Strong visual content on social media gives people a reason to follow, like, comment, and eventually buy from you. It can make or break your strategy.
The importance of creating visual content for social media cannot be understated.
Need proof? Look no further than the Google Doodle. By changing its look everyday, Google creates a reason to visit its landing page and use its search engine over others.
Strong visual content on social media has the same effect. It gives people a reason to follow, like, comment, and eventually buy from you.
Need more proof?
- LinkedIn posts with images have a 98% higher comment rate on average
- Tweets that include visual content are three times more likely to get engagement
- Facebook posts with photos get more likes and comments
Visuals tend to leave more of an imprint, too. We’re 65% more likely to remember information if it includes an image.
So, are you ready to step up your creative? Let’s get visual.
Bonus: Get the always-up-to-date social media image size cheat sheet. The free resource includes recommended photo dimensions for every type of image on every major network.
12 tips for creating visual content on social media
1. Make visuals part of your social media strategy
Want to create great visual content on social media? Start here.
Great visuals are only as good as the social strategy that supports them. Your creative may follow best practices, but without purpose, narrative, timing, and other strategic elements, you’ll be doing your art department a disservice.
Whether you know it or not, all companies have a brand identity and visual language on social—some are just more fluent on social than others. A social media style guide can help with this.
Every visual strategy should include:
- Audience research. Do some background on your audience’s interests and think about what type of visual content they’d like to see.
- Create a mood board. Add content, color palettes, and other visuals that will help shape your direction.
- Themes. Mix things up with recurring themes or pillars. Air France’s Instagram feed, for example, includes a combination of destination shots and airplane photos.
- Platform. Consider how you should adapt your visual strategy for each social channel.
- Timing. Make sure to post visuals on social at peak times. But think big picture, too. Will you need more visual content around certain holidays? Planning ahead will help you better manage your budget and production calendar.
Can you guess @Cashapp’s visual themes?
2. Get to know the creative basics
What makes a great visual? If you can’t answer this question, a little studying up may be in order.
Sure, there’s not one good way to create a visual. But there are some basic best practices to take into consideration. And you have to know the rules before you can break them.
Here are some basic best practices for creating social media visuals:
- Have a clear subject. It’s usually best to have a single focal point in your image.
- Remembers the rule of thirds. With some exceptions, it’s best not to centre your subject perfectly.
- Use natural light. If your image is too dark, it’s harder to see. But don’t overexpose your images, either.
- Make sure there’s enough contrast. Contrast provides balance, is easier to read, works better in black and white environments, and is more accessible.
- Choose complementary colors. Get familiar with a color wheel.
- Keep it simple. Make sure your visual is easy to understand.
- Don’t over edit. Resist the temptation to press all the buttons. Subtly is a good policy when it comes to filters and features. Increase saturation with caution.
Here’s a primer on how to take good Instagram photos—but the same rules apply to all types of photos.
3. Take advantage of free tools and resources
It’s almost always best to hire a photographer or graphic designer to create custom content for your brand.
But if your budget is tight, or you’re in need of a few extra tools, there are countless resources available.
Here are some of the best design resources and tools:
- 25 resources for free stock photos
- 20 free and customizable Instagram Story templates
- 5 free and easy-to-use Instagram presets
- 17 of the best Instagram apps for editing, design, and more
- 5 free templates for Facebook cover photos
- 17 inclusive design tools and resources
4. Understand image copyright
Sourcing images isn’t always easy—especially when it comes to understanding copyright. But it’s important, especially since there are serious consequences for misuse.
Read all the fine print when using stock photos, templates, and illustrations. If anything is unclear, inquire with the image owner or site for more detail.
The same goes for licensing and contracting. When drawing up contracts with artists, it should be clear where you intend to use creative, who owns the rights to it, etc.
When it’s called for (which is often), be sure to give credit where credit is due. That’s also true if you plan to repost or share user-generated content. Some companies, like Agoda, even use contract agreements in these contexts, too.
Learn more about image copyright.
5. Size images to spec
One of the biggest crimes you can commit when sharing visuals on social media is using the wrong size.
