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Why is Visual Storytelling So Important?

A picture is worth a thousand words. No one is more certain of this than Joseph “JK” Kalinowski. He has worked as an art director both in advertising and the publishing industry for more than two decades. JK’s experience prepared him for the work he does now, overseeing all creative for the Content Marketing Institute.

JK shares with us how visual storytelling provides audiences valuable content in more interesting ways. He also explains how it creates a powerful emotional connection with consumers.

Key takeaways from the interview

  • It may feel unsettling at the moment, but now is the perfect time for brands to make strategic visual content moves.
  • Marketers will achieve success when each member of their team are actively a part of the brand’s visual storytelling.
  • Good things will come from our Zoom meetings. JK believes live video technology will play a big role in our 2021 content marketing efforts.

Monina Wagner: Speaking of experts in visual storytelling, we are lucky to have a creative director with us here at CMI who is an expert in all things design. So we asked JK Kalinowski to join us today. Hello JK!

Joseph Kalinowski: Hi Mo, how are you?

MW: It is a gorgeous day out in Cleveland. Hopefully everyone’s that’s watching right now is having just as beautiful of a day.

JK: I’ll tell you what. You can see I am in my basement office. I was going to do this outside, but there are way too many birds who want to chime in on everything. I want to take in the sunshine a little bit so I might sneak out a little early today and go enjoy some 70-degree weather – rare 70-degree weather in November.

MW: I do not blame you at all. So most everyone who follows CMI is probably really familiar with your work. But those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting you, why don’t you tell us a little about yourself.

JK: Sure. I’m JK Kalinowski. I am CMI’s creative director. I have been running the design at Content Marketing Institute and Content Marketing World for a little over ten years, since basically the beginning all the way back from Junta42. I take care of everything from our daily blog alerts to stage design at Content Marketing World and everything in between. So, everything orange. It’s certainly a team effort, but we have a lot of fun doing it

MW: Absolutely. And he’s not telling you, but he’s very big on shenanigans. So if you’re looking for shenanigans within the CMI team it’s typically because he is behind it.

JK: A quick story on that Mo. My wife is a teacher and she forgot her lunch. So she texted me to put her lunch box out on the porch. She was going to run home. And of course I had to draw pictures and put them inside the lunchbox and silly messages. And I just get a text message back about 10 minutes ago that just said, “jerk.” So mission accomplished!

MW: Well we definitely don’t think you’re a jerk on our team. We’re really lucky to have you as our creative director. Not everyone has a creative director on staff, and sometimes people do and they just don’t get along with them. So we know we are lucky and very fortunate on our team. You’ve been in the business for a really long time. How would you say visual storytelling has evolved since you began?

JK: Wow yeah, it’s leaps and bounds just in the ten years that I’ve been involved. From the beginnings of my days with CMI and getting into content marketing, it was all about the written word and blogs, and you know people getting their opinions down and their brand stories down on the page. But normally, it was very verbiage and word-based and not a lot of visuals put in it. Half the time when there were visuals put in, it was kind of like throwaway stock photography to break up the copy, or some random picture or maybe a word-based graph or something. Then as the internet and you know the web of things started to evolve, things started getting a little bit more friendly towards visuals.

But what I really noticed in the past few years, which I find incredibly intriguing, is content marketers are completely buying-in on visuals now. And now they are using the visual as a foundation and building a narrative around it. I’ve seen this happen so many times.

I can give you an example that’s one of my personal favorites, one of my early personal favorites – a friend and family member of CMI’s, Todd Wheatland, at the time was working for Kelly Services, the employment agency. He was their head of marketing, and they did a very large infographic – I mean extremely large – that they ended up breaking it up into sections. It was like a visual storytelling map, and they actually would just release it in different areas across all their platforms and have a complete narrative built around that section of the map. But you could totally tell they started with the map and built their narrative around it.

MW: So let me go back to a little bit of what you had said. Let’s talk about buy-in then. Do you think the buy-in has been easier since when you know your career began to where we are now?

JK: Oh most certainly. I think it a lot of it has to do with the evolution of the web and the platforms that people are using. Because a lot of the platforms now, specifically when it comes to social, are very visual. You have to grab that attention quick. I mean, I don’t want to bring up the goldfish theory because everybody talks about the goldfish theory. But obviously Mo, you know in the world that we live in, you need to grab attention quickly. So you might have to have a great visual that’s going to pop off somebody’s feed immediately. And then they’ll tend to read the tweet or read the narrative that you tied to that visual. I think visuals have become, with the growth of social media, the platforms. Instagram for example is a huge one. Instagram is the one where you’re grabbing people’s attention via a picture or a piece of visual content. So absolutely.

