My Ambivalent Relationship with Stock Images

A very popular ‘Happy Woman’ stock image

Visual marketing is all about using unique and relevant images to pull customers in. There is no denying about the power that images have on getting traffic and engagement and therefore investing in visual marketing strategy is essential for any business.

On the visual side of things, stock images are abundant in today’s digital landscape. Scroll down your Facebook feed and you’ll see plenty of them. I can instantly recognize a stock photo. They usually look staged and lack authenticity. I tend to completely ignore them, to the point of not even noticing they are there. Most people do the same. In fact in his famous eye tracking study, Jakob Nielsen showed that people gloss over or completely ignore generic or stock images. But authentic photos of real people or products in real situations are getting more attention.

An experiment by Marketing Experiments saw an 35% uplift of conversions when replacing a generic photo of a girl wearing a headset with an image of the company’s founder.

In another A/B test done by VWO they rotated a real photo vs a stock photo on a company’s homepage they saw a 161% (!!) lift in conversions in favour of the real photo.

While almost all advertisers use stock images, SMBs and start-ups are the most likely to use them as is, with no editing, because they do not have a large creative department to support them with top notch creative material. It is also very hard to resist using the library of free stock photos provided by Facebook Ads (powered by Shutterstock) for use with Facebook ads. I mean, really, who hasn’t done that?


So What Do I Have Against Stock Images?

For the most part, they are utterly generic and devoid of any brand identity or personality. I happen to be a huge fan of emotional advertising, i.e., the use of emotional triggers to evoke feelings in your target audience and thus motivate them to action through your marketing message. When using stock photos it’s very difficult to generate those emotions. Sure, your copy can try to appeal to fear, guilt, trust, a sense of belonging, etc. but first you have to get their attention and nothing does that like a good image. If yours does not catch their eye, they are unlikely to ever read your brilliant copy.

Another objection is that stock photos can be bought by anyone, making it very difficult to stand out and generate differentiation. This is a big issue for brand identity.

But small business owners and start-ups seldom have the resources to generate high quality creative designs from a photo shoot. Instead a stock photo is a better and quicker solution when on budget.


The Power of Using Authentic Photos

In a nutshell, unique and authentic images humanize your brand. They serve a communication channel of who is your business and what it represents. Real photos of your business have a better chance to resonate with your audience as they see like-minded people in your images.

Using stock images also puts you at risk of compromising your brand reputation and your customers’ loyalty. Seeing the same stock image on another website or another ad will damage your credibility.

In contrast, authentic photos greatly benefit a business looking to give off positive vibes. They represent the brand and they are original. There is no chance your audience will ran into the same image somewhere else.

A great example is Mush — the largest community of mums in the UK. Through the Mush app, local mums can connect with each other, arrange to meet, seek advice, and feel they belong to a friendly community of mums. Authenticity is crucial in Mush visual strategy.

In their acquisition campaigns Mush’s best performing ads were those featuring real mums at a Mush meet up. These ads look completely natural, as if the user is viewing a photo posted by a friend, rather than an ad.

Authentic image ad

These ads blended perfectly with user’s feed and looked very native, authentic and credible.


So How Can Small Businesses and Start-ups Compete on the Creative Frontier?

There are several things you can do to lift up your ads:

1. Use Authentic Photos

With today’s readily available technology it’s not so difficult to generate professional looking authentic photos to use in ads. Take photos of real people using your product/service. Select the most vibrant photos with bold colours that will call attention to themselves.

2. Tweak Them

Use free tools, such as Canva and Crello, that will help you create eye-catching ad designs. You don’t have to hire a photoshop designer to edit them. With those tools you can overlay text or graphics, or use filters. You can crop the image or reposition some elements to make your point more clear.
Here is an example of a stock image edited with Canva that has been transformed from a generic image to a silky creative design:

‘Spilled Milk’ image available on Shutterstock


The same image transformed into a silky creative design

3. Choose Them Wisely

If you must use stock photos take the time to choose them carefully. Look for images you think will generate the feelings you want to tap into with your target audience. And be sure to avoid any of the images that seem to appear everywhere.
For a campaign as large as the one we were running for Mush, we soon ran out of authentic images. We used what I call ‘bad’ stock images. By that I mean stock images that are less polished, but therefore look more authentic. These ‘bad’ stock images actually performed very well. For example, the ad below, featuring a stock image, has generated a huge engagement, with an enormous number of installs at an excellent CPI (cost-per-install):

Stock image ad

Doesn’t looks like a stock image at all, does it? But it is, and it performed well. For Mush, ad images that were too polished or looked professional hardly generated any engagement. It was crystal clear that authentic images are winners, carefully selected stock images can perform well, but bland stock images – a big no no!

4. Humanize The Creative Design

Use images of people that your audience can connect with. Even if you are promoting a high-tech product you can, for example, have a photo of a person using the software.

5. Check for Credibility Risk

Find out who else is using the same stock photo. Use reverse search an image to upload the image and finding out where it is being used. Alternatively, if you saw a stock image in mid on a website simply right click the image and choose “Search Google For Image”. You can also use TinEye for reverse image search.
If you plug the above image into TinEye, it comes up only 11 times, mostly on stock websites which means that it’s safe to use especially when taking into account it’s performance.

6. ‘Own’ Your Selected Stock Image

A slight edit of your stock image can add a brand personal touch to it. Things you can’t do with free tools can easily be outsourced to a graphic designer on Upwork and similar free-lance sites. It’s easy to find reasonably priced free-lance designers who can make small edits for a very low budget.

Below is an example of a generic stock image that was tweaked to feature the cover of the author’s book on the image. When users were sent to the Kindle Shop on Amazon to get their free copy they saw the same book cover. It generated a full continuation of the ad’s promise.

Stock photo of a woman reading comfortably

The same stock photo with the author book cover embedded

7. Use UCG (User Generated Content)

Use photos of real customer using your product or services. Here’s a test done by Bllush experimenting with UGC vs Stock image. In most cases UGC outperformed the stock image.

Obviously, you’ll have to get a permission to use UGC.

The image of an ad can make or break a campaign, so carefully select your images. And always test several options, especially when advertising on social media platforms.



Visual imagery strategy is prime for any business. Images capture the attention of the audience easier than anybody of text however when used wrongly it can question the credibility of your business and hurt its reputation.

Establish your strategy about visual imagery use and avoid using bland, generic stock images in ads. Instead use your own authentic images to generate the desired feelings among your target audience. If you have to use stock images, choose them wisely. Select images that are vibrant, colourful, include people, and suit your brand. Then test as many of them as possible. Sometimes the ‘worst’ images will surprise you.


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