It’s an attractive stock photo with a passing relevance to the topic. It’s an innocuous choice that isn’t going to cause any harm. These are the kind of thoughts we have when we pick a stock image for our website or blog. Unfortunately, this common mistake kills engagement. Stock photos are an obstacle to viewer engagement.

Stock photos have become clichés—objects of derision—in certain industries (e.g., science) and mocked on social media. There are numerous Buzzfeed and BoardPanda articles dedicated to bad stock photos.

With the importance of visuals coupled with the volume of competition, using stock photos is a recipe for fixing your content amongst the visual clutter that readers skip over when traversing the web. Overexposure is the culprit. In the 90s, when websites started using stock photography, using attractive visuals of people smiling was seen as an effective element of web design, “…pretty soon, their inauthenticity started leaping off the page, turning people off enough to make them exit the site immediately” (Byrne, 2019).

Group of smiling business people
It’s best to avoid stock images whenever possible.

Photographers are incentivized to create mass appeal images. Mike Houska, the owner of Dogleg Studios, explains, “When you’re selling stock images, it’s just a volume game. Those photographers want their images to be uploaded a thousand times over, so they make them as generic as possible. In that case, a picture’s definitely not worth a thousand words.”

It has become a cycle: marketers want an image for their story, so they search a stock image service (e.g., iStock) and pay for a generic image that causes the photographers to create similar images. When the readers stop by the marketers’ website and see the stock photos, they’re turned off and go elsewhere for content. It’s crazy. By selecting a generic photo, marketers are paying to drive their audience away.

When you drive readers away, it hurts your organization’s brand. Marketers should take photographs themselves. Use photos of actual employees. Authentic photos resonate with readers and won’t drive them away. A Marketing experiment study comparing a stock image with a photo of a company founder found that when the photo of the founder was used, “visitors were 35 % more likely to sign up for a free consultation” (McCraw, 2011).

If social media has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all content creators. Don’t be afraid to embrace your inner content creator. Your audience will thank you with more engagement.


Byrne, S. (2019, July 19). Four tips for effective web design. Retrieved from

How stock photos sabotage your brand image – beware of visual clichés. Retrieved from

Jezouit, B. (2017, June 26). Are you guilty of using these stock photo cliches?. Retrieved from

Johansson, A. (2015, November 4). The truth behind stock photos: What works and what Doesn’t. Retrieved from

McCraw, A. (2011, April 8). This just tested: Stock images or real people?. Retrieved from