Why and how to apply color theory in social media marketing

With a spectrum of hues, tints, tones and shades permeating online networks, a knowledge of their interplay is essential for communicators of all stripes (and plaids). Here’s a breakdown.

Social media is visual. Images (and, increasingly, ) are the most engaging content on all channels. 

The 3.2 billion active users across all platforms are eager for relevant content, and images are essential to capturing their attention. . the engagement of posts without images.

With easy access to cell phones, social media managers can create a steady stream of image content. However, we still need forethought, planning and a discerning eye to create high-quality images that are truly memorable and fit a brand’s tone. 

If you work with or know a skilled graphic designer, employing their expertise can ensure that your images are beautiful and aesthetically consistent. Smaller brands and agencies may not have a graphic designer on staff, and minor design needs often fall to social media managers. 

[RELATED: Ragan Consulting Group can help you find, tell and share your organization’s compelling stories in any format]

Some social media professionals have design knowledge, but even beginners can leverage a few key elements of design and apply them to social media imagery.

The foundation of all images is color—even those in black-and-white. A basic understanding of color theory is important to staging, editing and posting images that engage your brand’s followers.

Color theory: The basics

is a broad term that encompasses decades of scientific study and exploration. The base is the color wheel, which itself has a multitude of iterations. The key parts of any color wheel are:

  • Primary colors (red, blue and yellow): All other colors are made from these three.
  • Secondary colors (green, orange and purple): Each of these colors is made from some combination of primary colors.
  • Tertiary colors: Made by mixing a primary and secondary color, these colors expand the color range infinitely.

Any color wheel you choose can guide you in complementary colors, or “color harmony.” Colors and shades directly across from each other on a color wheel are complementary, meaning that when paired together they provide a contrast that is pleasing to the eye. 

Color harmony involves analogous colors (any three colors next to each other on the color wheel). The contrast, or lack thereof, these sets create makes an impact, even if the image is altered to black-and-white.

Certain colors have different meanings in various cultures, and warm and cool shades evoke different emotions. Human emotion and color are strongly tied together.

Planning your images with these considerations in mind helps create the desired atmosphere, tone and action for your brand.

Color theory on social media: Tips for making an impact

We all have at least a vague idea of what images look “good,” perhaps without understanding why they appear that way. When you apply color theory to the photos you take and graphics you create for social media, you’ll start to grasp the science and art behind it and then create images that show a consistent brand image and drive your followers to action.

When setting up a photo or beginning to design an image, first consider your brand’s color scheme. If you have a well-designed logo/branding guide, it’s likely that the colors are already complementary or analogous. These colors are good choices for your base social media palette. Try to plan images that include these colors in some way.

Complementary colors create contrast, a technique you can use to bring the eye to a focal point. Contrast in images has also been shown to .

Colors evoke emotion. If you’re going for feelings of warmth, power or love, choose colors in the warm-color range, such as reds, pinks, oranges and yellows. If you’re aiming for soothing and calming, choose a blue or a green. 

Carefully consider the target audience and how their cultural background affects perceptions of color. For example, the color white in Western cultures often represents purity and elegance, but in some Asian cultures, it’s .

Remember that hues appear differently on digital screens than on paper. A color you choose from printed brand material may look slightly different onscreen, as will colors in the photos you take. You might need to edit and adjust images to get your desired effect.

Intentional use of color theory in your social media images will help create a cohesive brand presence that engages your followers. Keep in mind complementary and analogous colors, your brand’s color scheme, contrast, how colors stir emotions, and the differences in printed and digital material, and you’ll design images that stick with your audience long after they’ve logged off.

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