When was the last time you changed your mind about something? What brought an important issue to your attention? Chances are it was something you saw, rather than something you read.
The right image can be a powerful way capture and engage people with an important issue.
For many of us, the haunting and graphic images of toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore focused our attention on the Syrian refugee crisis.
Yet not all images are created equal. Some are better than others. Some may even hurt your cause.
For example, although they grab our attention, familiar and iconic images used in communications about climate change (i.e., smokestacks, polar bears) fail to make us feel like we can do anything about climate change.
So which images are best?
What properties of images increase the likelihood that the reader will engage with your overall message? My research on images used in communications about sustainable urban stormwater management found that images are more likely to engage when they:
1. Evoke an emotional connection
Images are highly emotive and emotions help shape attitudes. Given that images are the first thing people see on a webpage or news article, they can create a connection with your message before a single word has even been read.
Critically, different emotions can give rise to different motivations. For example, to approach or to avoid. For this reason it is important to select images that evoke emotions what psychologists call an ‘approach motivation’. That is, emotions that encourage the reader to pay attention to your message. Positive emotions, like happiness and pride, are known to have an approach motivation. Some negative emotions, like sadness and anger, can also motivate people to engage with your message. However, you should try to avoid images that elicit emotions with strong avoidance motivations, like disgust and fear. Such emotions may encourage the reader to simply switch off and not pay attention to your message.
2. Relevant to the topic
When presenters use images in presentations that are congruent with what they saying, people are more likely to remember the message. This is because images that are not immediately understood as relevant to the topic reduce the ease with which the viewer can process your message. That is, irrelevant images increase the mental effort needed to process the overall message and can become a distraction.
To avoid using irrelevant images, don’t make assumptions about what your target audience does and doesn’t understand about the issue you are communicating. For example, a cleaner ocean is a major goal of improved urban stormwater management initiatives, so images of ocean environments are often used in communications new stormwater initiatives. Unfortunately, our recent image study found that most people did not think that pictures of oceanic environments were relevant to the topic of stormwater management.
3. Personally relevant
If the viewer sees something in an image that is personally relevant to them, they are more likely to engage with the message content.
To increase the personal relevance of your message, choose images of locations that are highly familiar to your viewer (the more local, the better) or choose photographs of people that your target audience are more likely to identify with. For example, using images of melting ice caps to communicate about climate change suggests that the impacts are happening somewhere else to someone else. Conversely, images of extreme weather events (for example, in Australia, flooding is a major concern), highlight a more localised, and personally relevant, impact of climate change.
- Tracy Schultz
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.