Images with the wrong aspect ratio or low resolutions can be stretched, cropped, and crunched out of proportion—all of which reflects poorly on your brand.
Every platform has its own specifications and you should tailor your content accordingly. We’ve assembled a social media image size guide to help you.
Always aim for the highest image quality. That includes pixels and resolution.
And don’t ignore aspect ratio. Why? Some platforms auto-crop image previews based on aspect ratio. So if yours is different, you could end up with an unfortunate crop, or have important info left out. Or, you could pull a boss move like this.
A few social media image sizing hacks:
- Want to share a horizontal photo in a Story? Create a background or use a template so it doesn’t look small and sad.
- Stories and other vertical content display differently depending on the device being used.
- Don’t put anything important in the upper and lower 250-310 pixels.
- Preview how Instagram will crop a vertical photo on your grid by looking at the filter thumbnails before you publish.
- Check your analytics to see what devices you audience uses. If there’s a trend, size accordingly.
- Not enough room for your content? Animate it or rasterbate it. Not sure what that means? Check out the examples below.
FT’s illustrators work around Twitter’s aspect ratio with an animation.
Problem: the fantastic technical drawings of Elon Musk's new rocket are the wrong aspect ratio for Twitter cards
Solution: launch the rocket through a square crop! https://t.co/mKYeGASoyt
— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) February 7, 2018
Divide a photo into parts (rasterbate it) and post it as a carousel.
Lays pushes the grid’s boundaries with one large photo posted across multiple squares. Remember, if you do this, future posts can jumble things up. Unless you post in threes.
6. Be tasteful with text
Whether you plan to create quote images, stylized typography, or use text overlays, less is always more when it comes to word count.
Text in visuals should always be bold, legible, straightforward, and concise. Make sure there’s enough contrast between the text and background so that it’s readable. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCGA) recommend using a contrast of 4.5 to 1. There are several free contrast checkers available if you’re not sure how to do this.
What’s the best image-to-text ratio? It depends, and there are exceptions. In general, Facebook finds that images with less than 20% text tend to perform better. Facebook offers a text-to-image ratio checker for those interested.
If you plan to use text as an overlay, make sure the visual leaves room for it. Or use a solid background.
The text should always improve—not obscure—your creative.
Be sure it adds value to your message, too. If it’s only stating the obvious or describing the visual, you don’t need it. Unless you’re No Name.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when including text in images:
- Triple check spelling and grammar.
- Choose type wisely. Font can affect both tone and legibility.
- If you need to mix fonts, pair a serif with a sans serif.
- Avoid green and red or blue and yellow colour combos. According to WCAG, they’re more difficult to read.
- Keep line length short.
- Look out for orphan words. Leaving one word on the last line can look odd.
- Animate text to make it stand out.
7. Add your logo, where appropriate
If you plan your visuals to be shared, it may be a good idea to include a logo.
Pinterest is a perfect example. Anything pinned has the potential of being repinned, and without a logo, it can be easy to forget where it came from. Plus, according to Pinterest, pins with subtle branding tend to perform better than those without.
Good branding is noticeable but not obtrusive. Typically that means putting a small logo in a corner or the outer frame of the visual. If the colour of your logo clashes or makes the visual too busy, opt for a greyscale or neutral version.
Context is everything here. Not every Instagram post may need a logo, for example. If your Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook avatar is your logo, you may not need one in your cover banner, either.
8. Be mindful of representation
Do the people in your creative reflect the diversity of your audience? Are you reinforcing gender or racial stereotypes with your visuals? Do you promote body positivity?
These are a few of the questions you should be asking when making visual content for social media.
Doing so is not just socially responsible, it’s smart. It’s much easier for someone to imagine themselves using a product or service if they see someone that looks like them doing it. Look at your audience analytics, or the demographics of your desired market, and factor them into your creative process.
Representation should be about more than just optics. If you have the means to diversify your team, do it. Hire women and creators of color. Bring as many perspectives to the table as you can.
At the very least, try to get feedback from as many voices as possible before sending your creative off into the world.