MW: You’ve already touched upon social. So let’s talk about social. Let’s talk about the CMI blog. We work on a lot of platforms. So how does visual storytelling kind of fit into that multi-channel strategy that a lot of us are working with now?

JK: Well I think one of the biggest things is… well first is consistency is key. There are so many platforms that we’re all working with. I mean, you and I work on so many together across CMI and all of our brands. I’m using CMI as an example, but everything that you would need for me, you know it’s going to have a certain look. Obviously, we have brand standards and everything, but it all has to have a certain look to make sure our audience understands, “hey, this is where this is from.”

On top of it all it’s the ideation process as well. You and I get together. We get Cathy our marketer, Amanda, Steph – it’s a team effort to make these things work. It’s not just, “hey JK, come up with something!” and I come up with it, and you throw it up. Because half the time that wouldn’t work if we didn’t have buy-in from across the team and ideas. One is definitely consistency. Two is your team has to have complete buy-in, submit their ideas, and make sure everything works across the board.

MW: Now I know we have a lot of things working right now. I think also something really important to remember is planning ahead. A lot of people sometimes think that magically you could design something, you can create something. I think that’s something that you’ve really instilled on us. That we are able to do all of that, but we need to plan ahead and not only just from a workflow standpoint but we need to plan ahead so that you talked about it – that collaboration where we can repurpose a lot of the visuals that you create if we do that planning.

JK:  That is 100% right. We always have those – I hate using the term “newsjacking” but there are certain times where we need to turn something very quickly because maybe something in the world’s going on or something’s going on with our industry that we really need to get in front of. But planning ahead certainly helps us because that way, on top of getting our brand messaging and our visual messaging correct, we can also test, test, test to see how it looks and how people are going to read it and everything like that.

Because sometimes you can design or create something for Instagram, and it completely looks different or it doesn’t grab the attention that it would Facebook. These platforms are all changing, ever-changing. They’re certainly not evergreen that’s for sure. We know that. So there’s always something that we have to tweak or the messaging. So yeah, planning ahead to give yourself that time to hammer out the correct visual, the correct message, and the correct testing so you know it’s getting to the people you needed to get to.

MW: You say testing. So is there a platform, something on social or is it something creative for CMWorld, what’s your favorite to experiment with?

JK: The biggest thing for me is obviously I run a lot of stuff past you because you’re a lot better in that in that [social media] world.

MW: Don’t believe him!

JK: The crazy thing for me is, and this is no slight to any platform over another, but it can be very tough because some platforms don’t allow you – like case and point like Facebook. You can’t use as much copy in your image as maybe you could on LinkedIn or Instagram or whatever. There’s some testing sites that I go to. For Facebook, I honestly run their test on some of the stuff I create just to make sure that I’m following within their guidelines. Because I don’t want to give you something that you can’t use. I want to get my foundation design done and approved by Facebook before I even present it to you to make sure it’s going to work.

MW: That’s appreciated. Absolutely appreciated.

We talked about CMI hosting the Visual Storytelling Summit next week. A friend of CMI’s, Tyler Lessard from Vidyard, is going to speak about humor and empathy and human connection. With what you do, when you’re trying to engage that audience, how important is that emotional connection?

JK: Right now, in the times we’re living in, making a human connection to our audiences is the utmost key. How many videos, how many commercials, how many YouTube videos – I swear if I hear “unprecedented times” one more time, I’m going to lose it. Somebody had a coffee mug that says, “I miss precedented times on it.”

The biggest thing is authenticity is key. If you truly are an empath with your audience and you’re feeling what they’re feeling and a lot of us are. We’re human. You need to make that human connection. You need to be authentic in your messaging. Not just your messaging but everything you do.

We’re feeling what everyone else is feeling that’s going through this. It’s a global pandemic. We’re trying to navigate our way through everything. This is a perfect time for brands to really be able to step away from that mold that they’ve always had as marketers and say, “hey look, we are with you in this.”

One of the best examples that I just saw over the weekend was a viral image that Burger King shared. It was a letter from Burger King saying, “hey we like our Whoppers, but please visit McDonald’s. Visit Pizza Hut. Visit Subway.” Because you’re not only saving business for franchisees. You’re helping their employees. And Burger King’s like, when the world starts to get a little bit saner, we hope you come back to the Home of the Whopper. But until then, spread the love. That was an incredible piece of marketing, simple, effective, and my guess is they’re going to get more market share from doing something so simple, so empathetic.

MW: I like what you said about helping because that’s what we do as content marketers, right? We want to be able to help each other, and something like what Burger King did shows clearly a want to help others.

JK:  That’s true. When you think of the Mr. Rogers statement: Look for the helpers. He made everybody feel good. If you want to take one thing away, just be willing to help because that’s how we’re going to get through this.

