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5 Reasons not to use stock images

Posted by Kate Morris on Sep 29, 2023 11:06 AM

Stock photos first made an appearance in the 1920s when advertisers and publishers wanted access to images without the hefty price tag associated with a photographer. Today, there are many stock photo companies offering images for little to no money and here at Web Usability, we have certainly been guilty of using stock images in the past! But what is the impact of using stock images and are they damaging your online presence?

Having explored this issue, here are 5 reasons why we will be avoiding stock images in the future….

Users ignore decorative stock images 

If you are filling your website with decorative stock images, users are more than likely not even noticing them. Nielsen Norman Group found when doing eye tracking research that users on a page with purely decorative images quickly dedicated their time to reading the text, ignoring the images.   

This certainly matches with what we see when running usability testing sessions with images that are purely decorative and not relevant to users getting ignored (more on this later). 

Stock photos disguise your company’s values  

When using any image, it’s important to ask yourself, is the image you’re using telling your story and reinforcing your message? It’s hard to find a stock image that is an authentic representation of your brand because they are, by definition, generic.  

Stock images will inherently never be able to represent your services or products and your users will know this. Company culture and brand ethos is becoming increasingly important for consumers and portraying an authentic and honest face online is key to engaging your users.  

By using generic imagery, your customers cannot get to know your brand values so are less likely to feel anything about engaging with you.  

Stock photos don’t help you stand out 

Your website and online presence is an opportunity to present and promote your services, it should be unique! The problem is stock imagery is not – anyone can use the photos. How often do you see the same old image tagged onto a Linkedin post or embedded in a blog (yes, we’re guilty of this too!). 

Even if you find a perfect, professional stock image, it will always be someone else’s interpretation of an idea. When you use your own imagery, you’re choosing exactly what you want your website to say. Again, this helps you accurately portray your company’s values, ensuring your users gain an authentic impression of your brand and what you will be like to buy from or work with.  

Stock photos lower user engagement and conversion 

A client of ours recently launched a hub, dedicated to supporting people with the rising cost of living. While the hub is full of useful support and advice, it was also scattered with many stock images. Having undertaken usability testing with 12 users, it became clear that these images were not relevant to our testers, distracting them from their task and getting in the way of the content they really needed by taking up prime real estate at the top of the page.  

While this is anecdotal, A/B research consistently suggests that stock images result in lower conversion rates compared to user-generated or authentic brand content.  

Stock photos don’t show real people 

Users like to see real people. It helps us connect with a brand. This is why user-generated content and influencer marketing has grown to be such big business these days. 

The problem with stock images is that they do not show the real people in the company. And we all know it.  

Jakob Nielson shared results of an eye tracking test of an ‘about us’ section. Even though the bios took up most the space users spent 10% more time viewing the portrait photos than the accompanying text.  

So, what does this tell us? Users like looking at the real faces behind your company. It’s hard to bridge the connection between the user and your brand when it’s a stock image of a generic person.  

So, what is the alternatives to stock photos?  

The obvious solution is lots of lovely, authentic imagery that clearly conveys your people and brand values used suitably across your website so it enhances the user journey, rather than getting in the way.  

If expensive photography isn’t an option, why not consider iconography? It has some great advantages like being language agnostic and multi-purpose. It’s also a cost-effective way to define a clear brand identity. 

Imagery plays an important part in the user experience of any website, either because it makes people feel good, bad or indifferent about an organisation. It can be the difference between wanting to work with an organisation and being turned off.  

So, it was high time we applied this learning to our own website and we would now like to present you with our new icon-led, revamped look! We hope you like it (we’re pretty chuffed with it!). 

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