Here are a few inclusive stock photo libraries:
- Refinery29 and Getty Images’ The 67% Collection promotes body positivity
- The No Apologies Collection expands Refinery29 and Getty Images’ body inclusivity collaboration
- Vice’s Gender Spectrum Collection offers stock photos “beyond the binary”
- #ShowUs is a collaboration between Dove, Getty Images, and Girlgaze that breaks down beauty types
- Brewers Collective partnered with Unsplash and Pexels to create two free disability-inclusive stock image libraries
- Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Getty Images, Verizon Media, and the National Disability Leadership Alliance (NDLA) offer The Disability Collection
- The Disrupt Aging Collection by Getty Images and AARP fights ageism with its stock photo library
9. Add a little animation
With upward of 95 million posts shared on Instagram every day, a little animation can go a long way to helping your content stand out.
GIFs and videos are a great way to add movement and narrative to your visuals. They can range from high-production IGTV films, to subtle photo animations, a.k.a cinemagraphs.
Reformation, for example, does a good job of riffing on standard photoshoots by using video to add moves… dance moves, that is.
Need help making your own animations or videos? Check out these guides:
- How to Make a GIF: 4 Tried and True Methods
- What it Takes to Create a Great Social Video: A 10-Step Guide
- How to Make a Blockbuster Twitter Video for Your Business
- Everything You Need to Know About LinkedIn Video in 2019
- How to Use Instagram Live to Grow and Engage Your Followers
10. Include alt-text descriptions
Not everyone experiences visual content the same way.
When producing creative for social media, make it accessible for as many people and contexts as possible. Accessible content allows you to reach a broad audience and possibly edge out non-inclusive competitors in the process.
More importantly, it helps you earn respect and loyalty from customers.
Accessible visual content on social media can include:
- Alt-text descriptions. Alt-text allows the visually impaired to appreciate images. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram now provide fields for alt-text image descriptions. Here are some tips for writing descriptive alt-text.
- Subtitles. All social videos should include captions. Not only are they crucial for hearing impaired viewers, they help in sound-off environments as well. Language learners also benefit from subtitles. Plus, people who watch videos with captions are more likely to remember what they saw.
- Descriptive transcripts. Unlike captions, these transcripts describe the important sights and sounds that aren’t spoken or obvious. Descriptive audio and live described video are other options.
11. Optimize for SEO
Yes, your visuals can and should be optimized for search engine optimization (SEO), too. Especially since the popularity of visual search continues to grow with tools like Pinterest Lens, Google Lens, and Amazon’s StyleSnap. Googlebot can’t “read” pictures though, so you need to tell it what’s in the picture via alt tags.
Pinterest may be the most important platform when it comes to optimizing for SEO. Just like other search engines, it’s important to include the right keywords in your visual descriptions and alt tags.
Bonus: Get the always-up-to-date social media image size cheat sheet. The free resource includes recommended photo dimensions for every type of image on every major network.Get the free cheat sheet now!
Here are more SEO tips for Pinterest.
On Instagram and other platforms, hashtags sub for keywords. Make sure to also include geotags and rich captions, all of which will help yield better results in the Explore tab.
12. Be creative
Pshhh, easy right?
But seriously. Forget the awards, creative work is always rewarded by customers with likes, comments, shares, and sales. And it has to power to earn new followers, too.
Having trouble coming up with ideas? Here’s a little inspiration for you.
This illustration by Anna Rudak plays telephone with the carousel format to brilliant effect.
Malika Favre’s illustration for United Way proves that a simple concept can speak volumes.
Bon Appetit’s animated cover brings traditional print into the digital world:
UN Women uses pinch-and-zoom to prove a point:
The Guardian adapts listicles for the Instagram carousel:
The Washington Post’s travel offshoot By The Way uses the carousel to build intrigue:
Macy’s “The Remarkable Shot” campaign turned ‘grammers into photographers. Macy’s shared Instagram Stories featuring models posing in four locations, and asked viewers to become the photographers by screen-capturing and sharing pictures.
Huckberry demonstrates how packable its jacket is with a GIF
— Huckberry (@Huckberry) February 23, 2017
Fenty Beauty has a product for every sign:
The Royal Ontario Museum turns its artwork into memes to reach a younger audience.
ScribbleLive spread a horizontal image across a LinkedIn carousel ad.
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