MW: We talked a little bit about collaboration already. We talked about buy-in. But sometimes it’s not as easy as we thought. That’s another topic that we’re going to be touching upon next week at the Visual Storytelling Summit. What are some tips for getting marketers and creatives all on the same page?

JK: Not to sound like a skipping record, but to go back to our previous conversation, it all comes down to the foundational ideas. The ideation process that you go through as a team. Make sure that everybody that’s involved in the project has an idea of what’s going on and an opportunity to give some input. Because once you get buy-in across your team, you all have a clear vision of your message, your focus and the goals that you’re setting so everybody’s on the same page. There’s no muddy water. Everybody knows how to get from point A to point B. From the messaging and the distribution and everything in between That starts from the foundational ideas of the actual message and the design all the way up to how we’re pushing it out and how we’re talking about it and how we’re sharing it.

We’re very fortunate to have a very close and tight team. I know sometimes it’s hard when you’re working in a marketing team that’s very large and immense. I know this for a fact. Designers can be very moody and possessive. “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do that.” I’ve been there. I still do this!

MW: No comment.

JK: Fundamentally to get a clear vision across the board is to get everybody involved from the utmost start and then work from there.

MW: This may be a hard one to answer but what happens when there are butting heads? How do you try to explain to someone in social, to someone who is writing in editorial, how do you try to get your viewpoint across? Who’s going to win? Who ultimately wins that?

JK: I can use examples for stuff that I’ve designed that I felt really strong about and went up to bat and then found out that, hey, it’s not going to work. Because normally, when it comes down over at like functionality over attitude and opinion really takes precedence when you’re dealing with this. I might design something that I really feel strongly about, and you could come back to me and say it’s not going to work because of this, this, and this. I sit there, and I try to adjust it, and it’s still not working then we know that we just need to go back to the drawing board.

Yeah, I may be a little gruff about it, but ultimately, we’re not going to get there if I still keep fighting about everything. Case in point, like there’s some times where I’ll be designing something and I’ll be working with someone that says, “hey, I want to use this color, or use this or do this.” And I’ll be like, “here’s why that’s not going to work,” and then present my logic. There’s usually a pretty good give-and-take.

Obviously some people really do butt heads, and it’s unfortunate because that’s what happens when you’re in large teams or even in small teams sometimes. But I think we’re very fortunate at CMI. We kind of understand each other. We’ve worked together long enough to know what works and what doesn’t.

MW: I want everyone to know he brought up color because that was me. He’s talking about me two weeks ago. I know it. Let’s talk about 2021. We’re all ready for 2020 to be over. So let’s look ahead to 2021. What’s one area related to visual storytelling that you’re curious about? That you want to dive into.

JK: I think one of the biggest for me is the tech and ideas behind the tech coming up. Who would have thought that you and I would be doing a livestream to our audience eight months ago. You know what I mean? Who would have thought that I would be celebrating Christmas over Zoom? So how quickly everything is moving in this space due to the pandemic, I am super curious to see what is on the horizon because for the foreseeable future.

This is how we’re going to have to be doing things and how we’re going to have to be getting in front of our audiences. I’m really stoked, especially at our Visual Storytelling Summit, to sit down and listen to some of the keynotes and our speakers that are really talking about what’s next in the tech space because there’s so much right now that that I don’t know and there’s so much on the horizon. So I think that’s the next big thing for all of us as visual storytelling creators.

MW: Now you can tell I’m still nervous being on camera, and that’s what made me very apprehensive to start doing livestreams, even before 2020. But you would hit upon it. All the Microsoft Teams. All the Zooms. Everything like that has really helped me. Just like you, I want to learn more and next week is a great opportunity. I’m going to continue learning. We have friends at Restream, at Agorapulse, places like that who are going to completely help bring us to the next level. So that’s what I’m excited for 2021. Absolutely.

JK, you are a fountain of knowledge when it comes to creative design and visual storytelling. And if you have not been to a Content Marketing World, you need to go onto our Facebook page, and you need to see some of the sets that he has designed, our posters, everything about CMWorld. If you’re looking at it, JK’s had a hand in it. If not all of it.

JK: I want to leave with is the fact that how excited I was this past Content Marketing World. How many people engaged in the virtual events. The virtual event space. What’s soon to become the hybrid space. The way that we’re going to speak and get in front of our audiences and friends is going to fundamentally change from here on out. Only for the better because we’re going to have so many more ways to get in front of people and engage with our audiences. It just means the world to me to know that they’re people sitting on here talking to listen to you and I chitchat. It’s the coolest thing.

Attend the Visual Storytelling Summit where we’ll be talking to leaders in the content marketing space who excel at not only catching a customer’s eye, but also presenting a story where written word is not enough. Join us for two days of inspiration and education.