How To Use Visual Tropes To Build Your Audience

Last month Instagrammer extraordinaire Hannah Argyle wrote on her blog about Instagram clichés. There is so much negativity around what people perceive to be the clichés of Instagram (particularly as we come out of peony season..) that it was nice to read a sympathetic take on them. The gist of it was that clichés are clichés because they make good pictures, and as long as you’re orginial with your take on them, then the more the better.

But I’d take this even further. These clichés, or visual tropes, are in fact signposts to your target audience that you are exactly what they’re looking for. Because there isn’t just one set of clichés or tropes – every Instagram aesthetic and community has their own.

For example, in the slow living/artisanal niche that my pictures fall into, the tropes are rustic wooden table tops, wildflowers, cups of coffee, old books, messy flat lays. The colours are moody, the cups hand made or vintage enamel, and the atmosphere still and quiet. If I see a combination of these in an image then I am definitely clicking over to see the rest of your profile.

Through mutual interests and Twitter chats, I also skirt around the edge of what I think of as the colourful-design-maker niche. These images are all about bright primary colours, urban architecture, bold geometric patterns, plastic and vinyl products and neatly arranged flatlays. Elements of all niches can cross over, but all the tropes together form visual cues to the browser about what your account is all about.

If you consistently produce imagery featuring these tropes and visual cues then you are sending out silent messages to tell your people ‘hey, this is for you’. And this isn’t just the case with Instagram – it stretches into the way you present imagery on your blog or in your shop too.

How do you know which tropes to use?

You are probably using tropes in your images anyway just by osmosis from Instagram and the internet more generally. However, once you become aware of them you can maximise their use for the best effect, and use them more strategically. For example, you could already be putting a fork in your food images, but trope awareness is the difference between grabbing a fork out of the drawer and using a vintage, decorative cake fork.

If you know your audience you know the hashtags they’re likely to look at and the other Instagrammers they follow. For me, these are tags like #slowlived and #aquietstyle, and accounts like @me_and_orla and @lobsterandswan.

Go through the hashtags in your niche and start noting down the things that crop up again and again. Maybe it’s the colours, certain objects, certain settings. What style are the objects – handmade and rustic or sleek and elegant? Are the photos in the wild, in the city or in the home? Are the compositions flat lays, natural, staged? Do the same exercise with your inspirational accounts too. And if the two lists don’t match then you’re either looking at the wrong hashtags or the wrong influencers, so I’d recommend going back to your audience research and double checking everything again.

Once you have your list of tropes, you can begin to plan how you are going to weave them through your pictures to create a consistent visual identity that will appeal to your target audience. I’m a list-lover, so I will write out picture ideas in a list to tick off, but you could storyboard all your next posts or product photography too. Whichever way works for you, just ensure that each image uses a combination of your tropes and that the whole set is well balanced.

Keeping original with tropes

I’d like to empahsise here that analysing tropes is NOT about going onto your favourite accounts and replicating every single post. Not only is that kind of rude, but it will lack the visual voice that makes those accounts so successful. Visual voice is the soul of an image, the little bit of you in each one that takes them from a picture of things to something a little bit magical. This is essential for creating images that people connect with, and simply copying other photos misses out this vital step, and won’t get you the engagement you’re after.

This is more about using symbols the way artists have done for centuries. As an art historian in a former life, I think back here to medieval religious art, or Renaissance portraiture. This was the golden age of symbols, where the painter would tell the story of the subject through tropes that were easy to read, whether it was a certain flower, a particular colour of fabric or the placement of an arm. But every painting was still unique, either in the way the painter saw light, the way they painted the eyes, or the different way they would structure a well-known scene.

The principle is exactly the same. You’re using these tropes, these symbols, to put across the impression you want to give. It’s what happens in the space between the tropes that creates the magic and relationships.

Use your list of tropes as creative prompts. If you have ‘messy flat lay’ written down, then include objects that are meaningful to you and play around with the arrangement. For a ‘cup of coffee’, experiment with ways you can photograph it – maybe shoot it in a place you love, place it on your favourite book, fill it with something other than coffee if that’s more you.

The aim is for your photographs to look like you, just with some pretty symbols.

How to use visual tropes to grow your audience

How do you feel about tropes and clichés? Do you recognise them in your own work or the work of those you admire?

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How to use symbols to grow your Instagram