Don’t Wreck Your Bank’s Brand Image With Cheap Stock Photos

Your digital marketing's look may be even more important than what your financial institution's messages say. Poor stock photo choices can make your bank or credit union look generic, dated, clueless or worse. This undermines your promotions and can even turn off good banking prospects. But absolutely nailing the selection can make an empathetic connection with consumers that drives success.

A picture isn’t just a picture anymore. In today’s digital age, selecting images for marketing purposes, from social media to content marketing, is no longer simple, and can be sensitive.

According to research by MIT, the brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and nine-tenths of information going to the brain is seen, not read.

So, clearly, finding the right image to communicate your message proves critical to the success of your bank or credit union’s digital efforts.

There are multiple dimensions to the decision, ranging from the simple to the bit more complicated. But in the end it’s essential to avoid selecting stock images that will pollute your brand and distract from your message.

Here are some recommendations to keep in mind…

1. Image Quality is Key for Protecting and Projecting Your Image

It’s essential that a financial marketer picks an image that looks decent in terms of quality, that is tasteful, and fits within your budget. Not every institution can afford original images shot on as-needed by a high-quality commercial photographer. This is where stock images are a must!

Bad stock photos, however, are becoming so common that they have actually turned into a thing on the internet these days. There are hashtags like #badstockphotosofmyjob, and entire blog articles dedicated to funny examples of poor use of stock images to depict all kinds of situations. (Badly executed medical memes seem to be a frequent target.)

“Posed isn’t perfect — often posed looks fake. In fact, stay away from perfect anything! Real people come in all shapes and sizes.”
— Meredith Olmstead, FI GROW Solutions

Don’t let your bank or credit union fall victim to the use of inauthentic, overly-staged images. When they are bad, they are really bad.

However, there’s no way around needing to use some stock photography in your marketing and sales. But there are some points to keep in mind when trying to pick a photo that won’t land you on the worst image list.

Posed isn’t perfect — often posed looks fake. In fact, stay away from perfect anything! Real people come in all shapes and sizes. They aren’t posing, waving and smiling 24/7, so don’t portray them in this manner. Avoid images that look overly staged.

If you are choosing among images with people, always lean toward more candid versions of the subjects. Pick photos where people seem unaware of the fact that they are being photographed. Go with shots where people aren’t all looking directly at the camera.

Candid photos will always feel more relatable to readers.

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2. Thematic, Conceptual or Realistic? What’s Your Message?

Then there’s the question of subject matter within the images you choose. Is it better go for abstract imagery? Generic but “safe” conceptual imagery? Or people at work, play or banking?

I recommend that you first identify the message you want to communicate with your image, before you even start looking for photos. Then you’ll have a better sense of what you’re trying to accomplish with your photo selection.

If you focus on finding images that capture the spirit of an event or message this will help narrow your focus during your search. It will help you home in on images that have both the look and the feel you need.

Stock versus Stock. Even when you are picking from a pool of quality stock photos, some selections will be better than others, often for subtle reasons. For example, say you’re trying to communicate the happiness of purchasing a first home. You could select something like this:

Bad stock photography of family buying home

The image is sharp and clear, but an image like this just feels fake. You’re better off seeking an image that feels more real and less posed, less artificial.

Maybe something more along the lines of the image below where the subjects aren’t smiling and looking into the camera and there’s no inauthentic “SOLD” sign in the background. This gives your readers a chance to read between the lines.

Bad stock photography of family on sofa

Graphics versus Real Images. We are also often faced with the choice of using an image or creating a graphic of some kind to communicate a message. To decide which way to go, consider the context of where the image will be placed.

For example, on social media, well-chosen, real images without text or graphic manipulation seem to perform best, in my experience. In fact, Facebook has Shutterstock images built right into their ad tool for this very reason. They actually give you images to use for free because they know this helps ads perform better and will ultimately lead to you spending more money on their platform.

In split tests of real images versus graphics there have been click through rates as much as 20% higher for photos versus illustrations. One example reviewed on the Top Rank Marketing site concerned a promotion for a furnace inspection service on Facebook. The split pitted an old black and white image of a cold couple huddling by a sputtering furnace against a fanciful, colorful drawing of a melting snowman. The black and white outpulled the snowman.

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3. Pay Attention to Content, Relevance and Diversity

Visuals must be relevant to your target audiences.

You’ll want to answer such basic questions as:

  • Who should be in the picture? That is, which audiences are you trying to speak most directly to? Are they shown in the photo? If not, are there elements in the photo that would appeal to them?
  • What age and/or gender are most relevant to your message? Again, you should try to either include people who fit within these targets or include elements or imagery that would appeal to them.
  • What is the general look and feel of the people you want to communicate with? Are you looking for only the clean cut? Do you want to appeal to younger, more modern people — maybe with tattoos? If you’re depicting people who are happy, are they doing things that fit with your target audience?

Then make sure the visuals you select speak to the demographics and details you’ve identified in your answers. If you’re creating an e-book about retirement savings accounts don’t select only images of Millennials. Include images, for example, of middle-aged people planning for the future.

Conversely, if you want to target this same piece of content to younger audiences who might be starting to save early, consider tailoring your ad imagery to this younger audience, or including a variety of ages in your chosen stock photos.

Keep your eyes on the action, and action in the eyes. Once you’ve identified your target audience you should also decide what action you’re trying to encourage. Your selected image can help with this. Besides encouraging an emotional reaction the eyes of the people in your images can have an impact.

Bad stock photography website header

So if you have a call to action that you are trying to focus attention on, consider placing your image with the person actually looking in the direction of the button or link. Believe it or not, this helps focus people’s eyes on that target!

And remember to select a featured image for every website page so that when it’s shared on social media the correct image will show up in the preview link. This functionality should be standard with any content management system.

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4. Fairness (AKA Compliance) Cannot be Ignored

Ahhh, a favorite topic of discussion for any marketing staff member at a financial institution…compliance. So first and foremost in this category we need to address how to properly source your images: Just because you can right click and save it doesn’t mean you can then use it for whatever you’d like. Sorry.

“Does the image selected send any unintended messages? Could it bother a regulator in some way?”
— Meredith Olmstead, FI GROW Solutions

I recommend always purchasing your images through a reputable marketplace like Shutterstock, Adobe, Big Stock Photo or any other larger stock photo source.

I can hear you griping about budgets. However, there are other ways to control your budget, if buying every image you need isn’t ideal.

There are some very solid free photo websites out there that offer images without a fee. Often they do ask for you to credit these images somewhere on the page they are used on, so be aware of this requirement. Among those you can consider are or Both offer some very nice images, but be aware that they have limited overall selection.

Ask important questions now, instead of after you become the victim of after the fact recriminations: Does the image selected send any unintended messages? Could it bother a regulator in some way?

Keeping things relevant and modern — while also a bit safe — is usually a good rule of thumb.

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