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Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Cheesy Stock Images

Jake Gibbs | June 21, 2016 

My fellow marketer, as your friend, please let me make an intervention on your behalf. Your customers will thank me later.

Picture this: you have the perfect headline, body copy, and call to action crafted for your next campaign. It’s a real doozy that will get your customers excited about your offer.

But you need an image to go along with the offer. So naturally, it’s off to the races to find a stock image. You find one you feel looks nice and matches your offer well.

If you aren’t careful, your stock image choice can come across to customers as lazy, irritating, disconnected, or even offensive.

But there’s a big problem!

Your customers know…

Your customers get your marketing message, absorb the image, and immediately know: this is a stock image. No seriously, it is painfully, obviously, thoroughly stock, as if it has been on every website they’ve ever visited and every flyer they’ve ever received. So fittingly, your marketing message gets ignored, deleted, thrown away, or forgotten. Ouch!


We’re in an age of 1 to 1, personalized communications between businesses and customers. Customers now expect communications with them to feel personal, not generic. And to make it more challenging, customers now expect a depth of realism and authenticity with brands.

So back to the stock image. It is generic. It is obviously not taken by you or your team. It is not personalized. It is not authentic. So, customers turn off. They think, “They obviously didn’t try very hard to connect with me.” Game over.

So what should I do?!?

Savvy marketers understand the proper role of stock imagery. While they can be used effectively, they are by no means your only option for visual enhancement of your message. Consider these options to avoid settling for cheesy, overused stock imagery.
Cameras are nice and affordable nowadays. Why not try taking pictures yourself? For example, a dentist could take some pictures of the office instead of using a stock image of a smiling family.

Obviously you can’t take pictures of many things and may not have time to scour the land for the perfect shot. But customers will notice that the picture was taken by an actual human. While the quality may not be as high as a professional stock image, it will resonate with authenticity, which customers will greatly appreciate.

Hire Someone
Stock images are rarely a perfect fit for your project. Whether the camera angle is wrong, the setting isn’t quite right, or it looks too staged, stock images lack the customization that you often need.

If you can’t take pictures yourself with a quality camera, then hire a freelancer! Not only are freelance photographers increasing in number, but more and more hobbyists are taking on photography as their next venture. While you’ll pay more to have a pro or hobbyist take pictures for you, the quality and fit of the pics you get will crush that of stock images.

Use alternate design elements
While images are often the only way to go, consider using other design elements, like shape, color, texture, and icons to convey the visual interest needed to tie in your message and copy.

Customize the stock image
If you purchase a stock image, make it your own! Add graphic design elements to it that make it feel branded and customized. Show customers that you went the extra mile to enhance the stock image feel through your customization. In the example below, the cloud stock image was enhanced to become fully customized. When you see it, you don’t even think about the cloud image being stock because of the customization that has been done.


Use only the best stock image possible
After exhausting all other options, if you must use stock images without enhancements or additions, remember these tips. First, make sure they are quality and not so “stocky” (you know what I’m talking about!). If they ring of “stockiness”, cheesiness, or if you have seen them used before, move on. Don’t buy! If the image looks distinct, natural, and authentic, you are on the right track. Lastly, make sure it fits the project well and that you’re not just using an image for imagery’s sake. If the stock image meets these criteria, then buy away!

Don’t use images at all
Ironically, your offer may actually be better without that cheesy stock image of the model family with plastic grins than with it! While imagery nearly always enhances your message, consider not using stock images if the selection of images available for purchase isn’t up to par with your message. That way your customers can focus on your written content and not get distracted by the imagery.

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Jake Gibbs

Jake Gibbs | Design Specialist

Jake Gibbs is a Design Specialist at ListEngage and an expert at designing and building elegant, cross-platform compatible, mobile responsive emails and landing pages on the Salesforce Marketing Cloud. From brainstorming and ideation to polishing the final product, he loves the creative process. Jake has worked with more than 60 clients since joining ListEngage in 2014. Some of his projects have included L’Oreal, Vanguard, Carhartt, Harvard Business School, RCI/Wyndham, Huggies, and Planet Fitness.