Appeal to your audience’s emotional side

March 14, 2017

“Humans are extremely visual: We think largely in images, not words. It’s important to be rationally on-message. But it’s even more imperative to be on-emotion.” – Dan Hill, author of Emotionomics

Humans are biologically programmed to be more immediately responsive to visual stimuli than to verbal ones. This much is obvious, and the reason why we spend our days providing guidance on how to improve visual storytelling practices through Visual Story Lab. Words alone, no matter how compelling, will never drive the same push to action that an image can, particularly when that visual is emotionally provocative.

In 2013, Resource Media released a guide to educate our partners on an overlooked medium for communications: visual storytelling. All of the information within this guide remains relevant in today’s world, but more recent scientific findings illuminate further ways to guide your visual communication strategies. It’s not enough to create a visual: you have to create one that taps into peoples’ innate emotions.

Advertisers have known for decades that targeting peoples’ emotional responses is the best strategy to motivate demand for the product. If people are convinced of the emotional pay-off of a product, they are more likely to buy it and satisfy their inner desires. In 2015, Stanford researchers found that even in the microfinance world, emotions drive decision-making. Specifically, “excitement rather than guilt is the emotion that is more often experienced by someone who gives a microloan to another person”. The researchers studied loan appeals from Kiva and found a common thread across 13,000 loan applications – those that had a photograph with a smiling applicant received significantly bigger loans. Visuals that elicit positive emotions, rather than negative, are more powerful when it comes to driving lending decisions.

These findings have broader implications than how to effectively get a loan. It confirms that targeting emotions is an effective strategy whenever you are trying to influence decision-making or persuade people to act a certain way. How do you apply this to your communications strategy? Through visuals that specifically elicit certain emotional reactions in your audience and that your research shows will drive a desired action, like giving money to your organization, or sending a message to a Congressperson.

Further research has been done on the role emotions play in decision-making. Dr. Jennifer Lerner, professor of public policy and management at Harvard Kennedy School, conducted many studies on the subject, only to conclude that decisions are not logical, but emotional. She found that emotions of any kind influence your decision-making abilities, but each in a different way. It’s to your advantage to appeal to the emotional sides of your audience, as this will increase the likelihood of driving action by convincing people that it is in their best interest.

To which emotion should you appeal? Essentially, it depends on your goal. In Lerner’s intriguing study, sadness could make one more generous while anger could trigger the instinct to blame others for problems. If your audience mirrors that of her study, an advocacy campaign that uses a sadness-inducing photograph might attract more support than one which angers.

Focus on the goal you want to achieve, and which emotional response will help you do it. This may require a degree of testing what images push the buttons of your audience. If you are trying to convince your audience to donate their hard-earned time and money and help your organization, they’ll be more inclined to do so if you showcase for them the benefits. Tap into the right emotions through visual representations and present a clear path to action through your messaging.

— Alyssa Neidhart, intern