A lot of high profile content marketing experts these days will tell you to swear off stock photos altogether. But like a lot of things in life, stock photography is not all created equal – some is exceptional, some is awful. The key is to select authentic, on-brand stock imagery that truly elevates your storytelling.
The Experts Agree: There’s a Lot to Hate About Stock Photography
In recent months, there’s been a string of content marketing experts telling anyone who’ll listen to avoid stock photos like the plague.
Here’s why you should ignore their well-meant advice.
But first, some quick history. The anti-stock photo camp got kicked into high gear with Buddy Scalera’s June 2015 piece for the Content Marketing Institute, Say No to Stock Photography and Create Authentic Images. “Here’s one of the first rules of your visual content strategy,” Scalera says unequivocally. “Don’t use stock images on your branded website… Replace the cheap-looking stock photos on your website and in your customer-facing materials. Immediately.”
In case that wasn’t clear enough, he insists that, “you really can’t go right with stock photos – even free ones…”
Instead, Scalera promises we’ll all be better off if we use photos we’ve taken ourselves – or ones we’ve hired a professional photographer to take (the latter’s often referred to as “custom” photography).
A few months later, CMI added to the anti-stock photo drumbeat with another article, 27+ Handy Tools for Better Visual Content Marketing. In this piece, Jodi Harris echoes Scalera’s earlier advice. We’re told in no uncertain terms to “avoid stock photography” because “while stock images may save time, they can’t tell as compelling a story of your brand – and your customers – as custom images can.”
At about the same time, Justin Zalewski writing on Jay Baer’s Convince & Convert blog also tells readers to kick the stock photography habit. Why? Because “Cheesy stock photography is the quickest way to turn a great site into a mediocre one. The typical user can spot a stock photo from a mile away, and it instantly devalues your website.”
Then LinkedIn jumped into the fray with their 2016 ebook, The Sophisticated Marketer’s Guide to Content Marketing. Under “Best Practices for Imagery,” this social media giant advises us once again to “skip the stock photos.” We’re told that, “In a world in which people are craving authenticity, give it to them in the form of real-life photos.”
The Best of Stock Photography Is Too Valuable to Pass Up
OK, so we’re talking about some pretty heavy hitters here. Jay Baer, LinkedIn, and CMI (the granddaddy of all things content marketing). Why in the world would I go against the advice of so many prominent experts?
Because they’re wrong.
The best of stock photography is too valuable a storytelling asset to pass up.
That’s true whether you’re an entrepreneur hell-bent on creating the next great Silicon Valley startup, a small business owner determined to squeeze maximum return from every marketing dollar you invest, or a communications director passionately committed to advancing your nonprofit’s mission.
It’s even true for marketers from much larger organizations who’re looking for creative ways to stretch their budgets as far as possible – without sacrificing quality.
Don’t Resign Yourself – Or Your Readers – to a ‘Desert of Text’
Let’s face it. When it comes to visuals, content marketing is rapidly devolving into a world of have’s and have not’s: Those deploying a seemingly endless array of eye-catching, brand-appropriate, irresistible images – and those still wasting away in what Orbit Media Studio’s Andy Crestodina calls a “desert of text.”
For those who get it right, the rewards can be substantial. In the recent How to Increase Website Traffic by 250,000+ Monthly Visits, Ross Hudgens at Siege Media details some of the advantages that come from regularly weaving visuals into our digital marketing:
- The typical online article that ranks #1 in search engine results includes 9 images
- High-quality images attract 121% more shares on social media
- Articles with a visual every 75-100 words get the most shares
Now for a little math.
According to Andy Crestodina and other SEO experts, the ideal length for a search-optimized blog post is 1,500 words. So if you want your blog post to attract a host of readers who like and share your content and push it to page one of search engine results, you’ll have to incorporate a lot of visuals.
To be exact, you’ll need a whopping 15-20 images for a single 1,500-word blog post.
There’s no way most of us could afford to hire a professional photographer to take that many custom shots. And if you’re only an average smartphone shutterbug (like most of us), you’ll be hard-pressed to take enough high quality photos that fit your brand and the stories you want to tell.
Which brings us back to the need for stock photos.
Great Storytelling Demands Great Visuals
Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to phony, downright soulless stock photography that sucks the life right out of your best storytelling efforts, then I agree. You should avoid those stock photos at all costs.
I give you Exhibit A:
As audience members, we crave authenticity.
Instead of posed and sterile…
We long for images that feel true:
Instead of static and fake…
We long for images that give us a window into sweet, recognizable moments:
Instead of scenes obviously staged for our benefit…
We long for private views into genuine human emotions:
Instead of coworkers mugging it up for the camera…
We long for glimpses into the lives of real people engaged together in real work:
What Do We Want From Visual Storytelling?
At the end of the day, this is what we want – in place of stilted, overtly canned and manipulative images…
We long for visual content that reflects all the energy…
and mystery that life itself has to offer.
Stock Photography Might Surprise You
Here’s the kicker. Every image I’ve used in this blog post is a stock photo.
Every. Single. One.
At this point, you may be asking yourself, “What is a stock photo, anyway?”
A stock photo is “an image that is available for licensing.” That’s according to PLUS, the nonprofit coalition dedicated to clearly defining and categorizing image usage around the world.
PhotoShelter provides a more detailed stock photography definition:
“Stock photography is one of the most basic components of marketing and advertising and is completely ubiquitous to the modern world. Businesses of all shapes and sizes license stock photos for specific uses…to illustrate concepts, services, situations, etc.
Every time you read a magazine or whenever you look at newspapers, billboards, textbooks, book covers, blogs, brochures, direct mail, or corporate literature of any type – and even when you watch TV and see stills incorporated into the programming – you are probably looking at stock photography.”
So if it’s stock photography, that means you or someone else in your organization didn’t shoot the pictures. You didn’t hire a professional photographer to shoot photos for you. And a customer or stakeholder didn’t take pictures and agree to let you use them (known as user generated content).
Sometimes, stock photography is sold (think iStock and Shutterstock) and sometimes, it’s given away for free (think Unsplash and Death to the Stock Photo). But there are always licensing and usage terms associated with stock photos. If you doubt this, try downloading free images from Wikimedia and see how many different flavors of Creative Commons licensing you run into.
Don’t Hold Back: Use High-Quality, Authentic Stock Photos in All Your Brand Storytelling
Given stock photography’s pervasive nature, it’s hard to credit Zalewski’s claim that “The typical user can spot a stock photo from a mile away.” Instead, stock imagery surrounds us everywhere – it permeates our visual lives in a thousand different guises. Both good and bad.
Let’s stop bad-mouthing stock photography as a whole, and put our attention where it really belongs: on fake, inauthentic photos, whatever their source. Root them out. Say no to them in your visual content strategy. (Here, I am in complete agreement with Buddy Scalera).
Be a fake photo hater, not a stock photo hater. Your visual branding will thank you for it (and so will your audience).
Go, actively search out exceptional stock photography that fits your brand, your audience, your budget, and the stories you want to tell. Grow your own collection of free and low-cost stock photos that truly rock visual storytelling. Then use this newly-built arsenal of images in every way you can possibly think of, in all your content marketing.
Share Your Thoughts
How could stock photography contribute to your own storytelling efforts? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on social media.
P.S. If you liked this piece, you might also like Handy Solution vs Pollution: Defending HubSpot’s Free Photos and How to Win With PowerPoint
Stock photos in this article sourced from the following: Bigstock, Death to the Stock Photo, HubSpot, iStock, Shutterstock, Unsplash.
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