Have you ever played a memory game with a group of friends?
You know, the kind where everyone adds an item to the list, and you have to remember what everyone else has said, as well as adding your own item to the list. It gets quite hard, very quickly!
Imagine if you only had to remember one item… it would be a very dull game, for sure, because it’s too easy. Anyone can remember just one item.
With photo captions, it’s good that people are able to remember one item
When you’re writing photo captions, you want people to remember just one thing. Yes, just one thing.
You don’t want readers to try and remember more than one thing, or they’ll get confused and forget. (Remember, you’re trying to get your message across, not play memory games!)
And there’s more to writing a good image caption than simply stating what’s in the photograph. While you do need to put the photo into context, just saying what’s in the photo will generally leave readers confused and thinking, “so what?”
Here’s an example of a photo caption that creates a “so what” response:
Simply stating what’s in the photograph is a missed opportunity: you can do better than that!
To write a better caption, you need to incorporate a benefit
To write a more powerful photo caption, you need to incorporate a benefit of your product or service.
So for the dog food photo caption example, what benefits do you think the premium quality dog food may have?
Begin by brainstorming the different benefits of the dog food. (And we’re talking benefits here, not features… we’ll look at the difference between features and benefits in the next blog article.)
The benefits of the premium dog food might be:
- Nutritionally-balanced for maximum energy
- Gives the dog healthy skin and coat
- Quality ingredients promote longevity
- Keeps teeth clean and freshens breath
- Supports joint health
- No flatulence guarantee
… you get the idea!
Now you need to pick one benefit
Yes, pick just one benefit – and it needs to be the one thing that is most likely to motivate customers to buy. This benefit needs to address the biggest worry or concern your target market might have.
While things like glossy fur and clean teeth are nice things for a dog to have, the biggest concern a dog owner will usually have is longevity. Dog owners get very attached to their pooch, yet the dog may live for just 10 to 15 years… not nearly long enough, for something you love so much! So a product that (realistically) promises a long and healthy life is something that’ll tug at the heartstrings of dog owners, motivating them to buy your product rather than your competitors’ offerings.
But before you write the caption, there’s one more thing to address. And that is, to make the caption believable.
Making the caption believable
Notice how I’ve alluded to the fact that a caption must be believable? You can’t just go making wild promises without backing them up. For example, the following caption is totally unbelievable:
This caption would most likely be met with a skeptical, “yeah, right”, and you need to avoid that. You need to make your caption believable.
How to make your caption believable
To make the caption believable, you need to tie in the feature that corresponds with the benefit you’ve chosen.
In the dog food example, it would be the nutritional aspects of the food that help to justify that claim.
But again, pick just one feature, not a bunch of features, or it’ll get confusing.
With your one benefit and corresponding feature selected, you can now write your photo caption. Example:
Ta-da! There’s your ideal photo caption.
Of course, you could tweak the caption further, such as:
- Your best friend can enjoy a long and healthy life, thanks to this nutritionally-balanced dog food. Or:
- Your dog will get all the nutrients he needs in this premium dog food, so he can enjoy a long and healthy life. Or:
- Because this premium dog food is nutritionally-balanced, your dog can enjoy a long and healthy life.
There are a number of ways in which the message in the caption can be phrased, there’s no one single right answer. But notice how all these caption ideas incorporate just one benefit, and the one corresponding feature.
Sidenote: A photo that would be more appealing than one of dog food would be a picture of either (a) a cute, healthy-looking dog enjoying eating the dog food, or (b) a cute, healthy-looking dog running through a flowery meadow – the perfect picture of good health.
But the reality is that we don’t always have the perfect photo to work with, and when you’re a small business owner, it’s often about making the most of what you’ve got. So for now, focus on writing great captions for the photos you’ve already got… but do make it part of your plan to obtain better photos if you need to.
How to give your caption the breath test
Before you finalise your choice of caption, give it a quick breath test.
What’s the breath test? This is about making sure you can say your caption in one breath. If you can’t say it in one breath, it’s also too long for people to remember it. (After all, this is meant to be an easy memory game for your reader, not a complex memory test!)
Here’s an example of a caption that’s too long:
Phew, that’s far too long and cluttered! Do not use captions this long: you’ll be out of breath, and your readers will be confused.
But what about writing captions for a service?
The example so far has been product-related, i.e. to dog food. But what if you’re selling a service? Exactly the same rules apply. Let’s look at a quick example to see photo captions for a service in action.
The service we’ll look at is also canine related: we’ll use a dog walking service as an example. This caption is too short and gives us the “so what” factor: Dog walking service.
Using a caption that just talks about a feature gives a “so what” reaction too: Our dog walkers have been police checked.
Instead we need to talk about a benefit; specifically, one which addresses the prospect’s primary concern. And if you were looking at a dog walking service, your primary concern may be that the dog walker treats your pet responsibly and with good care. In short, you want them to take the same good care of your dog as you do. Someone that’ll be kind to them and keep them safe.
So a good caption might be: You can be sure that your dog’s getting good care when you’re at work.
And to make the caption even more believable, you could add in a feature to justify the benefit, e.g.: You can be sure that your dog’s getting good care from our police checked dog walkers.
(Sometimes this adding of a feature is necessary, other times it isn’t… it depends on how believable your benefit is by itself.)
And let’s look at an example that’s far too long and confusing, and fails the breath test (so you know what not to do): Our dog walking service is convenient if you work long hours, plus our dog walkers are police checked and have pet first aid skills for your peace of mind.
To help you visualise the ideal caption for the dog walking service example, here’s a visual:
With this particular photo, it would be even better to put the text next to the image, so that the dog’s looking at the words. This would create a nice, compelling Non-Mona Lisa effect. (Not sure what the ‘Non-Mona Lisa effect’ is? Then you need to grab the Free eGuide, ‘How to Choose Eye-Catching Photographs for your Marketing’, which explains this.)
Summary checklist for caption writing
A good caption includes the following elements:
- The caption makes it obvious what’s in the picture, or puts the picture into context.
- It tells the reader something extra in addition to the obvious, i.e. you avoid the “so what” syndrome.
- You state just one benefit: ideally this benefit will be your prospect’s biggest motivator.
- You use one feature to back up the benefit (if it’s needed).
- The caption passes the breath test; you can easily say it in one breath.
If you work through this process when you’re writing captions for your own photos, you’ll be able to create something compelling that’s also easy for readers to remember… no memory games required!
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PS. Imagine how dull this article would be without the graphics!
That’s why photos and captions are so important: they help to lock in the learning.
If you want your clients to remember what you’re telling them, be sure you’re using all the tips in my eBook, ‘How to Choose and Use Eye-Catching Photographs for your Marketing’.
The eBook has a whole chapter on writing memorable photo captions, plus other little-known tips on making your marketing materials more effective. For example:
- Where you can find quality photographs – on any budget.
- The importance of where the model is looking in a photograph.
- How to choose a photo that won’t date too quickly.
- Why photographs with white backgrounds are ultra versatile
- How to combine words with images (captions are just one of the techniques you can use).
- How you can create drama with photographs through size, positioning, angles and borders.