generic stock photo of man with business card
Stock photos can be cheap and reliable. They can also be overused and uninspired. Let's take a look at some alternatives PHOTO: TeroVesalainen

I buy a polo shirt with a nice pattern on it that fits me well. I wear it out a few times and receive compliments from friends and colleagues. I’m really happy about my purchase. Until I go to a dinner party and see someone else wearing my shirt!

This instantly makes the shirt less special to me. 

A similar thing happened to me recently with this stock photo:

generic image of a computer

My designer purchased this image from a stock photo site for one of our webinars. The cover slide, banners and other creative deliverables incorporated this photo.

I liked the webinar’s creative assets and so did the webinar attendees. Later, I found blog posts that used the same stock photo. Like the polo shirt, it made me think of the creative assets as less special.

Why Marketers Use Stock Photos

We marketers use photos and images to reinforce the themes of our content and to break up chunks of text. Because we have limited photos at our disposal, we venture out to stock photo sites to find them.

It doesn’t hurt that many sites are free (e.g. Flickr), while others make stock photos available for an affordable cost (e.g. iStockphoto, Shutterstock and others).

However, I’m making a 2018 resolution to use fewer stock photos. Here’s why.

Differentiated Content Begins With Imagery

To stand apart in today’s sea of content, your content must be unique and differentiated. And that begins with imagery. A compelling image is often the first thing you see when reading a blog post.

If people click on an article and it opens with a stock photo they recognize immediately, they think, “Oh — not original,” and they may get suspicious about how worthwhile the story itself is. But if you wow readers with a compelling and unique visual, they will think, “Neat! Let me read more.”

Images add a new dimension to a story, and in some cases, serve as the story itself. Images work alongside the copy to provide the overall reader experience.

So the more unique your images are, the better the reader experience. And I believe that a better reader experience drives a higher perception of your brand.

While I do plan to use stock photography in some scenarios, I’ll consider these alternatives, too.

Leave It Out

It’s human nature to do things out of habit: “This blog post needs an image here because that’s what we do with all other posts.” But inserting an overused stock image can do more harm than leaving the space blank.

White space can improve the cleanliness of the page, while placing more weight on the adjacent words. Additionally, you can adjust the layout of the page so that no one notices an absent image.

Find Unique Sources

I bought my polo shirt at Banana Republic, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that someone else owned the same shirt. Hundreds of thousands of people shop there.

My go-to source for free stock images is the Creative Commons section of Flickr. But just like Banana Republic, that area of Flickr gets a lot of traffic; many content creators go there looking for images. Instead of using Flickr, try to find an undiscovered gem. Check out the stock photo sites that other marketers are not yet using.

I haven’t used these sites myself, so that’s one less marketer you have to worry about, but here are some options: Unsplash, Pexels and the aptly named Death to Stock.

Take Original Photos

Another option is to close the laptop, leave the office and take some photos of your own.

Start by reviewing the last 20 stock photos you used and categorizing them. Keep those categories in mind whenever you head downtown, go for a nature walk or stroll through the city. If you see something that fits in one of those categories, take a picture of it.

Use a camera (or your smartphone), and take pictures indiscriminately. When you return home, place them into folders based on category. Over time, keep taking photos and adding them to the folders.

You might not find photos that you want to use at first, which is why it’s important to keep adding to your inventory. In addition, as you travel, shop and attend events, be sure to look out for interesting moments, people or objects. When visiting a public library, I snapped this photo:

storytelling room in a library

Perhaps it needs a little cropping, but if I ever write an article about storytelling, using this photo would guarantee uniqueness.

Work With a Designer

Marketers use stock photography because it’s convenient. With busy schedules and hectic days, the quick turnaround and low cost of stock photo sites is attractive. But again, this can lead to me-too imagery that doesn’t do your brand any good.

If you have access to designers, either in-house or freelance, ask them to create icon-based or hand-drawn images to reinforce your message or theme. When I was working on an article about content marketing experimentation, I could have visited Flickr to find photos of chemistry labs and people wearing lab coats. Instead, my designer created this:

vector image for content marketing

That’s far more unique than a stock photo depicting a similar lab setup.

How About You?

I’m interested to hear your take on stock photos, as both a consumer and a creator of content. Do you plan to continue using them? Why or why not?