Not all pictures are worth a thousand words – why authentic trumps sleek any day

The narrative potential of illustrations is currently underutilized in content marketing. Too often, illustrations are beautiful but lack content. Like text, creating images should be a continuous process, because a topical picture with a direct connection to the text is a great way to make the article or post stand out in its favor.

More and more companies produce their own content and invest in creating texts, but pictures are often treated like an afterthought. The benefits of images aren’t always as obvious as the benefits of text, and that may be why it seems easy to take the easy way out with visual content.

Let’s say you need a picture for a blog post. The easy way out is buying a photo from a stock photo site, or using existing, possibly age-old brand images. However, the reader would be best served by an authentic photograph that embodies something central to the text. It could be a photo of the people behind the text, the office where they work, the products the article is about… Something life-like, palpable, and first and foremost something that serves the story. Often even a snapshot taken with an iPhone is more interesting to the reader than a stock photo or a generalized brand photo.

Aesthetics at the expense of functionality?

Advocates of content marketing speak for constant activities instead of short projects, and like with text, the production of visual materials should be a process, not a campaign. You see, a picture will only be worth more than a thousand words when it’s connected to a context – in this case, the text. It just doesn’t make sense that a text about a current phenomenon is accompanied by a stock image taken six years ago.

Why is it, then, that it’s so rare to see a photo that’s on point and on topic? I believe that it’s the result of a simple misconception: generic images are cheap, look nice and serve their purpose. None of this is entirely true:

1) The idea that creating visual content is expensive persists in the minds of agencies and clients. This line of thinking is, however, old-fashioned: the audience doesn’t expect everything they come across to look like it was shot in a million-dollar studio. On the contrary, roughness is often seen as a sign of authenticity and topicality is more important than perfect visuals. We live in a world where snaps on Instagram and Periscope are more interesting than the expensive stock images of any company.

2) Generic images can be pleasing to the eye, but their allure is accomplished at the expense of content: a stock photo never says anything specific. In this sense, a brand image is a bit better at serving the reader, but it’s rarely suited for illustrating a topical text, either.

Making use of images again

Even though I try to encourage taking original images, I do believe that nothing beats professional work – it’s easy to think of countless examples of situations where having your second cousin do something for you for cheap leads to bad results. I’m not a champion of cellphone snapshots, but I long for a transition from meaningless stock photos towards the functionality and authenticity of photos taken for a specific need, whether they be produced by a professional or your office’s resident photography nerd. I’d even say forget the aesthetics, if that’s the price to pay for having a narrative.

I really hope to see more original illustrations in corporate content in the near future. Let’s bring the way we work, our people, our offices and our office dogs into our content in a visual way. I guarantee that topicality and authenticity, even if it looks a little rough, interest the reader more than a photo of generic person, smiling generically, dressed in a generic suit, pointing at a generic bar chart.