Image really is everything to the digital economy.

While the explosion of data and information has been a topic of considerable interest in recent years, another phenomenon has received comparably less attention: The explosion of visual content. To put this growth in perspective, it is estimated that 3.8 trillion photos were taken in all of human history until mid-2011, but 1 trillion photos were taken in 2015 alone. And that’s without counting the number of people making, viewing, or sharing videos [YouTube alone boasts over a billion users worldwide], Vines [40 million users], and gifs.

The drivers of this explosion are not that different from the sources of abundance of other types of data. The rapid acceptance of smartphones and tablets (which enable users to both create and consume visual content), widespread availability of high-speed wireless networks, decreased cost of data for high-definition uploads, as well as the emergence of focused visual social networks naturally favors an expansion of video content. The old saying claims that a picture is worth a thousand words, but video ups the ante. According to Forrester Research, one minute of video is worth 1.8 million words.

Many of the successful recent entrants into the social media space, such as Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Vine, Periscope, and Meerkat, emphasize visual media. Platforms that did not originate as chiefly visual — Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter — are transitioning focus to emphasize the prominence and importance of visual content. Facebook now claims to be the largest video-sharing site in the world.

Brands are also expanding visual assets on these platforms. Nearly 60% of all digital impressions are now driven by images. Unsurprisingly, 70% of marketers are planning to increase their use of original visual assets this year, meaning these brands are not just repurposing images and video, but creating new visual content. Those who do emphasize visual content are rewarded with measurable impact on ROI and engagement metrics. Posts with visuals receive 94% more page visits and engagements than those without and elicit twice as many comments on average. Sixty-seven percent of consumers consider clear, detailed images to carry more weight than product information or customer ratings.

Physiology of Experiencing Visual Content

The reasons for the explosion and impact of this visual content are also tied to the biological mechanisms for how humans consume information. Sight is our strongest sense: 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, and 40% of nerve fibers to the brain are connected to the retina. As a result of this hardwiring, visuals are processed faster in the brain than text. Not only are visuals processed faster, they are processed better. Some suggest that 80%–85% of our perception, learning, cognition, and other mental activities are mediated through vision.

Visuals are significant drivers in inciting emotion, instigating action, and achieving memory retention. One interesting experiment showed that when someone hears a piece of information, they will remember only 10% of it three days later. Adding a picture to that information increases retention to 65%.

Using visuals as a primary method of communication continues a longer trend towards short-form content and diminishing attention spans. In 2000, average customer attention span was estimated at 12 seconds, while today’s estimate is 8.25 seconds. Since it only takes humans about 0.25 seconds to process an image, we can still communicate much more information within these shortening attention spans with visual content.

For these reasons, data visualization tools and infographics have escalated in usage because of their superior ability to explain and portray relationships, trends, and results. In just 2 years, Google searches for infographics have risen 800%. In 2014, the usage of infographics in marketing rose from 9% to 52%, underlined by the fact that publishers who market with infographics achieve 12% more traffic growth.

The Analytics Challenge of Visual Data

While the use of visual information has clearly exploded, the methods used to search and analyze that data continue to lag behind. The fact that 60% of impressions come from images presents a problem for companies seeking analytics from these interactions. Images often evade traditional tracking and analytics used to monitor audience sentiment and intent. Early versions of visual search were still based on text embedded in metadata.

The evolution of search technology will allow richer data analysis that takes account of the complexity and context contained in images and video. Already, search tools are becoming more sophisticated, allowing users to search on visual characteristics of content (shapes, color, texture, etc.). For example, the Firefly search app in Amazon.com's smartphone provides customers a link to buy many products just by taking a picture of it. Pinterest acquired VisualGraph, which provides machine vision, image recognition, and visual search technologies. As a result, Pinterest recently released a visual search functionality, allowing pinners to zoom in on one element of an image and go from there to buy it, addressing a common pain point and making these visuals actionable. Meanwhile Google, Facebook, and others continue to invest heavily in image recognition.

At the same time, companies like Quid have developed technology that crawls the web and produces visual clusters to identify keyword relations and associations. The demand for professionals with data analysis skills is skyrocketing — and more so for professionals with analytic and visualization skills, who can both show and communicate the story the data tells.

Managerial Resource Implications

The rise of visual content has implications for every form of company communication. As we become more saturated with visual imagery, we also become much more sophisticated consumers of it. Defaulting to adding a stock image into a post or an email is no longer sufficient. Quality imagery is a must, especially in the face of the millions of iPhone owners turned amateur photographers. Visual assets demand more time and investment to stand out among the trillions of images competing for consumer attention.

Visual assets have taken on a broader role and are responsible for continually and consistently representing your brand, communicating your value proposition, and cultivating brand image on a daily basis.