Why You Shouldn’t Use Free Stock Photos, & What To Do Instead

Why You Shouldn’t Use Free Stock Photos, & What To Do Instead

The attention span of your online audience is nothing more than a few seconds. While your new post on Facebook or Twitter may make them click and engage with your content, there are dozens more below yours in the feed which are also trying to get their attention.

So the first impression that they have of your content may be your only opportunity to have them discover you and your business. Waste the opportunity, and your content won’t see the light of the day, no matter how well-written or researched it is.

Now you may say that it isn’t fair and your audience shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. And that they should at least check your content and read a bit to make up their mind about whether to continue or not. What do they have to lose?

Actually, they have something to lose.

Time.

If you’re searching for something to read in a bookstore, would you have time to read a bit of everything to decide on what to purchase? Obviously, a part of your decision will be based on how interesting the book cover is, with its image and title.

Can Your Image Stand Alone?

If you follow a lot of your people and blogs, on Twitter for instance, how many times have you seen the same free stock photo being used by two different pieces of content?

It happens to me often – the same image attached to two different tweets by different accounts. One may be an article about finding a remote job and other about content writing.

Yet they both are using the same generic image of a person typing on a computer. Something like this:

free stock photo example

I understand that in the context of both the articles, this generic image may be conveying both stories. Maybe the person is applying for a remote job or maybe researching for a content writing project.

The same generic image could convey both, but it could also be neither. This image is so generic that I could as well use it with an article about using a laptop, increase your work productivity, doing research and more.

And since such free stock photos are so unspecific and can mean a thousand different things, I can’t use them alone. They need a context, like a title or other descriptive text, to convey what your content is about.

A generic image works well with the content only when it’s placed near it. Place the image in a different context, and the message conveyed changes.

And when such an image finds itself in a crowd of many other images, in your Facebook or Twitter feed, for example, the context becomes far less noticeable and easy to skip when scrolling down the feed.

It’s surprising why so many businesses expect their target audience to notice their ads and social media updates when they look just like all the other ones they just scrolled past online.

How Image Selection Suffers

It’s well known that we consume visual data much faster than piles of text. We are wired to process and understand what we see around us. But when you’re reading a text, the brain does additional work to get meaning from the symbols used in the language.

Let’s say I want you to convey the thrill of a situation in which a man is faced with a tiger in a forest and is trying to defend himself with a sword. I can show you an image, and your brain will instantly understand what’s going on.

Or I could write hundreds of words depicting the entire scene, which will take a few seconds to read and sync in. Enough to realize the power of images!

Though everyone seems to understand how important images are to make content stand out, they are still treated as an afterthought – something that you do just for the sake of doing it.

Almost no effort is spent on carefully finding and embedding an image that’s just right. Most people settle for a free stock photo they could easily find in a few minutes.

While the content took days to research, write and proofread, it’s accompanied by an image chosen in a hurry, just because nobody has the time to browse page after page of stock photo sites. So why not just settle for the first image that looks even a little relevant!

No wonder such images fail to attract and engage an audience. Every time you post an update on social media, you’re bound by the promise you made to your audience that you’ll make your posts worth their time. Are you living up to the promise?

Be Authentic

Most businesses have a contact or support page on their website. Open that page and you’ll usually see an image of a person smiling and wearing a headset.

And if you happen to visit a lot of help pages, you may even identify the same person on a number of websites.

This means that instead of using an image of a real person who actually works in their support department, most businesses just pick up a random stock image.

Free stock photos may not always help you in building a solid brand. They look fake and insincere.

After all, if you aren’t showing the actual people who work at your company, how would the prospects trust that you’re accessible and you stand behind your services?

You should strive to be as real and unique as possible. And this applies to all your visual content, whether on a website, print materials, or anything else.

Be Unique

There are many ways to differentiate your images from all the other images by other brands. You’re limited only by your own creativity.

I am going to share some examples of brands doing it better than others so you can get your creative juices flowing. The idea is not to copy but get inspiration from how these businesses managed to think and do something different and succeed as a result.

The first example is how CMI (Content Marketing Institute) makes use of images in their social media updates. Instead of using a generic stock image as it is, they spice up the image with a big bold piece of text.

This text can be the title of the content or a quote from within the content. This text is large as compared to any other text in a social feed, and it’s part of an image.

These factors make it easy to get noticed and consumed. Here’s an example:

unique image creation

The blog post image shown above is clearly showing a title, a logo, and an author byline. This allows CMI to have a unique visual theme easy to notice in a busy social media feed.

You don’t have to do exactly the same but develop a distinctive style for your brand. Establish rules which will dictate how all the images you use for your brand will be found and edited.

For example, a brand can pick some filters or overlays, or determine primary colors or other graphic elements which will be a part of each image they distribute for marketing purposes.

2nd example is of a company which is known for the fun vibe of its brand. Lyft, the taxi-booking service, makes sure it uses bold, pink or purple colors in its photos, in combination with animated graphics which give it a unique style.

create graphic images

The 3rd and final example is of a blog which uses only comic book illustrations available in the public domain. Not only this lets the blog have its own unique style, but also helps steer away from copyright issues.

creative image ideas

By picking such illustrations, the blog was able to avoid using the same stock images as others.

Now I know it may take a lot of time to find the exact comic frames which are relevant to your content, but nobody said this was going to be easy or quick. If you really want your images to stand out and make your brand instantly recognizable at the first glance, you’ll have to do the hard work.

In some cases, it may be more effective to create one image for the blog or website and another for social, possibly even one for each network.

Conclusion

I am not denying that the quality of content is the most important part of building your business with content marketing.

And I am not preaching that you focus solely on getting more clicks on your social media posts with catchy click baits followed by content that doesn’t live up to the promise.

But all I am saying is that things like title and image should also be given the same level of effort and thought. These shouldn’t be treated as the little things you do when everything else is done.

No matter how talented of a person you are, you’d still like to dress up properly for a job interview, because first impressions count. Your choice of image and title sends a message about your brand, and about the content waiting behind the click. Don’t make that first impression your last priority.

John Woo

John Woo is the CEO of Tubloo, a Korean software company with image and video-making apps used by 50,000+ customers. He is currently working on launching the easiest video maker ever. Click here to get notified and claim a 20% discount on launch.

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