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4 Questions to Help You Choose the Best Stock Photo for Your Content Marketing Campaigns

Written by Elizabeth Bell on April 9, 2019 at 9:54 AM

oranges hugging

Choosing imagery for your content marketing campaigns is really hard. It’s easy to pick the wrong thing: something boring, unengaging, or off-brand, something that will become outdated, or something that makes people think “Why does that photo exist?” [See the photo we chose for this blog header? Case in point.]

Or what if you pick an image from page 1 of a stock photo site that’s been used so much people actually realize they’ve seen it before? Just this weekend, I saw a stock photo I’ve seen a thousand times on Shutterstock used as the main creative on a prominent highway billboard. Awkward, no?

When you get into it, it can be surprising how difficult finding the best photo can be. The frustration and desire to have images that stand out from the crowd drives some organizations to take their own photos. Although effective, this can be costly, so we’re here to help you make the most of stock photo sites (or free photo sites, whatever you’re using).

And yes, we too are guilty of using strange stock photos (Exhibit A) – but we’ve learned a lot from our experience, and that’s what I want to share with you.

We’ve put together four questions that will help you express your ideas in visual form in a way that catches your audience’s attention and pulls them into your content.

Ask Yourself These 4 Questions As You Look for the Perfect Image

1. What is this campaign or content about?

Your first question when choosing a stock photo should always be “What is this content about?” The answers you get help you create some keywords you can search for.

For example, let’s say I’m writing a blog post about good email subject lines. Personally, my first idea of an image or photo for this post is very concrete: Someone working at a computer, or someone writing ideas down on paper and crumpling them up.

Although the applications for this photo are endless, it’s too generic, too un-engaging, too…stock.

woman working at computer


So get all those concrete ideas out on paper (one of these might be the winner – you never know, you might get desperate), so you can make room for more creative ideas.

Now, start to think abstractly: What is the big idea (or ideas) behind my content? Did I use any analogies or include any stories that I could draw from?

Continuing our subject line example, let’s say the big idea was “Catching people’s attention.” Now it’s time to think metaphorically – what things catch people’s attention? Diamonds. The color red. There you go: Maybe it’s a photo of people “oohing” and “aahing” over a woman’s engagement ring, or maybe it’s a photo of a red door on a street of brown doors. Maybe’s an image of one black sheep in the middle of a flock of white sheep.



Pro Tip: If you come up with a great metaphor for your photo, and you didn’t already have something like that in your content, work it in. For example, if you decide to use the color red idea and choose a photo accordingly, start your content with “Like the color red, a great subject line catches people’s attention.” Boom.

Related: 17 Essential Email Design Tips: Inspiration for the Non-Designer

Now that you’ve got some keywords, you can start browsing what’s out there.

2. Is this image relevant to my content?

Time for a relevance check: Once you’ve picked out a few image options, think about whether your content and image are a good fit. One helpful exercise is to look at your headline/header/subject, and look at your image: Are they an obvious match? If not, it might mean you need to make the connection a bit clearer.

One stat reports that three days after people hear information, they remember 10 percent of it – BUT if the information was paired with a relevant image, people remember 65 percent of it.

While this does prove images are valuable to our content, I think the key word here is relevant. When we see a striking image that complements the text we’re reading, we remember it better. When it’s “woman sitting at computer”? Not likely.

Whether you’re planning to take a metaphorical angle or want to be more direct, think through whether your photo is too obscure or too obvious.

If metaphor or direct images aren’t making sense for your content, consider whether you can use a more infographic-like image or an illustration. Sometimes a funny photo can do the trick. For example, if you were marketing a hair salon for zoo animals…Sadly, most of us will never have the chance to write content where this type of humor/photo would be relevant.

men in animal costumes at hair salon


If you’re not sure whether the image you’ve picked is relevant, ask a teammate. In order for the image you’ve picked to work, the image-content pairing has to make sense outside of your own head. Your coworker might give you some creative angles you hadn’t thought of.

Pro Tip: If you need inspiration, search the web for other content on your topic and see what other organizations are doing. Then one-up them.

3. Will this image capture my audience’s attention? [In a good way]

This is probably the number one reason you should avoid using non-descript, boring stock photos. You want and need to attract your audience with unique, creative imagery. Whether they’re opening your email or scrolling through their social media feed, your image should make them pause and take notice.

Here are some tips for picking an attention-getting image:

  • Use photos with people/animals in them when you can, rather than inanimate objects
  • Find photos with colors that pop
  • Use unfiltered photos, as those tend to look dated and more staged
  • Search for unusual keywords. If you want an image that expresses excitement, try searching for “birthday gift” instead of “excitement,” as generic emotion keywords will get you more generic images
  • Choose photos of people expressing real emotion, rather than faked or staged emotion


woman with surprised expression


students taking selfie



woman teaching class


boy looking at bug


Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to edit your photos. Sometimes all you need to make it unique is to change it to black and white, or remove color from everything but one object. (Be sure you check the legalese on whatever photo site you’re using to make sure it’s okay to edit, first).

4. Does the image align with my brand?

The final consideration is whether the image you pick matches your brand. For example, if your brand’s tone is professional, it might be best to avoid silly/funny images or photos that stretch the metaphor too abstractly.

Related: The Marketer’s Toolbox [Infographic]

On a more detailed level, try searching for photos that use your brand color. Some stock photo sites will allow you to search by color, and if you know your brand’s color hex, you can use that.

Quick tips:

  • If you don’t know your brand’s color extension, use Google Chrome’s eyedropper extension to get the hex quickly
  • If you add any text to your image, use your brand’s font
  • If you plan to use your organization’s logo, make sure you space and size it correctly based on your brand guidelines

Pro Tip: Size your photo for the destination. Email sizing probably depends on your platform or template, but if you’re posting a blog, size your photo so that it’s wide enough for mobile search (which is 1200 pixels wide, according to Google). If you’re posting the image on social media, rely on latest sizing guides. (Looking for tips on sizing images for Google ads? Check out this post: Google Remarketing: 6 Tips for Advertising Success.)

Before You Decide It’s Not Worth It…

These might seem like a lot of details that don't matter. But don’t underestimate the importance of relevant visuals.

  • Articles containing relevant images have 94% more total views than articles without images, on average. (MDG)
  • Posts that contain an image once every 75-100 words will get shared two times more on social (BuzzSumo)

It’s worth taking the time to choose relevant, memorable imagery.

Trust Your Gut

You may not be the final arbiter of what photos are used in your content. But once you’ve done this twenty thousand times, you start to get the hang of it. If you think an image will work well, make your case to whoever makes the final decisions. And if they’re not cool with it, that’s good feedback for you to internalize next time around.

If you feel like your skill at finding awesome stock photos is underestimated by your team, I’m here for you. I see those skills. You are a strong, capable, and awesome stock-photo-finder. And these tips are going to help you take those skills (and your content) to the next level.

I’ll just leave you with this.

man outstretching arms for hug


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Topics: Communications, Engagement, Marketing, Social Media, Email Marketing

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