17 May 2013

Show, don't just tell, when it comes to place marketing

Alissa Sklar is the director of marketing for GIS Planning. She has extensive experience as a consultant, writer and educator in the fields of technology and communications. Dr. Sklar has a Ph.D. in Communications from the University of Massachusetts of Amherst, and has as worked closely with B2Bs and economic development agencies to assess, develop and implement social media strategies for business development.

What if I told you place marketing can learn some critical lessons from brain research?


I know that sounds pretty far-fetched, but bear with me here. Think about the ways most locations offer information online: a couple of professional pictures, an occasional chart, map or graph and blocks and blocks of text. How much do you think people read? How much do they recall an hour later? A week later?

Contemporary website designs have become so standard, casual users don’t think much about them anymore. But these designs don’t always jibe very well with the way people actually understand and remember new information, especially when there’s so much of it to present.  And when you are trying to attract business and investment, understanding and recall are key.

We’ve all heard the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, and like all clichés, it’s based on an element of truth. Research on how we learn helps us distinguish instances where images or text are more effective in communicating key information. For example, in the illustration on the left, we can quickly understand a lot more about the relationship between demographic criteria and geography from this kind of heat map than lists of locations and numbers. 

Take a look at the following points lifted from what we know about the human brain*, and consider whether your location is making the most of this knowledge on its website and marketing collateral.

Images are better than text
  • Images do a better job of showing the relations between parts of a structure, such an organizational chart.
  • Localization information, or figuring out where something is in relation to other things (such as on a map) is better represented by images.
  • Images can be better at representing large amounts of data. Pages and pages of lists or spreadsheets can be simply represented in a chart, graph or map.
  • Images are better to provide detail and appearance, such as distance, size, color and details.
  • Visual information is generally better remembered than verbal information. This applies except for abstract images.

Text is better than images
  • Text is better than graphics for explaining abstract concepts like freedom or efficiency.
  • Procedural information, like computer algorithms, are better represented using text. Static images are not so good by themselves to present complex, non-spatial, instructions. Nevertheless, there are exceptions such as timelines and Gantt Diagrams.
  • Text is better to show information specifying conditions under which something should be done or should not be done.

Overall, research has shown quite conclusively that putting both images and text together can be the most effective way to teach someone something new. In the illustration above, industries are depicted by type on the map; the color-coding helps us quickly make sense of the report below. 

Now let’s put this back into the context of your location’s website. You want to convey some abstract things, like quality of life, prosperity and opportunity, so you will write those things out in text, maybe throw in some lovely, inspirational images of beautiful landscapes or happy workers to reinforce that. You want to give concrete information about permits, incentives or tax subsidies, and that will require using words.

But how are you telling stories about local industry? About the education level of your work force or other important demographic information? Are you sending your website users away to static pages of text with lists of (possibly outdated) data? This is the information that counts, but will anyone read that?

How are you representing the sites and buildings for rent, lease or sale? Can you show businesses or site selectors how those potential locations fit into the qualities of the workforce, key industry clusters, transportation options? Can they easily calculate drive times by highlighting a point on a dynamic map? How would you describe the GIS layers in the illustration below if you could only use words to do so?

Businesses seeking locations are trying to make sense of unimaginably large amounts of data. The human brain just can’t cope with all that, so designers are increasingly turning to images to crunch that data into digestible chunks.

Dynamic data maps help people understand the critical elements of your location. And those are the kinds of things they will remember when it’s time to draw up their short lists. When you want to market your location, consider showing people what you’ve got instead of just telling them.

* Information from Colin Ware, Information Visualization, 2000.


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