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This, Not That: Images for Your Online Community

Written by Lauren Wolfe | on October 27, 2016 at 8:30 AM

This, not that: Images for your online community

Online communities are notoriously difficult to visualize. I’m often asked how I keep finding new, interesting and accurate images to represent online communities and related industry subjects.

Good question.

Perhaps you’re part of Instagram’s 500+ million active users (Source: Instagram Press Page)? Or you’re behind any of the billions of images pinned on Pinterest? The list goes on and on and the statistical evidence is there to back it up. I’ve yet to come across someone arguing that images aren’t important. So how do we optimize and select dynamic visuals in a world inundated with visual content (strong and weak)?

After looking through about a zillion stock photos and illustrations throughout my career, I developed an eye for what works and what doesn’t work. Stock photos and illustrations can provide a cost-effective way to meet your creative demands, but the search for quality images involves strategy, a lot of time and, often, some serious creativity. Not all stock photos are created equal. So many stock photos have awkward poses and silly props – it’s easy to pick out really bad stock photos because they just look fake and artificial. But how do you pick out the good ones?

So I put together a quick tip list for selection success: 

  • Use a reputable source like iStock, Adobe Stock or Shutterstock
  • Read, read, read the license agreements – keep it legal because it can cost you
  • Choose bright colors because they elicit a visceral response
  • Avoid cliché concepts by trying something different. Make sure the copy references the concept. You don’t want weird for the sake of weird.
  • Make it your own by adding custom elements. Check out our blog banners – notice any hidden frogs??
  • Look for unique or surprising perspectives
  • Use images that keep it positive and show emotion or tell a story
  • Images with power show real life rather than staged situations
  • Images that include people have a positive impact on trustworthiness
  • No blank device screens; fill in with screen captures
  • Use only high-quality/resolution images. Confirm the image can be downloaded in the size you need. Whenever possible, download the image at the largest size because you never know if you will print in the future.
  • Think about how the image will be used - multiple formats, monitor sizes, optimized for landscape or portrait dimensions?
  • Pick images that feature dogs! People love dogs.

Now for the fun part! To visualize what I mean, I put together a handful of examples for the most common targets I see poorly executed: social networking, online community, mobile, community manager and volunteer. And we’ve all been there…perhaps even used one of these examples. That’s ok. The good news? You’re not alone and I’ve been there too.

Social Networking

Perhaps the most difficult of all…social networking. Selecting imagery for such an abstract concept is not only a challenge, but a lesson in patience. I suggest you find something that represents the message you’re trying to convey. Avoid the overplayed social media icons or the classic mixed group of people. Try incorporating real screen captures of your community site. Showcase real people in real situations engaging in the community. Whenever possible, aim to feature images that catch a person in action versus someone looking right at you.








Online Community

Another challenge. Steer clear of images that broadly represent the concept or look cheesy. Cheesy stock photos give off a canned vibe that damages your credibility. Instead, I recommend you focus on the people. Use images that illustrate where and why people are engaging in your online community. Recall from my list above: use images that show emotion or tell a story. Additionally, powerful images show real life rather than staged situations. (Pro tip: When searching, get creative with keywords. Be precise in what you search for to narrow results. It’s okay to go a few pages into a search or to use a filter for “most recently added.” Example: Experiment with “online community” and try “happy people using technology at work.”)



Focus on three things: real devices, no blank screens and practical applications. The image should include the device in a way that is natural to the user. The number one way to spot a terrible mobile image is when the image features a mobile device that is not real or the screen inside the frame is not mobile-friendly. Plus, a lot of stock photography is outdated, so make sure to pay attention to items like type of technology (no flip phones) and fashion. For example, using a screen from a website vs. a responsive web page is always a dead giveaway.


 Community Manager

Perhaps the most misrepresented of all: the community manager. Here, I believe the focus should be on authenticity and showing faces, because faces are unique and relatable. Try to plan out what you want to communicate and remember that the photo will speak to different segments of the community. This is why I love action shots. Also avoid stereotypes – don’t exclusively use images of millennials in this role.









Volunteers are a strong asset to every organization. Think about it: how passionate do you have to be to give your time freely? Pretty passionate! If possible, I recommend you use real photographs of volunteers. The image you choose should also be relevant and compelling. Remember to highlight all of the volunteer types. Perhaps this is a good place to try an infographic that demonstrates impact or to create a custom image with a quote that describes the results. You could even crowdsource photos and credit volunteers.


So now what?

I say we band together and keep this conversation going. What are your tips or sources for selecting the best images on and offline?


Topics: Online Community Management, Engagement, Online Community

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