The same stock image in two ads

A while back, I was leafing through a magazine in a dentist’s office when I saw a cute photo of a woman with a child on her shoulders to emphasize the headline: “You carry the world on your shoulders.” Below was a bright orange color block, some support copy and the MetLife logo. Not worth noting, except …

When I turned to page 73 of the same magazine, I experienced a severe case of déjà vu looking at a Verizon ad. The same woman and child took up the page but were now facing the other direction. The headline had changed to a similar, “We know there’s a lot riding on you” in a bright red color block.

And suddenly, neither ad was about connecting with a mom’s heroic efforts at all. My only take-away was that one of the marketing teams suffered unfortunate luck, got lazy, or worse, copied. Not exactly what either brand was going for.

How to Use Stock Photography Appropriately

Cheap, available and easy, stock photos have a certain appeal. But there are reasons to be wary: they can just as easily be used by others. And when that happens, your reputation could get tarnished.

This can even happen to large, nationally known brands that we assume would usually carefully plan their campaigns and guard their brand presence. I can picture how it happened: someone forgot about an ad placement or was offered a great deal to run an ad. It became a rushed project with no budget in a publication targeted to working moms — a quick stock search and the headline writes itself. You want fries with that ad?

Despite the potential mishaps involved with using them, you shouldn’t completely disregard stock photography either. There can be a time and place for them, depending on your marketing content.

To help you decide whether unedited stock photography is right for your next marketing project, I’ve compiled some thoughts you may want to consider before purchasing images.

Three Cautionary Considerations When Using Stock Photography

Creating focused messaging and visual expression for a brand or offering takes effort and expertise. The time-saving allure of stock photography is often tempting, but is your reputation worth it? It may be convenient and inexpensive to quickly grab an unedited stock image, but an unedited stock photo should never be your main image. If you do this, you’re likely to see it somewhere else — or even in a competitor’s ad. Before purchasing stock photography, please consider the following:

  1. Photography is a great way to get your audience’s attention; you’ll see imagery included in anything from print ads to blog posts. But adding an image just to have one should never be the thought process behind acquiring it. Surprisingly, white space can work in your favor and potentially give your content a cleaner feel. Don’t add a random stock photo out of habit; it should reinforce the purpose of your content (CMSWire). Consider working with white space if an image just isn’t working.
  2. Let’s face it: sometimes you can identify a stock image from a mile away. While there are thousands of quality images from which to choose, they don’t always seem authentic. It can be in your best interest to invest some time and money to take your own photos. Remember, emotion sells! And it can be hard to connect with your audience if you’re using a generic stock photo of a meeting room or a close-up of a handshake (Design Juices).
  3. Time is money, and sometimes searching for stock images can take forever. If you’re working on a high-profile campaign, you’re likely looking for something very specific. Unfortunately, stock house databases can be difficult to navigate, and you may end up sifting through thousands of photos. Sure, you could eventually find the perfect image, but odds are that you’ll settle for something “that works.”

Four Reasons Stock Photography Might Be the Answer

Using a stock photo can work if the image complements your content and adds value for the target audience. Assuming that’s always the case, then you might find a stock photo helpful when you’re:

  1. Featuring a specific geographic location with no travel budget
  2. Depicting a certain time of year when you can’t wait for next spring
  3. In need of minor, supporting images to finish out a piece of collateral or populate a webpage
  4. Facing budget restrictions that just don’t allow for original or rights-managed images

Whenever possible, you should consider editing stock photos so they present as new, unique images specific to your company or campaign. Or try compositing a new image from several photos to create a brand-new photo that perfectly portrays your message. If you’re going to use them, work to make them your own.

Using Stock Photography for Marketing

Stock photography can be a great resource when used correctly. But cutting corners at the last second can lead to audience confusion and may even water down your brand’s messaging. If you want to catch your audience’s attention with an image, consider some of the points above before you go straight to your favorite stock resource.