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It's annoying that in 2016 a headline like this is still relevant. We’ve all poked fun at silly stock imagery, but it seems once the laughter fades some of us continue regardless.

I’d put it up there with meaningless buzzwords as one of the uglier sides of marketing that refuses to die.

And while it does provide people like me with ammo for our snark guns, it is also incredibly offensive to look at. 

Why spend hours crafting a lovely blog post only to litter it with pictures of strangers in suits smiling at each other? 

It’s meaningless corporate guff. The photographic equivalent of saying ‘I hope you’re well’ at the beginning of an email.

I mean, look, if you want your website/blog page/marketing material to look utterly generic and devoid of any personality whatsoever then be my guest. 

Otherwise, read on…

What constitutes generic stock imagery?

It falls into two camps: excruciatingly cheesy lifestyle photography or dull, stupid graphics. Sometimes the two are combined for extra awfulness. 

Plenty of fun has been poked at the former already. Women laughing alone with salad is the first example that springs to mind. 

women laughing alone with salad stock photography

Innocent Drinks recently had a dig on Twitter, posting images of stuffy business types standing around water coolers. 

The issue has become such a blight on the world that even Hollywood had a swipe.

To market comedy film Unfinished Business last year, makers Photoshopped Vince Vaughn’s face onto some classic corporate stock imagery. 





And be careful when Photoshopping your product into rubbish lifestyle stock images, or you might end up on the sharp end of a meme. 

bad stock photography tv

As for the latter of the two horrors I mentioned above, bad graphics, let’s take a look at what I mean. 

Say you’re writing a post or page about SEO. Do you think this would be a good image to include? 

bad stock photography graphics

The answer is no. No it wouldn't.

Why? Partly because it adds nothing to the content. Partly because it is entirely bland. And partly because it has probably appeared about a thousand times across God-knows-how-many other websites and will continue to do so as long as it shows up under ‘SEO’ in Google images.

What about a nice word cloud, then?

Bad stock images word cloud

No. Why would you do that? Just stop it. 

Word clouds might work for data visualisation, but what good could you possibly add to a page of content by including the above monstrosity? 

Graphics are almost invariably meaningless and should be avoided if possible, especially on the news...

What you could do instead...

To avoid being accused of abject negativity, I’ve listed a few ways you can make your images less awful. 

Find something relevant

Here’s a whacky idea: how about finding an actual picture of the specific thing you’re talking about and using that?

You’ll probably have noticed on this blog that we like to include lots of imagery to support whatever we’re writing about.  

Take the below paragraph about scanning. I could have included a stock image of a man staring at a screen to indicate somebody reading a blog post.

Something like this, maybe:

bad stock photography man looking at screen 

But that would have been stupid, so instead I used an image from a real study that tracked readers’ eyes as they read on-screen content. 

The F shape content scanning

The first of those two images is pointless. It adds nothing. People understand what a person reading a blog post looks like. They don’t need a visual representation. It isn't relevant to the point I was making in the post. 

Images should always add something to a piece of content that words can’t achieve alone. 

Look at the imagery in a recent marketing trends post we published. 

When you’re dealing with general words like ‘social’ it can be tempting to use some ridiculous abstract graphic to represent them.

Social graphic stock image

But in this case the writer used screenshots to illustrate specific points. A much better idea. 

Make your own

We’re lucky enough that we all carry fairly decent cameras around in our pockets. Most of those cameras enable you to edit images and send them to your computer with ridiculous ease. 

Why not spend a bit of time creating your own images so you don’t have to rely on the generic dross your stock photo library is likely to cough up?

Here’s one somebody made to show what a Venn diagram is:

If you want to take photos for static landing pages or product imagery, you might want to use something more advanced than your phone.

But even doing that costs relatively little time and money, and the results will be well worth it. 

Use humour

It can be hard trying to find relevant photos. Sometimes I think a post is done but I spend another 20 minutes desperately trying to find a header image that isn’t completely rubbish. 

If you really can’t find an image that is suitably relevant, and you can’t or don’t want to make your own, try going down the humorous route. 

This means you can be a little bit abstract in your choice, as long as people will actually get the link between the image and the written content. 

