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Say No to Stock Photography and Create Authentic Images


Here’s one of the first rules of your visual content strategy: Don’t use stock images on your branded website. Stock photos are cheap and easy, hence tempting. Do not be tempted by cheap and easy. (That’s advice that you can apply in other situations, as well.)

Visual content is a cornerstone of almost every branding campaign. And yet, we still see respectable brands using stock photographs that undermine the credibility of their hard-earned visual-branding standards.

Go authentic

Let me back up for a moment and give you an example of how you may be using stock photos and why you shouldn’t. Click on your customer service page. Is there a picture of a person wearing a headset who vaguely looks like someone who could work at your company but does not? If so, your company has committed one of the egregious sins of content marketing.

You can fix this with relative ease, and I’m going to show you how. Let’s start with people. Do you work at a company that employs humans? Some work around the office, while others have remote offices or telecommute. And those people, most of them, I assume, have faces. Maybe not attractive faces, but generally they are recognizable as human.

Those are the faces that will replace the cheap-looking stock photos on your website and in your customer-facing materials. Immediately.

That goes for everything on your website, your print materials, your prospectus, and anything else that features humans. Your content tools are real and are designed to show your company in the best light. These tools must be as authentic and real as anything else you create for your customers.

As Arnie Kuenn notes in Visual Content Marketing on 3 Major Networks: Ideas and Inspiration, photos can be used to humanize your brand. In this, he was talking specifically about photos on Instagram, but this is good advice even for your owned web properties:

Humanize your brand: … People like to connect with other people, so sharing photos of your staff on Instagram can also go a long way toward humanizing your brand. Consider bringing your audience into the fold by sharing photos of a different employee once a week, and using the caption area to describe what role he or she plays in your business. You can also take photos and videos of staff having fun at company retreats, meetings, or other events to illustrate the positive influence your company has on their lives outside of the office.

You and the people at your company are infinitely more interesting than those models who have been enhanced in Photoshop. You may not be as pretty or plastic, but you are authentic.

Authenticity is like currency. Spend it wisely or it will be wasted. (See the note above about cheap and easy.)

Say no to free

Free is fine sometimes, but free tends not to yield very good results. You wouldn’t use this as your logo, would you?

YourFreeLogo-image 1

An article in AdWeek discusses how actor Vince Vaughn and friends were inserted into some cheesy stock photos to promote their movie, Unfinished Business. The “stock” photos remained vacuous and soulless, except now people couldn’t stop looking at them because the guy in the suit was Vince Vaughn.

iStock-Unfinished-Business-image 2

It’s funny stuff for sure, but it also points out that you really can’t go right with stock photos — even free ones, even with Vince Vaughn in them. Just don’t.

How we got here

Securing pictures once was a long, tedious, manual process. You had to shoot the images, use up the remaining roll of film, take it to the lab to be developed, return to pick up the pictures, scan them, edit them, upload them, have a developer place them into the website, and then publish them.

But the Internet made it easy to access high-quality stock art. You went online, found an image, saved it, and uploaded it. Sometimes you even paid for it.

These days, there is plenty of paid stock photography available, and some of it is quite good. In fact, there are places where you can pay for exclusive use of professional photo assets. Again, some of these are pretty darn good and may satisfy certain branding needs.

In the process of branding your company, however, you are probably aiming for a high level of authenticity. In this case, stock photography will not help you achieve that goal. After all, if you’re not showing the real people working at your company, how do we know you stand behind your products?

You know that mission statement that you toiled to create? These are the people who are making that happen. Show them in your promotional materials. Put their names under their pictures so that people who connect with them know what they look like.

Un-stock your photos

Before you start clicking wildly, it’s best to have some sort of plan. Typically, you’ll want to make sure that your photos both reflect the message you want to deliver about your company and make your employees look good.

If you go to work and someone jams a camera in your face, you probably will have mixed feelings about the way you look.

Start this process by talking with the people who will be photographed. Show them some respect by explaining your goals and why you want to feature them on the website. Let them know that you are proud of them and want to include them because they make contributions that are important to the customer.

An advanced discussion will help people feel more comfortable about how they look. I was once videotaped for a Q&A immediately after water had spilled down the front of my shirt. When I watched the playback, I asked them why they hadn’t told me that the water had spilled, and they said, quite honestly, they didn’t think it mattered … what I had to say mattered. Sure, maybe to them, but to me, I couldn’t even hear myself speaking. All I could take in was that water stain. It ruined the whole clip, and we ended up not using any of the footage.

Take the DIY approach

These days, the bar is low for creating original photography. Cameras on smartphones offer a nice balance between quality and convenience. It’s not exactly as easy as swiping an image from Google Images, but snapping a few photos from your iPhone isn’t difficult at all.

It will be slightly more work and the photos will not be as professional as the slick stock images, but they will be authentic. And these days, authenticity trumps slick.

Take photos of your people doing interesting things. If you have a product, consider ways they can interact with that product. (Note: Product can be almost anything these days. Fill in your own blanks.)

