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My favourite thing on Facebook – and probably the entire worldwide web if I’m completely honest – is a group that is all pictures. But every one of those pictures tells a story – neigh, it MAKES a story. The group is called “As Seen Through Horses’ Ears” (now you can see why I wrote “neigh”) and every shot is taken by a rider, straight through the horse’s ears. It puts you in the picture – the epitome of visual storytelling. 

The view from horseback is my favourite view, and through this Facebook group I get to see parts of the world I’ll never be able to visit. In the heat of summer, when flies are bothering the horses, the cicadas are deafening and crushed pennyroyal sends out a soft wafting aroma into the still air, I especially delight in images from the colder regions like Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Canada.

Imagine two photos. One of a snowy track in the woods, nothing else.

The second photo is the same setting, but in the centre of the frame are dark brown fluffy ears and through them, you see hoof prints in the deep, white snow. Suddenly, you’re the rider, on that horse’s back. You can smell the horse’s warm steamy breath, feel his muscles move beneath you, and hear the crackle and squish of the snow beneath his furry feet.

You find yourself wondering what’s on either side of the frame, or behind you. Are you alone in the frozen stillness, or are there three friends riding behind you, chatting about the beautiful day?  What animals are beyond the ice-laden trees – watching in excited anticipation, attracted by the sounds, sights and scents?

When winter comes to Auckland, with relentless rain turning the paddocks to mud, riding is the furthest thing from my mind. Until I see images from this group –  a long sandy beach in Cape Town between a pair of shiny chestnut ears.  Rocky mountains in Arizona between the spotty ears of an Appaloosa on his first adventure after an injury.  And a lush green Dartmoor valley with rays of sunlight beaming through the trees, as seen by an 8-year old girl through the grey ears of her best friend.

Intoxicating, isn’t it?

A brand that comes to mind that transports us to other places is Airbnb. The image below puts your customers in the picture and is a powerful example of visual storytelling that really sells the experience.

What sells this place isn’t how many bedrooms it has, or the magnificent view, it’s that you can imagine yourself on the swing over-looking Los Angeles below. It also evokes nostalgic memories from your childhood. Airbnb is such a fantastic example of letting your customers do your marketing.

The human version of Horses Ears is Instagrama Murad Osmann’s “Follow Me” series, where he photographs the world from the perspective of being led by his wife’s hand. His images are spectacular.

Here you can see it being used in a Beringer Wines advertising campaign.

Beringer Wines campaign

How can you apply visual storytelling to your business and put your customers in the picture?

Here’s 3 suggestions:

  1. Don’t just show your product on a plain background, frame it in such a way (visually) that your customer imagines themselves there, enjoying it. For example: if you sell cheese, show it on a platter at a dinner party or at a picnic in a beautiful outdoor setting. This helps to sell the experience your product is promising.
  2. Use interesting juxtapositions. Many years ago Steve ran a campaign for Design Mobel beds where they photographed the natural rimu framed beds in spectacular outdoor locations – atop Mt Tarawera, Tongariro National Park and above Huka Falls.
  3. User-generated visual content. Make use of the imagery that your customers post about your product/ service on social media. A few years ago Loews Hotels made use of their customer’s Instagram photos in a clever campaign called #TravelForReal.
  4. Two other cool articles about participatory and inspirational storytelling are  The Empathy Museum and  The Wonder Dimension