As the festive season approaches, it’s highly likely that we’ll be inundated with images of snowy landscapes, presents under decorated trees and greeting cards bearing the annual family photo. Of course, paintings, cartoons and photographs have long been used to encapsulate key moments and to share messages. Now though, it appears that this desire to communicate through visual methods rather than the written word is becoming even more popular amongst millennials.

The plethora of social media apps that already exist makes it extremely easy to post, share and like digital material about whatever they consider to be important. What’s more, these photos, videos and other images not only record the moment in time but also have the potential to capture attitude, feelings and behaviour. It’s hardly surprising therefore that marketers are looking beyond traditional uses of imagery and exploring different ways to make digital images work for their business advantage. Pictures are no longer a simple, static snapshot, but an interactive way to gather, monitor and evaluate unstructured feedback in order to engage with their audiences, improve response rates to campaigns and research programmes, and take a more innovative approach to eliciting customer feedback.

The growth in mobile and the smart phone in particular has contributed to this rapid pictorial evolution. Marketers are using mobile to harnesslifestyle studies or multi-media diaries to create real-time (photo, video, audio) profiles of individual consumer buying habits. Respondents can answer short surveysbut more importantly they can provide video demonstrations and photograph their homes or favourite objects to provide the research team and brands with a very personal picture of where they live and what makes them happy.

Looking ahead, the most exciting application of the digital image in marketing that is set to make its mark is the use of facial and emotion recognition technology. It’s widely accepted that facial expressions are strongly linked to emotions, and therefore attitude, and so it is only logical that CX professionals are keen to incorporate emotional response into VoC programmes in order to better understand the personal sentiment and reactions at the heart of customer experience.

Facial recognition technology can record even the most fleeting of facial movements that correspond to emotion, using machine-learning algorithms to build a huge reference database of expressions against which to judge the face being viewed. It’s not dissimilar to the way text analytics systems “learn” how to categorise particular words, phrases and verbal expressions.

It’s worth stressing however that one of the biggest benefits of harnessing digital images and facial recognition technology in VoC programmes is that it puts the customer in the driving seat. It allows them to capture and communicate what they consider to be the hot topic or most important point about a product or a service, in the most direct way.

In other words, it puts the customer’s views top of the agenda and ensures that any feedback sought or provided addresses their agenda, not that of the company. CX professionals striving to take a customer-centric approach to VoC stand a much greater chance of understanding how emotions drive spending and loyalty at the point of experience if they tap into the millennials’ love of social media and apps that facilitate image capture.

Privacy and permissions are no longer an issue for this new kind of respondent and in fact offering this new approach to providing feedback is more likely to drive response than hinder it. Using digital images and facial recognition in broader surveys might be the starting point but with an accuracy rate of around 95%, it’s highly likely that new and exciting applications of the software won’t be far away.

After all, the ‘selfie generation’ not only prefers to communicate what it wants in a ‘snapchat’ or on Instagram, it wants to record itself in the heart of the image. It appears that a picture truly does paint a thousand words and marketers that take on board the culture change in communication should reap the benefits.

When considering your standard festive greetings card, then, it may be worth spending a little longer considering what visual methods you might use to more fully engage your audiences – and keep them engaged well beyond the Christmas season.

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