, 16(5), 250-254.

Narrative Storytelling
Videos that tell a story, especially a personal one, can be highly engaging. For instance, testimonials or stories of personal transformation or overcoming adversity are popular in charitable campaigns or product testimonials.

Reference: Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 701.


Especially in the age of "fake news," images or videos that are perceived as genuine and authentic can foster trust and engagement. User-generated content, for example, often feels more authentic than polished professional advertisements.

Reference: Metzger, M. J., Flanagin, A. J., & Medders, R. B. (2010). Social and heuristic approaches to credibility evaluation online. Journal of Communication, 60(3), 413-439.

Content that defies expectations or norms can generate interest and virality. A surprising twist in a video, or an unexpected visual, can captivate an audience. This is often used in advertising to grab the viewer's attention.

Reference: Berger, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2012). What makes online content viral? Journal of Marketing Research, 49(2), 192-205.

In 2016, Nick Nelson, Netflix’s Global Manager of Creative Services, reportedly said: “We conducted some consumer research studies that indicated artwork was not only the biggest influencer to a member’s decision to watch content, but it also constituted over 82% of their focus while browsing Netflix. We also saw that users spent an average of 1.8 seconds considering each title they were presented with while on Netflix.” Wow! In 2014 MIT reported on a study which suggested that people can recognise and quick-process an image which is shown to them for as little as 13 milliseconds. (Let me remind how little this is — one second has one thousand milliseconds.) So what did the company do next? They engaged in large-scale A/B testing of movies’ artwork. In simple terms, they started playing with images — and measuring their impact on users. Here are just a few takeaways:

  • Faces with complex emotions “outperform stoic or benign expressions”. It seemed that seeing a range of emotions compelled people to watch a story more.
  • Using visible, recognisable characters (and especially polarising ones) results in more engagement.
  • Members respond to villainous characters surprisingly well in both kids and action genres in particular.
  • An image’s tendency to win dramatically dropped when the artworks contained more than three people. (The company admits, that ensemble casts are still great for large outdoor billboards but not as effective on small screens, since much of the detail is lost due to the scale.)

That said, and presuming all good intentions, the latest Netflix algorithm is not without controversy. And there seems to an ever-thinning red line between serving content adapted to users’ preferences and outright manipulation.

Images "in numbers"

The impact of visual content on engagement is well-documented, and several studies have indicated that posts with images or videos garner significantly more engagement than text-only posts. Here are a couple of specific examples:

Facebook Engagement
According to a study by BuzzSumo, which analyzed over 800 million Facebook posts, posts with images had 2.3 times more engagement than those without images. Similarly, videos on Facebook have 135% greater organic reach compared to photo posts.

Reference: "The Future of Content Marketing: Insights on Content Marketing From Experts." BuzzSumo, 2016.

Twitter (now X) Engagement
A report from Buffer indicated that tweets with images received 150% more retweets than tweets without images. Additionally, tweets with images earned 18% more click-throughs, 89% more likes, and 150% more retweets. Twitter's own data suggests that tweets with video see 10 times more engagement than those without, and Promoted Tweets with videos save more than 50% on cost-per-engagement.

Reference: "A Scientific Guide to Tweets that Get Clicks, Retweets, and Replies." Buffer, 2014. 

Email Marketing
According to a report by the Email Marketing Benchmarks from Mailchimp, emails with images had a higher click-through rate compared to text-only emails. For instance, industries like e-commerce observe a significant boost in click rates when emails incorporate relevant images. Campaign Monitor found that using video in email campaigns can increase the click-through rate by 65%, reduce unsubscribes by 26%, and boost open rates.

Reference: "Email Marketing Benchmarks." Mailchimp, 2019; "The Ultimate Guide to Email Marketing." Campaign Monitor, 2019.

Blog Posts
Articles with an image once every 75-100 words received double the social media shares as articles with fewer images, as revealed in a study by BuzzSumo. HubSpot's research showed that blog articles that incorporated videos attracted on average 3 times the inbound links than blog articles without videos, indicating a higher level of engagement and shareability.

Reference: "How to Boost Engagement with Visual Content." BuzzSumo, 2016; "The Ultimate List of Marketing Statistics for 2020." HubSpot, 2020.

These figures showcase the powerful role that visual elements can play in social media engagement. However, it's crucial to note that while images and videos can significantly boost engagement, the quality, relevance, and authenticity of the content remain critical for sustained audience trust and interaction.

Suggested use in training

Here are a few learning activities that will help students understand the impact of visual elements in media and information literacy:

Visual Comparison Task

Description: Divide students into small groups and provide each with two versions of the same article: one purely text-based and the other supplemented with relevant images and/or videos. Ask them to analyse and discuss the differences in engagement, comprehension, and shareability.
Objective: This activity will help students directly experience the impact of visuals on engagement and comprehension, and they will be better positioned to understand the data you've presented.

Create Your Own Media

Description: Ask students to pick a current event topic and create two versions of a social media post or email marketing content on the chosen topic. One version should be text-only, while the other should include visuals (images, infographics, videos, etc.). Later, share these with the class and discuss which versions were more engaging and why. Even better, challenge students to actually publish 2 posts on their preferred social media as an experiment. Allow for some time to pass and at the next class session discuss the differences in engagement that the two posts produced. An advanced-level challenge could include the task to create variations of visuals that reflect the different impact vectors as described in this webpage - keep the topic, but play with the way the image works - by triggering emotions, by association, by using colours, etc.
Objective: This hands-on task encourages students to think critically about visual content choices and their potential impact on audience engagement.

Analyse Viral Content

Description: Make a collection of recently viral articles, social media posts, or email campaigns. Ask students to analyse them, focusing on the role visuals played in their virality. What kinds of visuals were used? How did they complement the text? Was there a common visual theme or tactic that seemed particularly effective?
Objective: By examining real-world examples of highly effective content, students can identify patterns and best practices in the use of visuals in media. This will deepen their understanding of the relationship between visual elements and audience engagement.

Remember, the goal of these activities is not just to underscore the importance of visuals, but to foster a deeper understanding of why they are effective, and to promote a critical examination of when and how to use them in various media contexts.