Forget about 140 characters. Increasingly, photos and videos are driving customer engagement on social media. On Facebook's top brand pages, videos are shared 12 times more often than text and links, and photos receive twice as many likes as text updates. Meanwhile, Instagram is growing faster than Facebook did. And Pinterest now refers more traffic to outside websites than Twitter.

To churn out visuals that can engage customers in this new social-media era, many companies have had to create their own mini studios--and assign employees additional roles as staff photographers and videographers.

At Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, Ohio, a 2,000-pound delivery of summer strawberries draws a small army of social-media paparazzi. The company's "visual lead" (a.k.a. staff photographer) hops around snapping lush, sunlit shots and shooting HD video of the haul. Within days, that content will be curated, edited, and posted on Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vimeo, and the company blog. Other staff members use their smartphones to shoot close-ups of a tray of berries to post to Instagram.

At Threadless, a Chicago company that sells products designed by a community of artists, three marketing employees and a multimedia specialist each take a platform: Facebook, Tumblr, Vine, and Instagram. They primarily rely on iPhone cameras and Adobe Premiere, editing software that sells for less than $1,000.

"These social-media channels allow a company to live its brand, not just talk about it," says Paul M. Rand, CEO of Zocalo Group, a social-media marketing agency. For Jeni's, that means portraying a company dedicated to sourcing farm-fresh ingredients such as sweet corn and black raspberries. "What sets us apart is how we make our ice cream and the ingredients we use," says Ryan Morgan, Jeni's social-media director. "We could post pretty pictures of our ice cream all day long, but that does nothing to differentiate us."

For Threadless, the visuals often showcase the company's connection to artists or tie existing products to something happening in pop culture, such as a particularly riveting episode of Homeland. "It's about keeping your brand relevant to what's happening in the wider world," says Threadless marketing coordinator Kyle Geib.

Companies are careful not to appear overly promotional. At Poler, a Portland, Oregon, outdoor gear retailer, all the images posted to Tumblr radiate the youthful, free-spirited ethos the brand embodies. One shot shows three pairs of legs in front of a campsite--male legs in the middle, female legs on either side--all wearing hiking shoes, Poler socks, and possibly nothing else. Co-founder Benji Wagner is cautious about coming across as less than authentic to the platform's young users. "But anytime you can sell where people are," he says, "that's a good thing."

Now See How Three Innovative Companies Get Results With Visual Social Media

A Store Powered by YouTube

Known for her makeup tutorials, Michelle Phan is one of YouTube's biggest stars, with some 4.9 million subscribers--more than Lady Gaga. In August, Phan teamed with L'Oréal to launch a makeup line--em michelle phan. Customers are encouraged to upload their own makeup videos on em's website. In the future, they will also be able to film and upload videos inside em's retail store, which launched this fall in New York City.

Plucking the Vines

Vacation rental service Airbnb partnered with up-and-coming director Miles Jay to create a short film out of six-second Vine videos crowdsourced via Twitter. More than 750 people submitted videos. The result, Hollywood & Vines, is a 4.5-minute visual journey of a paper airplane traveling the globe. It quickly racked up more than 150,000 views when it debuted on YouTube in September.

From Pinterest to Product

The Grommet, which markets and sells products from small companies and inventors, uses Pinterest to help determine which products to promote online. Entrepreneurs submit pictures of their inventions to an online gallery, where customers can pin them, tweet them, or post them to Facebook. If an item gains traction, the Grommet will sell it.