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How to use stock images in your content marketing

Monday, April 08, 2024

Graphic with a woman in a circle on the left writing on a post-it note while other images are dotted around

Images are an essential part of content marketing. A powerful hero image encourages a click off of a social media post. Longer texts benefit from the break in a wall of words a well-placed image brings. Posting anything without an image is a deliberate act to hide it from view.

Creating a unique image for each blog post can be a full-time job. It's far easier to rely on the creativity of other people, although finding the right images to complement your content can be challenging. This is where a "stock image" can lighten your workload. 

What are stock images?

A stock image is one that's been created and licensed for other people to use.

For example, I photograph a random tree and upload it to a stock library. You need a photo of a tree for your website, find my image and license it. This is using a stock image.

Stock images aren't limited to photographs. You'll also find vector graphics, illustrations, charts and even videos. They also cover almost any topic, from people doing Yoga to protests to detailed shots of ancient machinery.

When to use a stock image

There are few hard-and-fast rules on where to use a stock image rather than a bespoke one. Generally, I steer towards bespoke images for content specific to the products, services and workings of a business, and stock for non-specific purposes like blogs and ad hoc social media.

That said, there are instances where it is not appropriate to use stock:

The simplest approach is to create an authentic impression of your business using an authentic image.

How to choose a stock image

Choosing the right image to accompany content is part art and part science. The art is a subjective view of whether the image supports your message in an attractive and appealing way. The science is its objective quality.

The main factors in selecting a stock image are:

Where to find stock images

Before we go any further, images you download off the web or social media are not stock images. Most of these are covered by copyright, and you can find yourself in trouble if you use them without permission.

Stock libraries are the easiest source for images. These are sites where creatives upload their pictures for others to use. They'll have search features, download options and clear and explicit licenses.

Social media is another option, although it can be a little hit-and-miss. Some networks, such as Flickr, allow creatives to set a license for their work. Alternatively, you could approach a creative directly if you come across someone whose work you like.

Some creatives maintain their own stock libraries. As with social media, there's no harm in approaching the creator of something you like to ask for a license.

What does it cost?

There's no fixed cost for licensing an image. Some creatives are happy to license for free, within certain limits. Others ask for thousands of dollars for time-sensitive or exclusive image rights.

The rule of thumb is the cheaper the image is to use, the more likely it is to be used. That means tens of thousands of different pieces of content could be using the same picture across hundreds of topics. This familiarity risks your content being passed over in the mistaken belief the user has read it before.

A woman sits on a sofa propped up by pillows with a laptop
This image by Mimi Thian has been downloaded over 80,000 times and used on at least 25,000 separate posts and pages

What is a license?

Contrary to popular opinion, images found on the Internet are not free for anyone to use. They are covered by copyright, which is a legal right for the creator to control how the image is used and receive compensation for it. A license sets out these terms.

Some typical features of licenses include:

You should check that the license matches how you want to use an image. For example, suppose you want to use one across the web, email, and social media and crop it to suit. In that case, there's no point choosing an image with "one use, no modifications allowed" restrictions.

The "Creative Commons"

Some creatives are happy to share images without charging for their use, provided certain conditions are met. While this means you could have access to a free image, you may have to acknowledge who created it and make your version of the image freely available on the same terms.

The "Creative Commons" is a popular set of licenses that cover this. While it can give you access to a broad range of free-to-use images, always check the specific purpose you have in mind is covered.

Screenshot of a grid of images on the theme of engineering from Flickr
Flickr has an expansive selection of free-to-use images, although finding the right one can be difficult

The "public domain"

Copyrights on images expire several decades after the creator's death. Alternatively, a photographer or designer may give up their rights over an image. These are called "public domain" images and can be used without paying any fees and in any way you see fit.

Again, it's important to note that images found on Google, Bing, etc., are not in the public domain by default.

Problems with stock images

Using stock images is not without its challenges. There are three problems I regularly come across:

implying an endorsement. Usually this is where a headshot suggests it's the employee or customer who said a quote.

It might seem like fair play to use an image any way you want, but there can be negative consequences such as:

It's worth remembering that while you may be based in a country where what you're doing is entirely legal if your content can be seen in a country where it isn't, you might still be exposed.

Protecting your brand

The easiest way to protect your brand is to assume every image you encounter is protected by copyright.

First, only use reputable libraries or go directly to creatives. Social media and Google image searches are useful for ideas or finding new talent to approach, but you shouldn't download and use images from them.

Second, make sure you have the right permissions for how you want to use the image. If you want a cropped photo for half a dozen designs across email, web, and print, there's no point in choosing one with a single-use and no-modifications license.

Finally, keep records. On the rare occasions I use a stock image, I always keep a link to the page and a screenshot of where I sourced it, a copy of the license text and the original file I downloaded. With clients, I recommend they download their own files rather than rely on a license "gifted" by their designer.

Photos of people

People buy people, and that goes for photos too. The smiling face looking out at us triggers a sense of comfort and makes it more likely we'll click on a link or scroll down.

If identifiable people are in an image, you need to be aware of any privacy rights they might have. People in photos are usually called models or subjects. A model is a professional term used for those who pose for photographers and artists, whether or not they are paid. Subjects could be anyone, regardless of whether they agreed to be in the image.

A blonde woman holds an espresso cup to her lips while looking into the camera at you
A model release allows me to use this image of Roseanne in my marketing and design concepts

Using images with inappropriate subjects and models can leave you open to brand damage through social media campaigns, court cases or regulatory action. Before using an image with people, you should ask:

Photographers who use models will often get a "model release." This contract confirms that the model agrees to release any rights they might have. If in doubt, ask for a copy of the release for your files, although what you receive will likely be redacted to remove personal information about the model.

Is Generative AI an alternative?

Generative AI is an increasingly popular method of creating images for marketing content. A few words of text typed into a prompt box can generate a selection of unique images to use. However, they are not without problems.

AI-generated images are not usually protected by copyright, which may make them unsuitable for marketing or brand-centered materials.

The quality of images can be poor and prone to errors. Hands and mouths are notable as areas where GenAI can struggle.

They can suffer from the "uncanny valley" phenomenon, where humans see the images as being "wrong" or unsettling. This can put people off of marketing messages.

Using GenAI in itself is no longer a novel approach that gets attention. Given the abundance of free tools, it might even cheapen your brand and turn potential customers away.

That said, GenAI has its place. While I don't use it to create the images used on this site, I do generate elements to use in montages or as inspiration for my design work. This is a sensible compromise.

A selection of images of a black woman in skater skirt and blue top generated by Bing
These images were generated by Bing Create using the same prompt over and over

The bottom line: should I use stock images?

Stock images are a valuable tool to add color and depth to content. Used correctly, they can positively impact conversion rates and engagement. However, they need to be treated like any other asset in the business:

Stock libraries

Stock libraries and image sharing sites with licensing options

Shutterstock

Unsplash

iStock

Flickr

DeviantArt   ## Image credits

Photo of woman on sofa with a laptop by Mimi Thian on Unsplash Photo of woman drinking coffee by Ross Hori

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction.

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