I’m a content writer, not a graphic designer. My job is to make the words dance, to convey useful information in an entertaining way.
As such, for a long time visuals were just an afterthought for me. Yeah, a blog needs a header image. So after I’m done writing I’ll slap something on there, check that box, and send it off to the client.
As content continues to proliferate, though, that laissez-faire approach isn’t enough. Your potential audience has far more content available to them than they’ll ever be able to read. That means they’re actively looking for reasons not to read your content. A weak—or worse, missing—visual is a perfect excuse to move to the next thing.
The right visual does more than take up space. It captures attention, creates a little mystery, invites the reader to dig into your carefully-crafted text. Good visuals are doubly important for amplification, too: Your Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn shares will all include an image. The visual alone can stop the endless, half-engaged scrolling people do on social media, buying you crucial seconds to compel a click or a tap.
I challenge any and all content creators to up their image game. Let’s stop with the schlocky stock photos and give people something that’s worth their attention.
Here’s how I find scroll-stopping visuals for my blog posts.
Ditch the Schlock Stock
It’s trendy to bash Shutterstock for schlocky stock photos, but that’s like blaming Netflix for your binge-a-thon of Fuller House. There’s plenty of great content available. It’s up to you to find and choose it over the cliché stuff.
Whether you’re using Shutterstock or any other paid photo site, start by avoiding these cliché photo types:
I could go on, but you get the idea. These are the hoary clichés that give stock photos a bad name. They’re not unique; they’re not authentic; they’re not visually stunning.
To avoid the stock photo blues, I tend to start my search on royalty-free sites like Pixabay, Pexels, and even Creative Commons-licensed photos on Flickr. But even if the boss demands you use an approved paid site, there’s good stuff to be found. Here are a few ways to kick your visuals up a notch.
Make It Weird
For my blog post on mobile advertising strategy, there were plenty of obvious ways to go. Someone looking at a phone in a coffee shop, at an airport, at a concert… people look at their phones everywhere, so there are no shortage of safe options.
So of course I went with this one:
Why is the dog wearing sunglasses? What type of phone has a pawprint for the unlock button? Why didn’t he use the front-facing camera for his selfie? Any one of those questions is enough to give the reader paws. Er, pause.
Make It Beautiful
Instagram is a social media network that’s almost entirely visual. It was designed for image sharing, boy howdy, do its members share. There have been over 40 billion photos posted on Instagram since it launched 7 years ago.
So it makes sense to take a few design cues from Instagram when you choose your photos. Find something beautiful, striking, and with an evocative filter. Like this image I used for my comedy in content post:
Find a Metaphor
Get a little creative with your content, and you can get more creative with your visuals. Introduce a metaphor in your opening paragraph that will unite your content and give you more options for a header image.
For a recent content marketing tips post, I could have stuck with a generic “businessperson” or “office” header image. Instead, I added a personal note about Lego in the beginning, and found a dynamite visual that helped introduce the metaphor:
Take Your Own Photos
The best way to ensure your header is original, authentic, and eye-catching is to take the photo yourself. Last year, Jason Miller held a photoshoot with his LinkedIn Marketing Solutions crew. They captured a ton of wonderful moments that the team used as header images for months:
I love that even though this image is a parody of a stock photo, it’s undeniably original. You can see the cool art in the office. The people are actually the folks who create content for LinkedIn. The laptop is a well-loved machine with a LinkedIn sticker on it, not a pristine stainless-steel model. Unlike a stock photo, this picture actually tells you about the people behind the brand.
Even a cell-phone quality image can get the job done. When our team covers marketing events, we always take a candid photo of the presenter as the header image. My colleague Caitlin took it a step further for her Ann Handley roundup, with this adorable selfie:
It’s genuine, it’s unexpected, and it’s a photo the reader is guaranteed to be seeing for the first time.
As with Written Content, It’s about Personality
It used to be that all B2B marketing content had to be “professional,” interpreted as “impersonal, flat, and unemotive.” Old-school stock photos are a perfect match for that kind of content. Here’s a guy in a suit standing with his arms folded. Here’s our white paper written like a software end-user license agreement.
Now we know better. Readers want content that has warmth and personality. They want to feel that another human being is communicating with them.
Visuals need to evolve in the same way. If you’re writing great content and still using stiff, stock images, you’re doing your content a disservice. Make sure your visuals are every bit as distinctive and authentic as your writing is, and you can earn your reader’s attention.
Disclosure: LinkedIn Marketing Solutions is a TopRank Marketing client.