When words matter more than images

I admit to you it’s rare that I ever follow a LinkedIn discussion to the bitter end, but one caught my attention entitled, ‘Image or word?  Which one do you believe is more powerful when communicating with others.’

Hosted by the international ‘Marketing Communications’ group and involving more than 50 participants, the discussion presented wide-ranging points of view on whether words or images were the more powerful communicators.

In summary, the advocates of images declared that images grabbed more attention, provided succinct focus and elicited an emotional response far more efficiently than words can.  Advocates of words argued that words add more clarity of meaning, persuasion and focus.  A number of participants advocated a combination of both.

While the discussion was entertaining, the majority of contributors appeared to overlook the fact that the effectiveness of either words or images (or both) depends on what you’re selling, your target audience, the stage of the buying cycle and the intrinsic characteristics of the relevant media channels.

Taking a big step back, the discussion made me wonder whether the vast appetite of the social media world for sharing photos, the moving image and shorter text snippets was unduly influencing the debate.


The dominant view that an image ‘grabs more attention’ still has credencein the case of a print ad or even an on-line banner ad (and billboard posters too).  A bold black and white headline written well is though arguably no less effective in the right setting.  With Google Adwords of course only words matter, there’s no role for images.


Even in the case of the most elegant of e-shots or e-newsletters, in the first instance I’m only reading ‘subject line’ and ‘from’ to determine whether I give it a quick click or a delete.  Maybe it’s just the size of my in-box, but if the words aren’t working for me, it’s the latter.

If the words work then (like 35% of us) I’ve clicked on it.  Because the e-shot’s copywriting sells me on the clear benefits of the product and harmonises perfectly with an attractive and professional image, I’m going to click onward.

The landing page works fine too, not because the images, logo, colour and layout look great, but because the clarity, conciseness and persuasiveness of the words leave me in no doubt what precise action I need to take next.

Press releases

Email a press release to a journalist and s/he sees ‘subject line’, ‘from’ and a nicely headlined press release pasted into the email, no images to be seen.  Yes, the best supporting photo’s attached, but the words rule and are the deciding factor in whether the press release is published.

Informational needs

I’m actually a great believer in the old adage that a ‘picture paints a thousand words’ but a picture alone is never going to sell a highly technical product or some high value capital equipment for example.

In such cases, detailed product brochures, data sheets, case studies, manuals, white papers, many thousands of words in fact, can be needed to satisfy the informational needs of the prospective buyer through a long buying cycle.

Search engines

And search engines.  Do they give two hoots for an image?  Can they discern a great picture from a bad one?  Do they care?  No.  They find you through words, in metadata page titles and descriptions, in web page text, links and URLs, in the tags you’ve used to name your images.  Images themselves have no part to play in a search engine results page.


Left to its own devices, the human brain will certainly respond emotionally to a striking image – with anger, excitement, sadness, greed etc.  The problem is it’ll also assign its own back-story to the image, based on personal experience, with an end game that’s perhaps not what you’d hoped for.

Combining the two

Add to a striking image some well chosen words that guide audience thinking in a specific direction and marketing objectives are more efficiently met.  Nothing’s changed.

Some of the most affective adverts still use an image to deliver one part of the message and a headline to deliver another.  The momentary ‘double-take’ they demand of the reader helps imprint the complete message and makes it all the more memorable – clever stuff.

The trend towards infographics is great too.  The best ones work though not because of their friendly keep-it-simple pictorial approach or because of their economical use of words, but because of the combination of both factors.

Call me biased, but to make a statement that images are somehow more powerful communicators than words is curious.  In a digital marketing landscape, I contend that pictures need the support of words more than words need the support of pictures.

And to quote one of the participants Emile, ‘indeed the most powerful words serve no other purpose other than to conjur up an image…’  Nice.