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Authenticity Matters: The Marketer’s Guide to Choosing Compelling User-Generated Photos

7 min

Marketers and writers of the world, let’s chat about something important, yet overlooked: The visuals that accompany our written work. If you’re anything like me, you probably just let out an audible groan. Bonus points if it startled the person next to you.

Visuals are usually left to the creative directors and designers in the office. But when those visually gifted folks aren’t around, we tend to slap a vaguely related microstock photo on top of our content and call it a day. Or if we’ve had a little more caffeine than usual, we’ll open Canva and spruce up the stock photo with a quote or headline. It’s not our fault when visuals aren’t our area of expertise.

Over time, though, I discovered that more authentic visuals can spur target audiences to click on and engage with your work — obviously an important goal. My perspective shifted even more after taking a Content Editor position at a photo-licensing startup called Scopio. As it turns out, user-generated content — or UGC — isn’t just a great tool for marketers and writers, but also for editors and designers. These visuals just feel more human compared to the ones you’d find on stock websites.

The problem? A lot of folks aren’t sure where to find great user-generated photos. Sometimes, they’re not even sure how to use them.

When it comes time to choose visuals to complement email campaigns, blogs, social media posts and other forms of written content, don’t be afraid to try something user-generated (or at least more realistic). Keep these pointers handy, too!

Give ’em something real

user-generated content example
Photo by Nazariy Kravchenko/Scopio submission

What kind of message is your image putting across?

There’s a reason why the “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” meme went viral, or why fast food chain Wendy’s pokes fun at the perfection of stock photos in their newest set of ads. The internet allows us access to a staggering amount of content. So over time, we’ve also become more skilled at detecting inauthenticity.

If your image of choice happens to be a typical microstock photo (think someone with a too-perfect grin framed by a heavily photoshopped background), that image just wasn’t created for anyone in particular. It was born with one goal in mind: To become a flawless, one-size-fits-all art piece.

If you’ve ever seen the same stock photo used over and over in marketing articles or on company websites, you’ve seen this concept in action. The Wall Street Journal noticed this embarrassing faux pas back in 2006, but stock photo sharing is still commonplace. If you don’t believe me, do a reverse Google image search on a free stock photo.

When choosing images for blogs, social media posts and other types of written content, it’s up to you whether your photo is up to par. Does it speak to your message? And more importantly, does it align with your audience’s goals and values? If you didn’t answer these questions with an instant “yes,” you might just want to switch things up.

For those who write for larger agencies, brands or companies, it’d definitely be worth it to look into a platform that helps you find and license user-generated photos and videos, as they tend to be more, well, real.

In fact, a study by Crowdtap and Ipsos Media CT noted that millennials find user-generated content 35% more memorable and 50% more trustworthy than other forms of media. And though this study looks at UGC as a whole, it’s a good indicator of the images we should be moving toward.

I see this at work every day. When companies, nonprofits, media outlets and others use user-generated content to tell stories, they end up with better engagement, click-through rates and ROI just by publishing something more relatable. That’s powerful.

Think “human”

user-generated content example
Photo by Carmen Ramirez/Scopio submission

Audiences respond to visuals that are more candid or human, meaning you’ll also earn more engagement when you use them. Think back to a memorable piece of writing or advertising that you’ve seen. It probably has a human element.

The visuals we use don’t have to carry the same weight, but they should feel real rather than staged — think groups of people planting trees for Earth Day rather than something resembling Microsoft’s classic “Bliss,” or a candid photo from a lifestyle blog instead of a posed family photoshoot.

The most obvious way to go about this is to choose photographs with faces. Back in 2014, a Georgia Tech study noted that posting photos with faces on social media upped the likelihood of receiving likes and comments by 38% and 32%, respectively. “It is widely accepted in neuroscience that face perception is perhaps the most highly developed human visual skill,” they wrote.

However, it seems that not all photos featuring faces are created equal. The Nielsen Norman Group suggests that while viewers on a web page pay close attention to photos of everyday people (in this case, portraits on a company’s “about” page), they make a hard pass on “stock photos of generic people” used to spruce up web pages. The lesson here isn’t that user-generated content is a cure-all for marketers — it’s that audiences sniff out inauthenticity more than we think, and it could help to feature something more trustworthy. Going forward, this data should spark more conversations about the effectiveness of stock photography versus UGC or in-house photos and videos.

If you want to avoid dead-end visuals, it’s as simple as searching through hashtags and keywords on social media and licensing a candid photo from someone. And if you have a bigger wallet to work with, try hiring a photographer to create the kind of visuals you’re looking for.

Even if candid photos with faces aren’t a good match for your content, there are other ways to use this to your advantage. Whether it’s a beloved Golden Retriever, a pair of hands holding sunglasses or an indistinct city scene, choose a photo buzzing with life to project authenticity.

Because after all is said and done, candid, real-life shots often resonate better than a still life or a frazzled-man-in-business-attire stock photo.

Go beyond static on blogs

user-generated content example
Photo by @veryjinjing/Instagram

Resist the urge to just write a few paragraphs on a blog post and call it a day. Instead, try including more actionable elements for your readers to glance at or play around with. This simple trick is often overlooked by writers, but can boost stats like you wouldn’t believe.

To create something dynamic, the first step is to give your readers some breathing space. That’s actually as simple as using relatable photos to break your writing up into digestible chunks.

Research from BuzzSumo supports this. After analyzing more than a million articles, they found that the golden ratio of pictures to words is about 1 image per 75 to 100 words. This magic number can also double shares on social media as opposed to articles with less visuals.

But don’t limit this just to photos. The actionable elements I’m talking about can be anything from an embedded Tweet to a gallery of user-generated content images sourced from social media, which could increase your pageview time by 90%.

Go ahead: Play around and find a solution that works for your readers.

Avoid legal grey areas

Photo by James McMinn Jr./Scopio submission

It’s safe to assume that most of us wouldn’t steal a painting or sculpture, brush it over with a few coats of paint it and sell it to an art gallery under our name. And even though digital photos should be treated with the same deference, stolen content is far too familiar in the era of social media.

If you’d like to edit and publish a photo or video you sourced from a social site, great! But be prepared — either have a watertight legal agreement drafted up for photographers to sign or try out a platform that does the hard work for you. This will help avoid the legal grey areas that could get your team in trouble and tarnish your brand’s image.

Embedding user-generated photos and videos is another option, but the effect can wear off after a while. You’ll have the freedom to creatively repurpose photos and videos if you can get the rights to them.

As the old saying goes: It’s better to be safe than sorry … Or in legal trouble.

In conclusion

User-generated content — including images and photography — can add an element of authenticity that encourages consumers to engage with and interact with your company… which can, down the line, lead to increased sales. Have you successfully incorporated user-generated content into your marketing? Tell us about it in the comments below.