Is the way you use stock imagery weakening your marketing efforts?

Is the way you use stock imagery weakening your marketing efforts?

When was the last time you leapt into the air with a red balloon when you were happy? Or celebrated a work win around your laptop with your team of impeccably suited multi-cultural colleagues? We jest, but type in the keywords ‘happy’ or ‘office life’ into a stock library and we’d bet your pricey credits that you’ll find these types of images in the search results.

We know all too well that images directly affect the way we digest information online. Medium reports that social media posts will receive at least 10x more engagement when accompanied by an image and it’s a well-known tactic for content producers to pepper their articles with supporting images to break up the reading experience.

The question is, do people react differently to a stock image versus an original? It would seem so.

A couple of years ago, the Marketing Experiments blog tested the theory by swapping out a generic stock image of a woman with a photo of the actual founder and naming them. The authentic image saw a sizable 35% increase in conversions. There’s a few reasons why this could be the case. Firstly, stock images can often look too forced. Perfect smiles, bright backgrounds and dare we say, cheesy poses can create a barrier to how we relate to an image.

With social media channels becoming increasingly curated, there’s been a shift in people craving a glimpse of reality in the online content they consume. Matt Klein, a cultural strategist at the consultancy Sparks & Honey sees a less styled approach to social media imagery in 2021 saying “We’ve all participated in those staged [social] photos. We all know the stress and anxiety it takes. And we can see through it. Culture is a pendulum, and the pendulum is swaying. That’s not to say everyone is going to stop posting perfect photos. But the energy is shifting.”

If our audiences want original, then what’s the cost to produce or emulate it? The key is to break things down and get savvy. Here’s a quick guide to how to use stock imagery in 2021.

Have brand image guidelines in mind

Before adding any imagery to your marketing mix, it’s a good idea to have a set of guidelines in mind to help choose the right photo – whether that be stock or original. Image guidelines should gently guide your search rather than limit your creativity, think guidance on-brand colours, demographics of the models, style of image e.g. formal or modern.

Tom Leach, Creative Director & Founder of brand agency Evoke, believes that by setting out the thinking and guidance to follow, it actually gives clients and their teams the confidence to use imagery more effectively, be it original or stock. He says, ‘by arming your clients with a guide for brand imagery you are giving them the autonomy they need to find good images – helping them know what to look for and how to find it, which is useful when the search results can often be about quantity rather than quality!’

Colour evolves with current events

Creative giants, Pantone and Shutterstock, provide a yearly insight into the colours or themes that are trending in your country – allowing us to meet the wants and emotional needs of our customers. Pantone named the colours Ultimate Gray and Illuminating their colours of the year for 2021, stating that by pairing the shades together people will “fortify themselves with energy, clarity and hope” in a world that’s set to face increasing uncertainty.

This not only helps us to identify a palette that resonates with current events but can also influence the type of image we put out to our audiences during 2021. Shutterstock approaches its colour trends by showcasing examples of the hues being used within imagery and offering curated collections to inspire creativity in your marketing. If you’re looking to develop a brand colour palette then it’s a great place to understand the emotive qualities behind colours and why they resonate with a modern online audience.

Always reverse the image search

You’ve followed the brand guidelines, done the research into current trends and found the perfect stock image for your next campaign. But, disaster strikes a week later when you see your competitor using the exact same image. It’s the gamble of using stock imagery, but such situations can be easily avoided by doing a quick reverse image search to double-check where else the image is being used on the web. Of course, this doesn’t safeguard against a brand using the same image after you but it perhaps holds less risk if you are planning to use the photo for a social post vs. a global ad campaign. Which brings us nicely onto…

Invest in original photography for important campaigns

Stock photography is improving, with free sites such as Unsplash making quality, unstaged images accessible to even the smallest brand. But with accessibility comes overuse.

As mentioned before, there are times when the risk is worth it for the time and budget saved, but when approaching a campaign to showcase your brand’s individuality it’s crucial that you invest in your own photography.

It may take a chunk of your budget, but planned properly, a well-executed photoshoot can provide multiple images to use across a campaign. From ‘hero’ shots for ad campaigns to supporting social images, the key is to eek out every bit of juice from the shoot and brief your photographer effectively.

The takeaway? It’s not always feasible to create original images for every marketing campaign, but by keeping a few key guidelines in mind it’s totally possible to use stock imagery in a way that not only feels original but also fits your brand seamlessly. Just steer clear of the keywords ‘office celebration’ – you’ll thank us in the long run.