Every business needs photos… For ads, websites, sales materials, email campaigns, social media posts and powerpoint presentations. Unfortunately, most people turn immediately to stock photo sites. But the problem with stock photography, in most cases, is this: It bores people to death. The eyes instantly glaze over because the brain’s saying ‘I’ve seen this a thousand times.’
Please, dear God, not another fake image of your “friendly, courteous staff.”
How many times have you heard that cliché on a local radio ad… “our friendly, courteous staff is here to help with all your _______ needs, blah, blah, blah fill in the blank.” Chances are, you changed the channel before they could finish the sentence.
Crummy stock photos have the same effect. This image is the classic, customer service visual cliché, and it’s just as bad for business as the blather you hear on local radio commercials.
Unfortunately, stock images like that have become ubiquitous in the corporate world. ShutterStock alone has more than 100 million images to choose from, and most of them only cost a few bucks apiece. The internet has made it way too easy to drop-in mediocre images.
Advertising agency art directors work really hard to avoid the milk-toast visuals that are so prominent on low-cost stock photo sites. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time to sift through the stock libraries just to find something that’s sorta close to what’s really needed. Very, very rarely do you find the perfect image for the job.
Sometimes it’s more cost effective to just commission a great photographer to do it right.
But clients often balk at the photography line item in proposed budgets. They assume that the perfect photo’s just waiting to be downloaded for ten bucks. At the touch of a button.
Mike Houska, commercial photographer and owner of Dogleg Studios, says easy access to so many images is both a blessing and a curse… he’s selling more stock photos (rights-managed) but the assignment work is harder to come by.
“The royalty-free stock images are so cheap and easy to get, it’s pretty much eliminated all the low-end and middle budget work,” Houska said. “Back in the day, buyers had to comb through a bunch of giant stock catalogs, then call the stock company to do a search that may or may not turn up something. It was a hit and miss proposition at best, and the stock shots weren’t cheap. Now you can easily find a hundred images that roughly fit your criteria. They’re not great, but they’re close, and that seems to be close enough for a lot of people.”
“Close-enough” may work out for the photographers selling their stock images online, but it doesn’t work well if you care about your brand image.
“When you’re selling stock images, it’s just a volume game,” Houska said. “They want their images to be uploaded a thousand times over, so they make them as generic as possible. In that case, a picture’s definitely not worth a thousand words.”
The question is, do you really want to hang your hat on a photo that’s already being used by hundreds of other companies, including your competitors? Or do you want a compelling image that will help differentiate you from everyone else?
“Close enough” means you’ll look just as boring as everyone else.
Let me pose this… does a “close enough” mentality fit with your corporate culture or your personal approach to business? What would happen if the engineering department just said, “oh well, that’s close enough”? How’s that going to work out for you?
The fact is, your brand image should be just as important to you as the quality of your product.
I’ve been involved in many photoshoots for country clubs. (Now that’s a cliché just waiting to happen.) There are thousands of decent stock images we could use, but the problem with stock photography is there’s nothing compelling or unique about it… Nothing that will lead the viewer into the experience or tell the authentic story of a particular club. The vast majority of stock photos won’t offend, but they won’t impress either.
So we don’t use any of them. Mike Houska sets up every shot with the painstaking attention to detail that makes custom photography worth every penny. (Unpaid plug: If you need photography, you should definitely check out Dogleg Studios.)
I believe that successful brands are built on three things: credibility, relevance and differentiation. Stock photos can hurt you in all three areas… If you’re trying to convey a message of quality, your credibility goes right out the window with a cheap stock shot. If the shot’s used by anyone else, differentiation is out of the question. And there’s nothing relevant about an image that’s designed to appeal to a mass market of consumers age 25 to 54.
So the next time you’re thinking of throwing another stock photo into a presentation or report, stop for a minute and ask yourself this: Will this image add anything to the story I’m trying to tell here? Does it support a specific idea, or is it just beige window dressing.
Or worse yet, is it just another visual cliché, like the good-looking customer service rep with the headset? If it is, dump it!
The bottom line is, stock photos are a fantastic resource, but marketers and designers need to do a better job selecting the images. The problem with stock photography isn’t the photography, it’s the judgement of the person choosing the image. There are great shots to be found, so either spend a lot more time refining your search, or hire someone to get the right shot for the job to begin with. Your brand will be better for it in the long run.
I’d like to hear about the worst clichés you’ve ever seen in marketing. Visual or otherwise. Post a comment, or e-mail me personally: firstname.lastname@example.org