Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

The power of the visual

The power of the visual


Marco D'Angelo discusses the role of visual imagery in drawing the attention of busy web browsers, communicating complex and nuanced messages, and awakening an emotional response - and how law firms can use it to their advantage in their marketing communications

The rise of smartphones and social media has only helped to emphasise the visual in our lives, sparking an explosion in image-based social media platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram, and video apps such as Vine and Vimeo. The technology may only have enabled this kind of social interaction in the last five or so years, at least in the mainstream, but the new normal is that we now share pictures and videos with friends and family, as much as (if not more than) we exchange words, both written and verbal.

Law firm marketing

The consumer and business worlds have been
quick to pick up on the trend. Marketing business magazine The Drum's number-one prediction for 2016 is that 'visual storytelling will continue to dominate', citing the proliferation of mobiles and smartphones as the reason brands are communicating with an emphasis on imagery
over text. They anticipate seeing more brands using visual communications in a variety of formats, from real-time images to short-form videos.

The legal profession has been slower than most parts of the business world to realise this change and start making the shift. Not surprising, perhaps, given how much the discipline of law depends on words and practitioners' skill in using them - sometimes a multi-million-pound court dispute will hang on the interpretation of a single word. There's also an inherent cultural resistance within the profession to indulging the visual rather than the verbal (or written), with many lawyers believing it somehow trivialises content and detracts from its value. However, slowly but surely, in recent years the profession has started to embrace the discipline of visual imagery. We are all becoming accustomed to the law firm infographic explaining the impact of the latest piece of legislation or the implications of a ground-breaking court decision.

Some firms exercise this new discipline of visual communication particularly well, with a strong pictorial element to their websites, including video as well as static content; smart use of imagery in their publications for clients, employing diagrams and infographics to explain complicated legal concepts to readers; and even perhaps active and relevant YouTube channels.

This is why newspapers and magazines have long published visual content; it is well known within the publishing industry that those who use infographics to put across complex information achieve 12 per cent more traffic than those who don't.

For law firms, another point to take into consideration is that infographics, images, and video content are all particularly good for sharing on social platforms; visuals draw the attention of busy web browsers and social surfers and attract more clicks, likes, retweets, and comments than purely verbal content.

'Empathy goggles'

There is both opportunity and threat for firms tempted to rush to embrace trendy new communication styles. The threat is to 'dumb down' serious content by chasing the latest marketing gimmick, moving the focus to the medium itself rather than the message. The opportunity, however, is to use the medium intelligently, thinking first about your business and communications objective - that is, what it is that you want to say and for what purpose - and then considering the unique features of the new medium and the opportunities it opens up to communicate in new ways that will help you meet these objectives.

Who remembers the brilliant example of intelligent use of video by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) during the course of the investigation into the Hillsborough stadium tragedy? This is the perfect example to make the point that, if used properly, visual content can underline the seriousness of a topic, not undermine it. In 2013 the IPCC released a six-second video on Vine with chilling panning shots of its document store showing shelf after shelf and box after box of Hillsborough evidence documents.

This emotional element is important: not only is visual content quicker for audiences to absorb (the brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than text), but when thoughtfully done, it can create an emotional response. Who can forget that heart-rending image of the little Syrian boy dredged up on the beach in September 2015, and its effect in transforming public and government opinion of the refugee crisis?

Human rights campaigners are embracing the power of video too, following academic research that shows how virtual reality experiences can evoke empathy. For example, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences has created an interactive installation that enables people to experience a refugee's journey through the use of virtual reality goggles.

Amnesty International is starting to use virtual reality as part of its street fundraising campaign work, offering members of the public the opportunity to view specially created 360-degree images of bombed-out Syrian streets through virtual reality headsets. Campaigners have nicknamed the devices 'empathy goggles', as the medium is proving so effective in bringing home the truth about what it is that refugees are running from, changing attitudes to refugees and encouraging people to want to do something to help. This is the power of the visual.

Multi-layered storytelling

Sometimes the objective is as simple as wanting a multi-layered way to tell a particularly important story. We recently wanted to give a big promotional push to two particularly significant hires into our healthcare focus team in London and Milan: English lawyer Helen Roberts, whose previous career had focused on in-house legal roles at leading pharmaceutical companies such as Abbott, Novartis Oncology, and Sanofi, and Italian Vincenzo Salvatore from the European Medicines Agency.

These hires were strategically significant for the firm in a number of ways, but we were concerned that many of the key messages would be missed
if they were communicated in just one press release. So, we wracked our brains to think of what we could do to tell the story in new ways, which might attract more attention and be more effective in getting some of the more subtle and nuanced messages across to our audiences.

We decided to create a video about the hires, taking the highly unusual step of distributing it as part of the press release. Helen and Vincenzo are shown walking around London and Milan, talking about the rationale behind their move to the firm, in the context of the dynamics of the international pharma marketplace and the cross-border regulatory and legal issues surrounding it. At the same time as communicating strategy and rationale (which can, after all, be done in a written release), the medium of video also enabled us to tell our story using a series of carefully thought through visual clues. Our two new lawyers appeared in action, demonstrating their legal and commercial expertise as leaders in their specialist field of healthcare law. As they walked past London landmarks, it highlighted the city's importance to the firm as a hub for international business. Even
the contrast in their accents gave this video an international feel and told a story about the firm's transition from the Italian market to the world stage.

From just a cursory glance around the community of law firm communications, it's easy to see the direction of travel: this new emphasis on the visual
is set to continue for some time yet.

If you haven't already embraced visual communciations, you need to do so if you want to stay ahead of the competition. But be reassured:
I can promise you that you'll enjoy the journey.

Marco D’Angelo is marketing director at BonelliErede