HomeBlog8 Surprisingly Effective Ways to Use Stock Photos in Ads

8 Surprisingly Effective Ways to Use Stock Photos in Ads

Author: Margot Whitney
Last Updated: November 25, 2021 | Display Ads

Not all of us have time to continuously be adding to a collection of professional photographs for our business advertisements. I would guess that many reading this post are busy business owners and digital marketers who need a way to run ads without spending half their day in a photography studio. While the creative process of photography can be fun for many, it can also be a time and money eater.

I hear you, people who just don’t have time to mess around with a fancy DSLR! This is why stock photography can be so helpful for you busy bees out there. Whether you’re looking to add a photograph to your Google Display or Facebook ad, it is critical to have a visual element that appeals to your target audience. This makes stock photography a very helpful and important tool for modern day marketers.

But first …

What is stock photography?

Stock photography refers to a library of photographs supplied for public use under varying licenses. Stock photography has been around far longer than Instagram and even Google Ads. In fact, it was  back in the 1920s when H. Armstrong Roberts developed the concept of stock photography  to help publishers save money on hiring professional photographers for advertising needs.

Since 2000, the number of photos taken has grown exponentially as digital cameras and camera phones (remember when we had to make that distinction?) have improved and become more accessible. This means the number of stock photos has increased, too.

futuristic woman with needle and corn stock photo

Don’t worry—there are plenty of stock photos that don’t suck.

Okay, enough with the history lessons! Nowadays, many people are familiar with stock photography, and some of you can even spot a stock photo when you see one. It’s possible you think all stock photos are cheesy and cliché (we’ve all seen enough stock photos of a salesperson in a suit and a headset).

But if you are using stock photography well, it can be surprisingly effective and make for great looking ads. Let’s review some ways you can make sure your use of stock photography is helping and not hurting your marketing efforts.

1. Avoid getting sued!

Don’t laugh, I’m being quite serious. This does happen in the stock photography world, which is why, first and foremost, when it comes to stock photography it is critical to play by the rules. Lawsuits are costly, timely, and, frankly, not a great way to make headlines for your business… so let’s avoid them completely by learning a bit about licensure types.

Here are three categories of stock photography to become familiar with:

  • Public domain (PD): If you’re not big into legal jargon and would rather just not mess around with licenses, then this is the way to go. Any stock photographs that are in the PD category are free game to use without a license. Take a look at the example below, from one of my favorite places to grab free stock photographs, Pexels. As you can see in the Pexels License text, this photograph is free and requires no attribution. Make sure to look at these details to avoid any future legal hassles before designing your beautiful ad.
best practices for stock photos check usage example
  • Royalty Free (RF): A royalty-free license on a stock photo is the next most common license you’ll see when shopping around. This typically allows for a one-time payment that then will allow you, the advertiser, to use the photograph across several mediums without needing to re-purchase a license. Again, you’ll want to read and understand the fine print and attribution requirements.
  • Right Managed (RM): RM licenses are common stock photography licenses that allow for one-time use of the stock image specified by the license. This may not be the most convenient way of using stock photos in ads. If you wants to use the photograph in a second ad or on a different platform,  then you’ll need to purchase another license. The neat thing about RM is that you can pay for exclusive rights of a stock image to avoid an embarrassing “wearing the same outfit” type of moment with a competitor.

2. Find stock photos that don’t look like stock photos

Who has seen an image like this before?

stock photo of woman eating salad

How about this one?

stock photo of employees in blazers

It really makes you wonder, when did salads become so funny? And when did business blazers become so trendy?

All joking aside, we’ve all seen hundreds upon thousands of images that look like these, and it gets quite old after awhile. When marketers utilize these obvious stock photos choices, rather than adding an element of visualization to their ad they are actually adding an element of cheesiness. This becomes a real turn-off to audience members. In fact, 67% of online shoppers rated high quality photographs as being “very important” to their purchase decision, according to MDG Advertising.

“Because stock photos are so recognizable, they’re overused,” says Anna Johansson of business.com. “Consider the case of Jennifer Anderson, the internet’s ‘Everywhere Girl.’ She posed for a photo shoot sometime in 1996—and her face was subsequently used in print by some of the biggest brands in the world, including Microsoft, the BBC, Greyhound Bus Lines, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and countless others.”

Whenever I see ads with recognizable stock photos, I think wow, that marketer was feeling lazy. Your goal when choosing stock photographs to use in your online ads should not be to choose a photograph that conveys the message and tone of your campaign. Consider how well a  photo will compel users to click and move along your marketing funnel. Asking these critical questions and carefully selecting unique visuals for each ad will have a far higher pay off than choosing the first salad-eating lady you come across.

3. Set aside a budget for stock photo ads

While you may decide to hunt for most of your stock photographs in the (free) public domain category, you still need a budget for your stock photography ads (after all, they are ads!). There are also may be times when investing in buying the rights to a photo will be well worth it; for instance, if you’re running your most important campaign of the year, then you’ll likely want to use photographs that your competitors won’t be able to use as well.

It’s just as important to set aside budget for getting your beautiful advertisements in front of your target audience. Using the Google Display Network to target specific online locations where your audience likely hangs out is one great strategy. Another is to run social ads through platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter where you can build highly targeted audiences to get your ads in the eyes of the right folks.

While I don’t want to dive too deep into this tangent, I just wanted to provide a gentle reminder to think strategically about your budget when determining, which stock photos you will want to use for your advertisements.

