Skip to Content
4 Min Read

I’ll Know It When I See It

Guest Post: Liz Banse

A few years ago, I had a light bulb moment when talking with a branding expert about how the images that companies use – more than anything else – influenced how their products were perceived by their customers. The light bulb moment was not, however, the idea that good ads – in all their well-executed glory – get us to buy stuff we never thought we needed. Heck, even kids know that!

The a-ha moment came instead in thinking about whether the nonprofit community was adopting best practices from Madison Avenue and applying them to cause communications. Were there Mad Men amongst us? I compared notes with my colleagues. Our conclusion was that most nonprofits start their persuasion efforts in the opposite fashion from corporations – with words. Oh, my, we sweat over every word choice. But then we spend only a fraction of that time on finding a picture to go with our narrative, almost as an afterthought. This is the exact opposite way that our brains process information – the visual first, the verbal second.


Well, that branding guru put a bee in my bonnet. I wanted to learn everything there was to know about how corporations find the right images to sell us widgets and build affinity for their brands. What were their secrets? This was difficult to uncover. Some of those secrets had a name…trade secrets. Maybe there was a book I could read? Nada.

Not to be deterred, I spent the last two years hitting the stacks, researching how our brains process visual and verbal information and make decisions. I interviewed people in the fields of neuroscience, branding, marketing, public relations, opinion research, advertising, photography and social media to pull together best practices.

It was a fascinating learning curve, to say the least:

  • Did you know that National Geographic photo editors will sometimes go through 10,000 photos to find that single perfect photo for an article? They have put their time and money in the photos and have earned their status as one of the most visually appealing magazines in the world fair and square.
  • Do you know why those poorly designed ads with dancing men and women are so ubiquitous online? The designers know how distracting they are and that we look. Our peripheral vision is to blame. It is really good at assessing movement whenever and wherever it is happening. Researchers speculate this goes back to our earliest days on the planet. What’s that moving? Is it dangerous? Will it eat me?

Along the way, I came across quite a few standout visual communicators. World Wildlife Fund staff excel at visual storytelling. They recently ran an ad campaign with messages about poaching. They didn’t show those classic photos of the felled elephant with the tusks removed, bleeding in the dust. They’ve done market research. They’ve learned that people are more inspired to protect animals when they see their magnificence and beauty. Their anti-poaching campaigns show the animals looking strong and proud – a tiger with a message saying, “I am not a rug.” An elephant with beautiful white tusks saying, “I am not jewelry.” And we, their audience, agree. They also found that generational pictures, of mothers and their children, of all types of animals inspire people to protect them because we want to see the survival of the species. We instinctually want to protect the young, the vulnerable.

WWF ads

Communications Network members got a preview of some of our top recommendations on how to become master visual communicators in late February via Resource Media’s webinar, “Avoiding the Blind Spot.” Since then, we have distilled the information in a report called Seeing is Believing, a best practices guide on visual storytelling. Download the report, share it with your grantees and set yourself a mid-year resolution to join the visual revolution!

We are hoping that members of the Communications Network can participate in the new learning community we are building at Please share your best practices – or those of your grantees – at this resource hub or by emailing me at We also welcome guest blog posts on your case studies and best practices.

Liz Banse is vice president at Resource Media



* indicates required

Join The Network

Community, learning, and leadership to help you do good, better.

Become a member