A view from John Donovan

Tech viewpoint on the visual web

The internet is going visual.

Image sites such as Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr are attracting users in droves, publishers are creating image-first websites and the resulting surge in uploading, sharing and viewing of pictures online has radically altered the way we surf. 

The visual web has been enabled by the increase in download speeds and take-up of mobiles and tablets, resulting in the easy upload and download of images. There are about one billion images posted online per day. Several sites have recently been redesigned to put the image first. One title, the global news outlet Quartz, is now 63 per cent image (in terms of pixels). It uses a scroll-feed approach and image slices that span the entire page to characterise the headlines and abstracts.

But how far publishers and marketers are monetising the visual web is a moot point. Recent research shows that although they see the visual web as integral to their future, only a third are making significant investments in visual storytelling. Despite this reticence, there are fundamentals around monetising the visual web.

In order to maintain the costs of delivering their content for free, many publishers have had to structure their sites in a way that makes it more likely that users will see the ads on them. Whether it be video ads that begin automatically or more standard pre-roll ads, people are growing increasingly frustrated over what they perceive to be obnoxious ads that are interrupting their customer experience. 

But by bringing ads "in-image" – ie. serving contextual ads over editorial photos and visuals – it solves a host of problems. Advances in image-recognition technology mean these type of ads don’t disrupt the content, they complement it. By putting small, aesthetically pleasing ads within an image, publishers can provide a seamless advertising experience that shows they are trying to add value for the reader, not take away from it.

Eye-tracking studies have shown that users focus more energy and attention on images than anything else, which makes these types of ad hugely compelling for advertisers. They get the reassurance that their ad is actually going to be seen, as it’s appearing within the most engaging part of the page – the image itself.

With digital-savvy customers increasingly tuning out banner and other more traditional advertising formats, publishers need to embrace new ways of presenting and monetising content. But, fortunately for them, it’s not just millennials who love images. The visual web has an emotional impact on viewers of all ages and, used properly, could help transform the publishing industry’s fortunes.

John Donovan is vice-president, GumGum UK