How can a single image illustrate the perils of a British ecommerce site marketing to the local Australian population? Through a rude search mix-up involving the word ‘thongs’, of course.

stock photography using humour

Trying to represent silent video? Stick a picture of Charlie Chaplin in there. 

stock photography using humour

Friday stats round-up? Rebecca Black, obviously. 

stock photography using humour

What I’m trying to show you with these examples is that if you can’t find a decent image that directly relates to your content, find something that indirectly relates to it and make it funny or entertaining.

At least then you’re adding something to the content. 

To be fair, the thongs image achieves both. 

Conclusion: stop being lazy

I’m not trying to insult people, but ultimately the reason bad stock photography is so rife in business is because it’s easy. 

It takes seconds to find a stock photo that is loosely connected to your content, and by the time you’ve written a post or a web page you’re probably ready to be done with it. 

But that little bit of extra time and effort you spend on finding and including decent imagery could make your content stand out against the sea of indistinguishable tripe floating around the internet. 

What are your thoughts? Generic stock photography: yay or nay? 

Jack Simpson

Published 27 January, 2016 by Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

252 more posts from this author

Comments (10)

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Chris Sheen

Chris Sheen, Head of Marketing at SaleCycle

Great blog Jack! Stock images are the scourge of the industry - Yet all to easy to fall into the trap.

I think we've been guilty of using 'success kid' a good two or three times over the years... http://a.abcnews.go.com/images/Health/HT_sam_griner_then_02_jef_150413_16x9_992.jpg

* hangs head in shame.

8 months ago

Jeff Rajeck

Jeff Rajeck, Research Analyst at EconsultancySmall Business

Ah 'success kid' is OK - it's a meme. The really bad kid stock photo is here:
http://i.istockimg.com/file_thumbview_approve/25336923/6/stock-photo-25336923-young-boy-in-red-superhero-cape-and-mask.jpg

I always like the stock graphics which show marketing departments as a collection of gears - which, to anyone who knows anything about physics, appear hopelessly gridlocked:

http://associationmarketer.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/gears_marketing.png

8 months ago

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Humour is good. I like to go for the surreal, because some customers will get the joke and frankly anything is better than clip art. Here's a blog post where I used a map of Roman Legion camps from AD 80, to see who would notice.
https://www.freshrelevance.com/blog/location-based-marketing

8 months ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

I use so many free stock image because I am scared and lazy. I will try harder. Thanks Jack. Click below for my favourite stock image! (via badstockphotos on tumblr)

http://istockpho.to/1TnwrEN

8 months ago

Ben Davis

Ben Davis, Senior Writer at EconsultancyStaff

8 months ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Chris - I'm with Jeff. I think you can get away with that as it's meant to be funny ;)

@Jeff - If that image doesn't make a mechanical engineer do a facepalm I don't know what will...

@Pete - Ha, that's brilliant! Did anyone pick up on it?

@Ben - No I generally enjoy your image choices. They often fall under the abstract/humour category :)

8 months ago

Prem Pradeep

Prem Pradeep, Affiliate Marketer at Hotcourses India

If we didn’t put any effort into finding, or creating, a unique image one may only assume that we put an equal amount of effort into actually creating the content that goes with it. Generic stock images just puts our relationship with our content off to a bad first impression

8 months ago

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Paul Midgley, Email Manager at LivingSocial

Agree with the sentiment here, but it's not always possible in practice. I work for a business that churns out A LOT of landing pages and A LOT of emails, but don't have enough staff. Spending that extra time looking for better images basically means expecting already over worked staff to put in even more extra hours. In this respect, generic stock images that are "loosely connected" to our content are a God send to us.

8 months ago

Avatar-blank-50x50

Paul Midgley, Email Manager at LivingSocial

Agree with the sentiment here, but it's not always possible in practice. I work for a business that churns out A LOT of landing pages and A LOT of emails, but don't have enough staff. Spending that extra time looking for better images basically means expecting already over worked staff to put in even more extra hours. In this respect, generic stock images that are "loosely connected" to our content are a God send to us.

8 months ago

Hannah Stacey

Hannah Stacey, Content Marketing Manager at Ometria

I get the sentiment, and I like some of your alternative suggestions, but it's so damn difficult to source great images that it really doesn't surprise me that people stick to generic stuff when they're faced with constraints like time, budget, lack of artistic skills, worrying about copyright infringement etc. etc.

We actually use a lot of stock imagery on our blog - if you're clever about the things you search for (i.e. using flat images instead of cheesy photos), you can still source some half decent stuff.

8 months ago

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