Austin McCraw

This Just Tested: Stock images or real people?

April 8th, 2011

In our most recent Web clinic on optimizing leads, we quickly reviewed a recent case study in which two banner images were tested – a generic stock image vs. an image of a real person. This experiment led to more insights than we had time to cover last week; so, I thought I’d give it a little more room to breathe here on the blog.

CONTROL: Who doesn’t love a generic smiling lady?

If you haven’t yet watched the Web clinic replay, the company (blurred intentionally) we were working with in this experiment was a consumer credit counseling service offering free debt consultation. Their homepage had been the focus of many previous radical redesign tests, but for the scope of this research project, we were focusing on one particular issue: The main banner image.

Currently, the homepage utilized a generic stock image of a random lady wearing a headset, basically attempting to bring some reality to a free debt consultation. The main draw (as I see it) is that a really friendly attractive lady is standing by to help you with your credit challenges – why not give her a call today?

But who is this lady? How can she help me? And why in the world does she keep smiling at me?

Your customers are pretty savvy. They know Smiley McHeadset doesn’t really work for your company. They know she’s a paid model and is likely smiling in an ad for a bank and a billboard for a credit card as well. Do you think that deepens the trust with your company?

Or as David Meerman Scott said at this year’s Email Summit, “The problem with the B2B happy multi-cultural conference room with computer shot is that it has become a cliché. It is world-class, cutting-edge, mission-critical visual gobbledygook. Just like written gobbledygook, this kind of image is so overused to have become meaningless.”

TREATMENT: Putting a face with a name

The question arose from our team, “Would visitors respond more to a familiar face over this generic one?” The thought was that the higher relevance created by a recognizable image would more closely tie into the motivations of the ideal prospect.

So, to test this hypothesis, we pitted the happy-go-lucky anonymous phone rep woman against the popular, reputation-wielding company founder. I guess you could say it was a “head-to-head” competition (ok, sorry I couldn’t resist). Now this new image represented a real person, with real credentials, and was highly recognizable for channels coming to the home page (television ads, news articles, etc.).

Side note: Notice anything else different about the images. Yep, that’s right, gender. Might gender play a role here as well? Possibly. (So might weight, hair color, attractiveness, etc.) But just so you aren’t bogged down by this question, this lady had been tested against other male generic stock images, and was the current reigning champion (no offense to all our male model blog readers out there). This test treatment, however, was the first in which we tested a stock model versus an actual person.

RESULTS: Familiarity Breeds… Conversion

So what were the results? Well, Mrs. Generic finally met her match. It appears that an attractive smile is not a match for a good name. Overall, the familiarity hypothesis held some water. When the recognizable image of the founder was used, visitors were 35 % more likely to sign up for a free consultation. Remember, this is a 35% lift on top of many other previous gains in the testing-optimization cycle.






INTERPRETATION: Quick! Sell your iStock credits before this post goes viral

So what are the implications of this test? Are all of our generic stock images worthless? Should you trade all your iStock credits in for a new camera? Well, not exactly.

Stock images are not the enemy here – irrelevance is. You could hypothetically take your own irrelevant picture and it wouldn’t make a hill-of-beans difference – except that it probably wouldn’t look as good. The main point here is that how we choose images matters. This is true for all graphics, and the following principle is key.

KEY PRINCIPLE: An image is only as valuable as the value it communicates

This is how we must think when choosing images. We shouldn’t just pick images we think make our site look prettier, but rather, we should choose images because they say something about the value of our offer. So, if you use a stock image of a smiling lady, make sure it is communicating value. If you use a picture of a middle-aged balding CPA, make sure it is communicating value. It really doesn’t matter where your images come from, so long as they communicate relevant value.

To help bring the rubber to the road, the following questions can serve as a grid for finding the most effective image. You can see how the images above fit within this grid and why potentially the image of the founder generated the most response.

Image Assessment Grid (Click to expand)

(Note: we also discussed these questions more deeply in the article entitle Images vs. Copy.)

AUDIENCE FEEDBACK: What image would you test next?

Before concluding, I wanted to ask you if there’s an image that you think might perform better than the picture of the founder. We have discovered a picture that is more RELEVANT, but is there an image that might bring more REALITY (per the grid above)?

Maybe you can make a convincing case for what kind of image our research team should test next…


Additional Resources

Images vs. Copy – How getting the right balance increased conversion by 29%

Converting Leads to Sales – How one company generated $4.9 million in additional sales pipeline growth in only 8 months

Surprising Wins from 2009: Using insights from an uncertain economy to drive 302% growth

Online Ads Tested — How Matching Ad Design to Context Improved Conversion by 127%

Austin McCraw

About Austin McCraw

Austin McCraw, Senior Director, Editorial Content, MECLABS Institute From Web clinics to certification courses, Austin works behind the scenes to bring our research analysts’ discoveries to our audience in clear and creative ways. Before joining MarketingExperiments, Austin was the Promotions Director for a PBS affiliate in Gainesville where he was in charge of publicizing local and national programming. A graduate of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, Austin specializes in new media and video production by day and producing family memories with his wife and two children by night.

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  1. July 30th, 2014 at 15:36 | #1

    Using the founder on the homepage is a great way to show people a real side of a business. Sometimes, however, the founder might not be known to the general public. There may be a specific employee that is more recognizable like the receptionist or a high profile lawyer, for example. However, I feel that a great way to allow viewers to RELATE to an image is by showing “the team” in their natural habitat. A picture that displays their personality and passion for their job will feel relevant and inviting to those viewing it.

  2. Max
    August 31st, 2014 at 08:51 | #2

    Great article, great experiment. Can you post a link to any update? It’s 2014 and I’m still seeing too many anonymous headset wearers on the web!

    Founder/CEO/public face of company (for some co’s that might be a hired local celeb) with a friendly arm around the shoulder of a genuine customer (both smiling to camera) – a customer who, having successfully banished debt, went on to great financial success (with link to his/her testimony), would have to be the shot I’d want to be hired to shoot (speaking as a photographer specialising in ‘environmental portraits’!).

  3. March 11th, 2015 at 10:42 | #3

    This is a great article and sheds some light on this aspect of building a website and running experiments. It is important to test your own hypothesis, why not?, but overall I strongly agree with the conclusion that images should communicate the value as opposed to look friendly and generic.

  4. May 1st, 2015 at 23:44 | #4

    These issues are likely to cost you visitors and potential customers. And long-term they will damage your brand’s reputation.

  5. May 22nd, 2015 at 14:58 | #5

    What would have been a more interesting test would be to test generic woman against a photo of one of the real customer service reps. Not everyone has a recognizable face that can be added to their site. Relevance is important of course, so should you use a stock “relevant” image or a “real” relevant image? Your test did not answer this question.

    • Kayla Cobb
      Kayla Cobb
      May 26th, 2015 at 09:46 | #6

      Hey Raymond,

      I agree, testing the generic woman against the real customer service reps would be an interesting test. However, the test used in the post wasn’t merely testing image relevance; it was testing recognizable image relevance. Testing strictly for job relevance, and not including an image strictly because it features a recognizable person attached to the company, could be a good follow up test idea. I’ll be sure to pass it on.

      Thanks for reading!


  6. June 5th, 2015 at 05:44 | #7

    Additionally, you might want to also consider testing a photo of founder interacting/meeting with a customer (in person). This would realign the response away from “Why is this person smiling at me” to “Okay, now I understand a bit more about what service is being offered by whom.” I wonder how study results would differ across different industries and services.

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