4. Choose an image that is contextually relevant to your message

We’ve all seen ads that seem irrelevant. Let’s say you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed when you see an image of an adorable puppy, with sunglasses. At first you might think, Oh, perhaps this is an advertisement for an animal shelter or sunglasses, even? Then you take a look at the caption and realize that it’s an advertisement for finance software. Huh, strange…

You do NOT want your audience to be confused they come across your ads! In fact, it will increase the chances of them loosing trust in your business and abandoning ship before engaging with your ad.

Harpoon Brewery does a great job of avoiding the irrelevancy pitfall. They do often use cute dogs in their ads, but they always stay on brand by adding their product into the shot. Check out the example below. If this Facebook ad had just the dog it would be misleading, but because their beer is featured, too, it is a solid use of imagery.

Harpoon Facebook image with product

While you won’t be able to add your products to stock photos, you can choose images that are relevant to your brand and your advertising goals. To ensure your ads are relevant, first reflect on the message you are trying to get across. What is your end goal? What image would communicate this with as few words as possible to provide further context?

5. Use emotional and human photos to capture attention

Take a look again at the stock photos discussed in tip number two above. Why do you think your reaction to them is likely comprised of eye-rolling? I bet it’s because the emotions these models are portraying do not feel genuine. I mean, how funny could a salad really be? No one gets that excited when they are in work attire!

Joking aside, having a genuine human emotion in your stock photo is an effective way to pull in audience members who can relate to those pictured human emotions.

But how do you decide whether or not a stock photo feels genuine enough to create that human intrigue? Use your intuition! For instance, which of the two photos below feels like a more believable depiction of joy or happiness?

Photo A:

stock photo of friends

Or Photo B:

stock photo of guy in front of blue wall

Photo A, right? Hopefully, that answer came pretty intuitively to you. The image of friends laughing in a natural setting feels much more genuine than some guy clearly posing in front of a weird blue wall.

The Facebook ad below is a great example of how genuine human emotions can make an ad more appealing to its audience. When I see this ad, I don’t just see two models looking bored as they sport the clothing line; rather, I see two friends having a fun afternoon together. These positive feelings will make me much more likely to interact with the ad and visit the website to see where the models got their cute clothes.

Jack Wills Facebook ad

The bottom line is that using stock photos is going to capture your audience—remember, humans relate to other humans. Focus on choosing human images where the emotions feel genuine to you and that support the message you are trying to get across.

6. Err on the side of simplicity

When choosing stock photos for your ads, you might be tempted to choose super busy images with an array of fluorescent colors. While certain instances may call for busier photographs, it is typically best to keep your images crisp, clean, and simple. You want to capture audience members with a clear message—pulling them in through chaos will not be nearly as effective.

Check out the clean and crisp Instagram ad below for Wedding Wire. Instead of overwhelming an audience with a busy image of a bride making a list or a boring stock photograph of person on their computer, the company  went with a simple image of flowers against a clean, bright background. This ad works so well because the words put these flowers in content and the image is visually pleasing without being overly flashy or busy. The image provides a calm and peaceful feeling rather than an anxious one, which I’m sure any bride would appreciate in the midst of wedding planning.

simple photo ad example

When choosing your stock photos for certain ads ask yourself what you want your audience members to feel instantly upon viewing that image. Excitement? Joy? Fear? Once you settle on the emotion you’re hoping to evoke, choose a stock photo to display that simply and effectively.

7. Don’t be afraid to modify the image to add relevance

Adding your own touch to stock photos can take them from nice generic images to more personalized and relevant photos that speak directly to your marketing campaign. Something as simple as cropping the photo or adding a small amount of text can help make your photo much more contextually relevant to your ad. (As a reminder, in order to legally manipulate your stock photos, make sure to investigate the licensing (discussed in tip number one!) that’s in place for that particular image first.)

Check out the great example below from Moz. They took a nice but generic stock photo and amplified it by adding their own copy and call to action. They even added in the Moz logo at the bottom corner. I love this example since the stock image is relevant to the text, and the text adds meaning to the image. Suddenly those people become holiday shoppers, and those bags are filled with gifts!

stock photo ad example from Moz

8. A/B test your ads

The benefit of becoming an expert in the stock photo world is that your image library becomes almost endless. There are millions of stock photos floating around the internet, so once you’ve gotten your groove of finding the right images for your ad, don’t be afraid to get greedy. What I mean by this is you do not need to limit yourself to just one image per ad. In fact, you will be much successful if you run your ad campaign with one, two, or even three versions of the same ad with varying images.

You have likely heard of A/B testing—it’s a way for you to run two ads simultaneously to the same audiences but switching out 50/50 to test which ad resonates most. I would recommend keeping both ads the same in terms of added on elements like copy and CTAs, and simply use a different stock image. This way you can be sure the difference in reaction is attributable to the difference in the image.

Testing your ads will help you learn what types of images resonate most with your audience. This will give you more power to make conversion-worthy decisions in the future when picking stock photos for your various campaigns.

Stock images are not so scary after all, right? With these tips, you have the knowledge to go forth and turn your ads into engaging and effective tools.

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Meet The Author

Margot Whitney

Margot is a content marketing specialist at WordStream and nutrition graduate student at Framingham State. She loves all things digital, learning about nutrition, running, traveling, and cooking.

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