Stock photos have an interesting reputation on the internet. The very term often makes the listener think of bizarre, confusing, or overly bland images that largely fail to sum up the concept they’re going for. The hilarious #badstockphotosofmyjob Twitter thread highlights how poorly stock photos perform in some situations. Yet, the availability and simplicity stock photography offers means these images continue to appear in marketing materials. Should your company follow suit?
Short answer: as a general rule, there’s nothing wrong with using stock photos in marketing. That’s why they were created, after all! However, you should absolutely exercise caution. Some stock images are simply too widespread or generic to be unique or too head-scratching to be truly usable. Keep these principles in mind as you try to incorporate stock images into your marketing strategy.
Drawbacks of Relying on Stock Photography
The biggest drawback of using stock photos is that they were designed to appeal to a broad audience. In other words, the images are often painfully generic and fake-looking, especially if the models are trying to express strong emotions. These types of images are hard for your audience to connect with. A generic or unnatural-looking image doesn’t exactly spark feelings of personal understanding, after all. And even stock images that aren’t as generic can still come across as off-putting with the wrong colors or concepts behind them.
Worse yet, some stock photography websites only offer limited use of their content. Once you purchase an image, you’re free to use it…for a few years. Other times you may be restricted to only using that stock image in certain media. It’s rare to find stock images with no restrictions ever. If you aren’t careful, you could find yourself having to rework your entire image strategy if half your purchased photos are suddenly unusable as your permissions expire.
Pro Tip: Before you purchase stock photos, double and triple check the fine print to learn your rights and restrictions for the use of those images. Sometimes the timing or acceptable media could be limited.
Strategically Using Stock Photos
Keep your brand and reputation in mind as you shop for stock images. What pictures evoke the emotions and messages you want your brand to convey? Target images that work instead of trying to structure your strategy around those images. And once you’ve found them, don’t be afraid to edit them if necessary! Without going overboard on edits, you can easily overlay pictures with text, your logo, seasonal colors, or other branding efforts to make the pictures blend in with your online marketing strategy.
Additionally, don’t rely solely on stock photos for your images. Sprinkle in plenty of your own to keep things original and interesting.
The Most Important Thing to Remember
If you know what to look for, you can probably tell the difference between a stock photo and a genuine image provided by a company. Most identifiable stock photos have common traits: generic appearances, clearly fake smiles or emotions, awkward poses, odd portrayals of certain industries, or just plain odd imagery or symbolism. The most important rule, then, of using stock photography is this: don’t use photos that look like stock photos! Good stock photos exist–invest a little extra time and possibly money to find them. Don’t settle for mediocre ones for time’s sake. Your customers will notice!
Using Stock Photos in Your Marketing Strategy
It’s impossible to give a straight yes or no answer to the question of whether or not stock photos are appropriate in online marketing. For many, they are the quickest and simplest solution, while other brands may find them cheap or too hard to work with. To summarize: if you want to use stock photos, make them your own. Find a way to make them work in your marketing strategy.
Join the conversation to learn more about using (or not using) stock images in your branding.