Katie Burkhart is the founder of KBurkhart & Co. and serves as the lead brand strategist and designer. You can follow Katie on Twitter @KBurkhartCo, read her posts on Medium, and subscribe to her newsletter to have content sent right to your inbox.
I have two stories to tell you.
First, I’m browsing through the Wall Street Journal magazine, in print, on a Saturday morning. I flip past pages of ads and even content, eyes skimming the surface but not digging in.
Then I stopped. There was an ad for what I believed to be a jacket. It was so simple, the jacket hanging on a specific type of hook, the lighting executed to focus my attention on that hook, which in juxtaposition feels out of place and yet entirely perfect.
Second, I went shopping for a new smartphone, an exercise in comparing features I will likely never use to determine how to spend a lot of money for something I do not personally find fascinating. But one trend stuck out: the biggest selling point right now is the camera.
It doesn't matter if you're loyal to Apple or went on an adventure and tried the Google Pixel; everyone touts their camera as the feature show.
What do these stories have in common? They made me wonder why, if we all have these phenomenal little machines in our pockets, I scroll past most images because I've seen them before. They're one of the same dozen or so stock photos we're all passing around, despite having the ability to produce something different.
And as content creators, our collective acceptance of this reality means that our audiences are scrolling right past our content, too.
Create the Unexpected
Let me start by saying I’m guilty of using some of the dirty dozen. Because stock photos have become so readily available and are often free, I lean on the crutch. It’s understandable. If you’re writing a lot of posts, you need a lot of corresponding images -- and you need them quick. That says nothing about keeping social channels populated, or websites, or printed collateral. It can be a daunting task, and searchable libraries of well composed, high-resolution content provide a comfortable solution.
But, as my grandma says, nothing in life is free. “There’s a myriad of ways to hold your business back from success, and one of the most common and easily-fixable mistakes is the visual engagement pass over,” says Chris Newhard, videographer and storyteller. I reached out to hear his perspective as a purely visual content creator and one of my favorite collaborators. He continued, saying “Businesses have a duty to engage their current and potential clients on a deeper, more connected level with original content.”
I couldn't agree more. The reason I stopped on the ad with the hook and jacket was because it presented something to me in a way that was different than the rest of the magazine, and yet felt entirely specific and intentional to that brand. It told me a story with detail, not a pass over of what I've seen a hundred times.
It’s time we step up and commit to creating photos that tell our stories in clear, unexpected ways, most of which starts in the details, in creating images that are as intentional as the rest of our brand identities, and as precise as the wording we choose for our headlines. In short, something our audiences will want to look at because it offers them something they didn’t expect out of habit.
Unexpected Comes from Different Methods
When trying to come up with photos that are -- dare I say it -- unique to your brand, there are several approaches you can take. The option closest to a nicotine patch for free stock photos would be to investigate premium photo collections that restrict the number of licenses they sell. Utilizing these collections will help decrease the number of places you see “your photo,” and will still have the benefits of seamless discovery.
Another approach is to hire a photographer to take photos that go with specific campaigns, or even work with a few photographers to curate your own internal library so content teams and others have ample selection. This approach will likely take time to build up, but offers the greatest opportunity to make specific decisions that deliver unexpected results.
If you can’t afford a photographer, you can do it yourself. Smartphones now have the ability to shoot in beautiful, blurred background portrait mode and the Google Pixel 2 boasts stunning AI that uses an algorithm to combine multiple shots into one clear, crisp image. Our phones have made photography highly accessible, so encourage your team to give it a shot (pun intended) on behalf of your brand.
An alternative approach would be to use photos generated by your users or audience. Maybe you’re a brand with a following that has a particular flair for creativity-packed Instagram accounts. Consider giving them a way to share their photos with you so you can use them in your campaigns or other content. Just remember to get their permission first.
Even if you can't break the habit of using free stock photos, take a minute and think about how you can edit that image we’ve all seen before. An alternative cropping, selective color or an overlay does help to catch the eye during an otherwise boring scroll through the digital list.
Regardless of which method you choose, you should always ask yourself “Does this image tell a specific story that supports my brand?”
Asking this question will lead to photos that provide an unexpected experience for your audience because your choices will be intentional rather than general.
Most importantly, you should remember that your biggest opportunity lies in showing something genuine. Don’t just show me a desk: Show me your desk, with all the little things that make it human.
“These simple yet effective investments instantly connect your audience on a more personal level — and tell them that your business is full of what matters most: people,” Chris said as he closed out his email. “As you continue to develop your own content, you’re building trust with [your audience] and proving that you care about what you’re doing.”
Take out your phones, content creators, and start purposefully capturing the world so I can engage in a scroll-stopping, click-on-your-content-for-more, kind of way because you delivered something I wasn’t expecting to see.
(And yes, the images in this post were originally created.)