Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Stock Photos, Custom Photos, or a Blend of Both?

Over the past few years, the stock photography market has exploded and expanded exponentially. Iconic stock giants such as Getty Images, Corbis (privately owned by Bill Gates), Alamy, and Jupitermedia, Inc. (parent company of Jupiter Images) dominate high end publications and websites. Unfortunately, most of the images available from the companies listed above are simply too expensive for most small businesses to purchase for their web use, advertising campaigns, and media related ventures. Many times you'll see images owned by these companies used in highly publicized magazines and websites such as Time, Sports Illustrated, CNN, and many others. So, how do small businesses locate quality stock images that they can use effectively to promote their business and/or products?

The answer lies within the microstock websites. This emerging group of sites (such as iStockPhoto, BigStockPhoto, and Dreamstime) allow customers to purchase high quality images at much lower prices. Each site has certain licensing options and distribution restrictions for images, but most of the time a customer can purchase the desired image and the necessary license for a relatively low price.

For most companies, finding a good, applicable image isn't a problem. Just between the three stock sites listed above, there are over six million images. Yes, some of them are duplicates, with the same artist creating galleries on each site. However, there are still several million different images available.

A word of caution though when you are selecting an image to use - try to stay away from the most popular images. Why do I say that? Well, they are popular due to being sold and downloaded more times. Why do I caution you against using popular images? Because you don't want to create branding material for your company or product that is being used elsewhere. Your business is unique...your product is may not be in your best interest to use an image that has been sold hundreds or perhaps even thousands of times.

What am I talking about? Well, perhaps it's best to just use some visual examples. I came across this blog post which shows how three major electronics companies used the same image in various promotions. Check it out for yourself (link provided at the end of the article).

Better yet, here's a nightmare scenario that you would never want to have occur for your company. Can you imagine the constant explaining that Design Matters has to do regarding their (lack of) association with Vagisil? You see, they both used the same image of a young teen girl in their promotional materials. Unfortunately, the link to the Vagisil ad is no longer active. The Wall Street Journal also featured an article on this dilemma several years ago that is still worth reading (link provided at the end of the article).

These examples are the risk that you run when choosing to use stock photography for your business. I am certainly not telling you to abandon the use of stock photography for your business! Please don't misunderstand. However, I am recommending that you proceed with caution. There are very valid risks to consider. The customer's perception of your business is on the line. David Ogilvy said, "Always give your product a first-class ticket through life." This incredibly important concept is applicable to not only a product, a brochure, or your website - but your business as a whole. Is purchasing an image for a buck or two really the best route to take? It can be if you navigate your way through the process wisely.

  • Choose a photo that matches up with your purpose. Don't just choose one to "fill space." Rather than use a potentially risky or dull photo, fill that space with great content. Or, at times...empty space might be the best option. Space is good.
  • Be Creative in Your Choice. Instead of using a picture of a man or woman, (who isn't employed by your company), perhaps a graphic of some sort will convey the same message just as effectively. Or better yet, hire a photographer to take pictures of your actual employees. It may be slightly more expensive to choose this route, but the end result will certainly be more genuine. An example that comes to mind for me was a Sear's sales flyer that I received in the mail not too long ago. It completely missed the mark with me. I flipped through it until about page 3. On that page, I finally realized that every person in every picture had well placed smudges on their faces. (The flyer was geared toward outdoors/construction clothing and accessories.) I even saw painters with paint on their hands and face...however, their painting clothes were spotless. I also wondered why the "architect or engineer" in the picture seemed to have a big muddy smudge on his cheek when there wasn't any mud around in that particular picture...he was standing on a nice, dry concrete slab. The pictures were a complete bust for me. I didn't look at anything in the catalog with the mindset of "hey...I wonder what's on sale"; instead, I was just looking at the ridiculous pictures. In my opinion, the whole catalog was a ridiculous attempt to get me to purchase something...and it didn't work.
  • Always remember your message. Do the images you're choosing really help you convey your message to potential customers?

Another interesting possibility (at least to me) is to make direct contact with a stock photographer. Let's say you find an image that you like, but it just isn't quite right. It's close, but not 100% on target. I say that you should contact the photographer or designer directly. Ask them if they might be able to create just the image you are looking for. Many times, you can have this accomplished and it will still be relatively affordable. Most of the stock photographers and designers that I know are more than willing to work with a customer to create an image that is perfect for their particular needs. Also, most of them are generally fair in their pricing for such custom requests. The other bonus with going this route is you can generally eliminate the possibility of someone else having the same image.

I think it's well worth the extra dollars spent. This is by far the route that I would choose over anything else. I see myself using the stock sites to locate an artist or photographer whose style fits well into the advertising or promotional concept that I am building. I like working with people…not just using people's work. I would much rather contact them and establish a relationship with them that will result in photographs or designs that will give my business or product that "first-class ticket through life."

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