Content marketing best practices: Stock imagery (part 1 of 2)

Let’s be honest: people do judge books by their covers. In content marketing, often it’s the overarching visual that grabs your attention and makes you read a headline or title. And since most social media sites are devoted to the sharing of photographs and visuals, this has become the norm. According to statistics compiled by a marketing agency, “articles with images get 94% more views” than those without. However, how much thought and investment are you putting into these visuals? Are you finding appropriate photos or artworks that are relevant and add value to your content? Or do you just see these visuals as decoration?

I see it this way: You are hungry and you want to eat a hamburger. You can go to McDonald’s and pay $1 for a hamburger. Or you can go to a more upscale restaurant and pay $10 to $15 for a hamburger. They both satisfy your hunger; it just depends on how much you care about the quality of what you are eating. The same goes with your visuals.

As a designer and art director with more than 10 years of experience, I offer a few simple guidelines to help you put a little more thought into your imagery and ensure they make a bigger impact on your readers. In today’s post, I’ll cover stock photography and illustrations. I also offer a deep dive into the different between royalty-free and rights-managed imagery—must-have information for any business using stock imagery. My next post will address when and at what price point you might consider investing in a custom illustration or original photography. (UPDATE: Read part 2 here.)

When should I add a visual?

Add a visual when it actually enhances the value of the content itself. If the visual isn’t thoughtful, then maybe think about not investing in a visual at all. Personally speaking, I would rather see a bare page than crudely drawn stock art, a posed stock photo, or an image that doesn’t pair with the content well. Putting in a visual that isn’t appropriate to just “jazz” up a page can potentially cheapen a brand. With a lot of stock photography and art, you are essentially using visuals that other people and companies are also using. This could make a report or a website look more generic since viewers have seen similar images in a number of other places, so you end up looking like everyone else. On the other hand, being more thoughtful and caring about the quality of your visuals can help elevate your brand and make it more distinctive.

When should I use stock photography?

Articles, blogs, and reports about tangible objects and places usually pair well with stock photography. Let’s say you have an article about car manufacturing; you can get some nice stock photos of car factories or cars being built on an assembly line. If you’re writing a report about Chicago, stock views of the skyline can work well. One word of caution: avoid any images of people that look too posed or seem way too cheerful at their jobs.

Stock photography doesn’t work so well when the topic is abstract or cerebral, such as a report about leadership or an article about governance. The only photos that make sense are people—people in an office building, posing in meetings, or standing in a group. A great example of this type of photo is the ones Vince Vaughn and his costars were Photoshopped into to promote their new movie, Unfinished Business.


Or perhaps you have an article about company strategy or innovation? There are a million Photoshopped images of chess pieces and light bulbs. These abstract topics, in my opinion, are where stock photography becomes trite and generic.

What about stock illustrations?

Most stock photography websites also sell stock illustrations and artwork. You might want to search those for something unique to your story. However, just like most stock photography, many of these illustrations can also look generic.

My next post will focus on when it’s worth the time and money to commission a custom illustration.

Deep dive: The difference between royalty-free and rights-managed imagery

Royalty free (RF) means that a user has the right to use a purchased photo or illustration without restrictions. The purchaser can therefore use the image in several projects without having to buy an additional license. The purchaser can also use the photo/illustration for profit without paying royalties to the original creator or artist. However, these licenses are not given on an exclusive basis, so anyone else can buy and use the same photograph/artwork. Most RF stock imagery is rather inexpensive. You can get these on,, or On some of these stock photo sites, you can download and use ~25 images a day for about $200 a month. On other sites, the RF cost is determined by the size that is needed (the larger the size, the more expensive).

Rights managed (RM) refers to a copyright license that allows the one-time use of the photo as specified by the license. If the purchaser wants to use the photo for another article or project, he or she has to buy an additional license. These RM licenses can be non-exclusive, like RF imagery, or exclusive, which means that only the licensee can use the visual for a contractually defined period of time. During that time, no one else may buy or use the photo, which lends some uniqueness to the visual. In general, RM imagery costs more, though it almost always depends on the usage and size; you can pay anywhere from $200 to $10,000 for the use of one photo depending on the size, usage, and distribution. I usually got to or for RM images.

To learn about best practices in commissioning custom illustrations and to browse the work of some of my favorite artists, read part two—Content marketing best practices: Custom imagery.

Delilah Zak

The principal visualization artist at Leff, Delilah works collaboratively with the team to conceptualize and create all manner of graphic content, from public reports to management articles to standalone infographics and beyond.

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