A couple of weeks back, I was editing an article written by one of our guest contributors and thought of inserting two images in it.

Even though we have been conservative in our use of visuals, in this instance I thought some humorous images would complement the article.

I shared the preview with the writer and my co-workers and, a while later, got a call from our designer requesting me to reconsider my decision. Her logic was that I was using images for the sake of using images, and that, when considered without the context, they didn’t really add value.

But I already knew this. So why had I still chosen to include these images?

Traffic.

For any content to have value, marketers are repeatedly told by experts and fellow content marketers that it needs a corresponding image or visual. The result is that there is an overuse of images in content marketing these days.

The assumption is that including an image in your article will increase the number of views it gets.

But what if an image is not needed? Should we still use it for the sake of driving up engagement and SEO rankings? If so, what does this do for our textual content?

Image over text

A post on a popular marketing blog pointed out that one of the first criteria for selecting the “perfect” image was that it should be relevant. You would think that it would have been in relation to the text.

Quite the opposite: we are instead told that the post title should be modified to incorporate at least one word that “lend[s] itself” to a “relevant, interesting image.”

Another notion in content marketing is that text – your actual content or idea – is “daunting” to the reader who struggles to grasp what you have written. Images, on the other hand, help “break through the clutter” and goad the reader on.

The result is that while content marketers are able to look critically at text and be selective in our language, the same cannot be said of our use of images.

Why is that?

Because marketers these days are an anxious lot and images, even if they are overused, offer solace from this anxiety.

In a survey conducted by Business Marketing Association and Forrester Research, it was found that CMOs are struggling to keep pace with technological changes and evolving marketing practices, they are being judged on their performance “faster than before” by leadership, and they have to tailor content for an audience whose attention span clocks a second less than that of a goldfish.

It is no surprise then that many have come to rely on proven strategies that drive engagement – using visual content, especially images, is one of them.

What images do, as writer, filmmaker, and critic Susan Sontag puts it, is furnish “evidence” that “the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had”—in other words, they help the marketer communicate an unequivocal message, without leaving room for interpretation.

An image guarantees that your audience grasps exactly the information that you want them to i.e. they illustrate your idea.

Text, on the other hand, is trouble. An audience can read it the way they like, choosing to focus on one idea more than the other, despite the marketer’s best intentions. They have no control over how the audience consumes their idea.

The metrics of engagement

It’s perhaps for this reason, if not for any other, that it’s now considered unnatural not to include images in one’s post. An article titled “Words are dead. Here’s what will replace them,” pointed out that a “new visual language” is being written through images and text has become irrelevant.

Marketers too have come to accept that text has its limits – it cannot be the primary choice for communicating ideas.

What then is the implication for the idea itself?

There is an observation that Sontag makes in her book On Photography that rings true in the context of marketing. She says that the act of looking at photographs of an experience has become “identical” to the actual experience itself.

If our audience’s engagement with our content begins and ends with an image, are we satisfied with that degree of engagement?

To put it another way, here are two scenarios:

(a) A person reads your writing and it effects the way they think about a subject or it helps them in some way

(b) Several people browse through your article, love your visuals and share it with fifty people.

Which of these counts for you?

I would say that the very premise of metrics such as the number of social shares, clickthroughs and page-views is faulty: It measures quantity but not quality of engagement. And this doesn’t work when you are talking about writing, which is a subjective and personal process … as is reading.

The reason images have become such an overused, popular content marketing tool is that marketers are relying on metrics that indicate volume but not quality. And this is fueling a glut of images being incorporated into articles – whether they are needed or not.

Perhaps then what matters is not whether we choose to use images, but rather how we measure the success of our content.