Purpose This study aims to explore the visual social media (SM) (Instagram) communication and the visual characteristics of smart tourism destination (STD) communication from destination marketing/management organizations (DMOs) and user-generated content (UGC) perspectives, which refer to projected image and perceived image, respectively. Design/methodology/approach Three DMO official accounts of STDs (Helsinki, Gothenburg and Lyon) and corresponding official hashtags were selected for the sample and total 6,000 post data (1,000 x 6) were retrieved from Instagram. Visual communication content was examined with a netnographic design over a proposed four-level visual content framework using corresponding methodological approaches (thematic analysis, visual analysis, object detection and text mining) for each level. Findings Among the eight emerging themes dominating the images, communication of smart elements conveys far less than expected textual and visual signals from DMOs despite their smart status, and in turn, from UGC as well. UGC revealed three extra image themes regardless of smartness perception. DMOs tend to project and give voice to their standard metropolitan areas and neighborhoods while UGCs focus on food-related and emotional elements. The findings show a partial overlap between DMOs and UGCs, revealing discrepancies in objects contained in visuals, hashtags and emojis. Additionally, as a rare attempt, the proposed framework for visual content analysis showed the importance of integrated methods to investigate visual content effectively. Research limitations/implications The number of attributes in visual analysis and focusing on the observed elements in text content (text, hashtags and emojis) are the limitations of the study in terms of methodology. Originality/value Apart from the multiple integrated methods used over a netnographic design, this study differs from existing SM and smart destinations intersection literature by attempting to fill a gap in focusing on and exploring visual SM communication, which is scarce in tourism context, for the contents generated by DMOs and users.