At one of my jobs, we encouraged interns to photograph the office using their smartphones. The results were fantastic. They observed our working space from a fresh and creative perspective. Even familiar objects and rooms felt new and vibrant. They gave us photos of people, places, and things – many of which easily could be featured on the website, social channels, and in internal communications. They made the mundane seem magnificent, just because they captured our shared world with their boundless, youthful enthusiasm and energy.

You also should poke around the web to look up tips to taking better photos. I am not even going to get into that here as there are so many good resources available. Use Google to find a few of them. YouTube is loaded with tutorials.

And since I was raised in dead-tree publishing, I also recommend that you pick up a few books and subscribe to a few photography magazines like Popular Photography. You help yourself, the economy, and the company at the same time. Good on you.

Everything in this post refers to the use of humans in stock imagery. Clearly, I have used stock photography and try not to use it anymore. I have faltered, though, and I have regretted it every time since 2001.

Work with pros

There are good uses of stock photography, including product shots and other office photos. You may be able to take a nice, clean shot of your product, but you may find that these images are not as good as those taken by a professional photographer using high-quality equipment. I strongly recommend that brand and product shots be handled by professional photographers.

In fact, I also recommend using a pro photographer to take pictures of your staff. A pro can help you with more than just lighting and lenses that exceed the quality of your standard iPhone. An experienced pro can help you with composition and visual storytelling. The image will have the authenticity of actual employees and the quality sheen of a pro photo. If you can afford it, it’s a win-win.

Speaking of budgeting, consider hiring a hair and makeup artist. You can find local talent on Craigslist and at your local beauty salon. The costs will vary depending on the artist, of course, but the value is immeasurable. People want to look good in photos, and will relax when a makeup artist helps them look their best.

Work with your team

As you begin this process, it’s important to plan your visual story. Think about what you want to say. Are you an accounting firm that wants to show how serious you are about my finances? Are you a design agency that wants to demonstrate a range of creative solutions? Are you a manufacturer of durable goods that wants to showcase the quality of your products? All of this can be expressed effectively through visual storytelling.

Have an open discussion with key people on your team, including anyone with a background in photography. Get input from your creative director, your corporate communications team, and people from sales and marketing. Surf the websites of key competitors to see what they are doing. Explore award-winning websites, including the ones that have won a coveted Content Marketing Award.

One caveat as you get started: Remember, your product is your product. Your logo is cool, as is your visual branding, but ultimately, the most important thing you sell is your product or service. Imagery is just something that enhances your branding through authenticity. To be more specific, don’t let this process consume your company by eating up valuable time and resources.

Make this a project and assign a project leader who will be responsible for getting it done. If nobody is in charge, it will be doomed to failure. Create a timeline, assign a budget, and plan for an annual review. In a year, you may love it or hate it, but if you have a plan, you’ll know when you can change it.

Plan your visual story

Some companies go for a serious approach, featuring people in sharp suits and serious expressions. If that’s the message, then make sure the poses and backgrounds are suitable to that C-suite vibe.

Other businesses embrace a more playful aesthetic. Check out certain corporate websites, and you’ll find people smiling, laughing, and participating in office activities. Some include photos with pets and other gentle touches that make people feel better about their participation in staff photos.

Whatever you decide, just be sure to apply a consistent visual story, even for new hires. Nothing looks worse than inconsistent, random photos that people shared from their personal collection, especially that one where you can clearly see that someone was cropped out of a once-friendly embrace. Makes you feel badly for that person who was cropped out, doesn’t it? But I digress.

Just a few quick notes on photographing employees:

  1. Get permission to use their image. Not everyone wants to be featured. Discuss. Ask.
  1. Be prepared to remove images. People come and go. Have a plan, be prepared to swap out images, and do it.

(c) 2014 Buddy Scalera

Buddy and Joe are ready to help you embrace your visual story.

(c) 2014 Buddy Scalera

Buddy is ready to help you embrace your visual story.

  1. Take lots of photos. File all of them and tag them with some details, if possible. Shoot a few alternate versions with multiple and solo people, since, at some point, you will definitely have to swap out an image.

(c) 2014 Buddy Scalera

Buddy and Darth are ready to help you embrace your visual story.

  1. Use Photoshop responsibly. Correct color, enhance lighting, and crop. That said, don’t abuse its filters and plug-ins by making people look plastic. That defeats the purpose.

It doesn’t matter if you are a CEO, a web designer, or the person who answers the phones in customer service. You should want your brand to be seen as one in which real people operate.

Your product, your branding, and your people are anything but standard, plastic widgets. Don’t show photos that depersonalize the careful and purposeful branding that is part of your holistic visual content strategy.

Unless, of course, your company creates and sells stock photography. Then the stock photo of the lady with the headphones may actually be the perfect image.

Looking for more ways to maximize the impact of your visual content? Get practical insights, advice, and answers in our 2018 Guide to Essential Content Marketing Tactics.

Images by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute