A Picture Paints A Thousand Words... in Pixels: Visualizing The Future of Social Media for Entrepreneurship in 2014

Social media should be used to grow your network and connect with people that you wouldn't have had the opportunity to meet otherwise. Just like working on a "live" relationship, followers need to be engaged and nurtured, not just collected to boost numbers.

-- Maria Feola-Magro, Director of Events, Business Development Institute

Content, especially visual content provided on social media, must correlate to your business objectives, to attract customers.

-- Michael Pranikoff, Global Director of Emerging Media at PR Newswire

We are officially in the midst of the Social Media Movement, an offshoot of the Digital Age. However, this year will come to be known as the "Year of the Selfie," because the line between personal/private and public/political photography has blurred yet again. The first time this cultural phenomenon happened was in 2001. The catalyst was 9/11. On that fateful day, average people were put front and center of the action. Anyone who took a photo and posted it online became an official 9/11 storyteller. In addition to the obvious social, psychological, economic, historical and political repercussions to 9/11 we all know about, there was the incubation of new soldiers in the Tech Revolution in a petri dish called The Millennial Generation. It is the largest marketing demographic and group of entrepreneurs to date.

This is important to know because millennials in particular are causing us to change the way we approach our work/life balance, approach entrepreneurship, engage in social media, do business, advertise in cyber time and real time, and create with and consume visual media (art, film, books, blogs, mobile technology). The push for the digitalization of visual content marketing to drive commerce can be traced to their tech savvy and a love for "selfies" (self-portraits).

Visual content marketing is becoming increasingly popular and is now regularly analyzed around the water cooler at work, in the blogosphere and at business seminars. That includes visual trends such as "food porn" (I heard Jessica Lauria, Director of Brand Communications at Chobani use this term last week) on Pinterest and "selfies" on Instagram, the two fastest growing social media channels of 2013. They house digital photos, videos, infographics and links and tips regarding mobile apps that contain icons, comics and even mind maps.

Which brings me to these ideas I took away from the Business Development Institute in New York's Visual Communications Forum on December 12, 2013. The forum happened because Founder/CEO Steve Etzler and Director of Events Maria Feola-Magro worked together to provide a condensed, live opportunity for networking, collaboration, thought leadership and learning best practices. Three common themes in social media emerged with these repeated questions. They were answered by a variety of speakers including two millennialls who particularly impressed me with their grasp of the potential pitfalls and power of visual integration into social media best practices.

Make yourself your own backpack journalist when curating content, for increased authenticity and engagement.

-- Amanda Pehrson, Social Media Manager at Crocs Inc.

The Internet, with it's potential for visual engagement, is as essential for inspiring new travel as it is for planning new travel.

-- Aaron Clossey, Social Media Manager, Jetsetter (now under TripAdvisor)

What's the common thread? I believe it is this: Riding the "social media train" while using the visual modality has the unique ability to trigger memories in the human brain, making us more receptive to increased emotional engagement with others, and to deliberate, timed calls to action (CTAs). These are two crucial outcomes of any good visual content marketing campaign. That kind of train needs conductors who understand how to answer work around these three potential problems:

1. How can you leverage visuals more meaningfully to drive social media traffic and engagement?

2. When should you feed the social media beast: In cyber time after social listening (or not, like Lululemon Athletica did by ignoring complaints about one of their women's yoga pants being see-through causing a huge outcry) or in real time, when a news event occurs or something trending goes viral (think what Oreo brilliantly did at the 2013 Super Bowl during the blackout, tweeting an ad in the third quarter proclaiming that "You can still dunk in the dark")?

3. Why is repurposing content (self-generated or user-generated) using visuals across miscellaneous social channels psychologically effective for branding and eliciting calls to action?

A picture really does tell a story. When done right, seeding visuals into your social media pipeline or feed can drive (short-term) but also sustain (long-term) consumer loyalty, provide opportunities for more authentic, organic engagement with followers, help facilitate more consistent brand recognition and advocacy, help you repurpose previously posted textual content for greater retention and emotional impact, generate calls to action that simultaneously entertain and inspire, lengthen your service's or product's virtual shelf life, and entice people from all demographics to cross-pollinate their "shares" and "likes."

This last point is the elephant in the room, the conundrum that so many entrepreneurs and advertising agencies face today when trying to leverage social media to generate revenue for services and products and turn leads (bystanders) into bona fide customers (evangelists).

In practical terms, good visual content marketing is feasible as long as you understand:

• The need for active, ongoing content curation using a physical (iPhoto for Mac, external hard drive) as well as a cloud-based (Pocket or Evernote apps, Pinterest boards, Dropbox, SugarSync) holding pen for your pictures.

• The elements of humor and storytelling, which provide the tracks underneath the social media train transporting your visuals.

• The value in posting visual content more than once on your feed to trigger and sustain an emotional reaction, and in posting these visuals thematically, using elements of doing good, social entrepreneurship, and branding.

• The importance of sustaining engagement in one venue before jumping on another that's trending.

• The power of customizing your visual hook to reach people in specific niche markets based on knowing what makes them tick, where they hang out, and what interests them.

As we board the speeding social media train for 2014, we need to think about how to imbue our digital footprint with more meaning. More teachable moments for others. More balanced posts showing levity and gravitas; the two traits giving us our top seat on the food chain. Educators understand this. Millennialls with their different outlook on work/life balance are living this. It is time for more entrepreneurs to do this. We have the technology. We just need to balance it better with our humanity. The new year's a good time to start.