Level Up Your Writing With Contrast

While there are many ways to communicate — speaking, dancing, singing, painting, and even non-verbal communication — writing remains the most elegant and valuable form for individuals to master. A well-written paragraph can sell your product, launch your brand, or galvanize your followers.

Powerful writing creates movement.

But what elevates writing from mediocre to good? One simple approach can help you write better regardless the medium. Social media, brochures, brand narratives, web copy — you’ll write with more power when you amplify contrast.

Classic literature uses contrast to great effect, creating power and momentum. Good versus evil. Angels versus demons. Weak versus strong. Our most famous stories, movies, comics, superheroes, and heroic rescues all use contrast to connect the reader with the story.

Businesses can also use contrast to connect audiences to their social media posts, brochures, websites, and anything else they write. Here are some examples:

Heroes versus Villains

In your business space, who is the hero and who is the villain? Don’t be afraid to employ contrast and paint a picture for your customers about good vs. evil. You can find villains all around your business: competitors, market forces, cultural frustrations, impossible challenges. Find the force that pushes against your company and create contrast with your product or service.

Future Glory versus Future Pain

Great business writing isn’t shy about painting a detailed picture of a glorious future that includes your product or service… and how dismal the future will be without it. A little drama makes the customer’s choice clear.

Pain Point versus Product Benefit

Whatever your business or service, you likely have created a list of customer pain points and product features and benefits. Don’t be afraid to bring these together! Find tension and contrast between these two lists and use it to strengthen the power of your message.

Now versus Later

There is power in immediacy, in acting now rather than later. Use your writing to amplify the value of acting now instead of putting off decisions about your product or service.

Take this lesson from generations of authors and use it to improve your business writing. The difference between good writing and mediocre writing is that good writing employs contrast. Mediocre writing is bland and boring.

So don’t be lukewarm! Be hot, or cold, or better yet, stage a battle between the frozen arctic wind and the sweltering tropical sunshine.

Need help with your communication? Contact the expert team at Matt Jensen Marketing!

Your Five-Minute Communication Workshop 

During college, I always knew the school year was winding down thanks to the gaggle of seniors lined up outside my dorm room door. A dazzling resume was the first step to them landing choice jobs after graduation and rumor had it I could help.

One after another, they’d shuffle in and ask me to improve the drafts they’d printed on linen paper. All of them echoed the same refrain: “I’m horrible at this!”

Truth was, some of them truly were horrible at it, but it took years to dawn on me that communicating well is a vital life skill — one that I should have taught to my collegiate colleagues instead of letting them lounge in my bean bag chair while I worked.

Decades later, I still hear, “I’m horrible at this!” Twice just this morning, in fact. The reality is, being a poor communicator was less of a problem in 2001 than it is today. On top of resumes, we build social media profiles and compose posts, send dozens of emails, text at all hours, and coordinate our professional lives through Slack. Competent communication has morphed from nice-but-not-necessary into an expected part of daily life.

So, in the spirit of graduation season and better communication, here’s what I should have told those college seniors all those years ago:

Start with the Musts

Before you begin fleshing out full sentences or dream up a catchy line, type the details you can’t afford to leave out. A date, a time, the location, a project description, an attachment — this is the required information you’ll look silly for forgetting, so get it down first. Basic and simple will do here.

Get to the Point

Story arcs that build toward a climax and descend into a happy resolution work well in books and on the big screen; however, professionals can simply state their point and follow it with vital details as needed. Giving your readers what they’re skimming for as quickly as possible increases your communication’s effectiveness.

Don’t Over-Explain

Your client doesn’t need to know every type of card stock on the market or the minutiae of your rigorous seven-point testing process; they just need to know about the two most relevant to their project. Don’t make your reader wade through an abundance of details to find the most relevant information. You’ll do it for them when you only include what’s most pertinent.

Reread

We know it’s tempting to skip a reread; however, a second pass is always worth it. While scouring for obvious errors, also be attuned to missing words. In the digital age, we’re master skim readers to the point that our minds automatically fill in blanks.

Challenge Yourself

Hunt for phrases or sentences that clutter up your writing and cut them. “Here are the proofs you requested” is cleaner than “Per our discussion on Thursday afternoon, I’m sending along the proofs you asked me to update for you.” Cutting back can become a fun and addicting game. (Yes, really.) For an even better challenge, add contrast to your writing.

Tread Lightly on Humor

Levity is always welcome. However, without eye contact and body language to play off of, be cautious about using humor in written communications. That said, do let your personality shine through. Just make sure it’s appropriate to your audience.

Communicating well is worth the effort. You’ll rarely post or email a masterpiece, but you can always be clear, concise, and easily understood.

Need help with your communication? Contact the expert team at Matt Jensen Marketing!

You Already Have the Data to Understand Your Customers

Apple’s new privacy updates are great for consumers, but they’ve left businesses worried about how to effectively target advertising. But don’t fret — chances are you already have access to a wealth of information about your customers right at your fingertips. Here are a few ways to unearth it:

Check Your Demographics

Basic data is still extremely valuable if you know how to interpret it. Anonymous information like age, gender, and device type is still compiled through Google Analytics, social media channels, and even email services like Mailchimp. It may not seem like much to go on, but with a little imagination, this data can be very useful.

For example, you may learn that the majority of your users are women aged 34 to 45 using mobile devices. This likely means that a large portion of your audience is busy moms on-the-go who are more likely to watch a 30-second video than they are to read a 1,000-word blog post. Once you’ve put a face to your audience, it becomes much easier to extrapolate what their problems are and how they go about solving them.

Be sure to check your demographics for each platform as it’s likely they’ll vary. Noticing that your email list subscribers are aged 45+ and that your Instagram followers are largely 18 to 25 is information you can’t afford to ignore. It’s a golden opportunity to adjust your tone and messaging to suit each audience.

Review Your Search Terms

Search terms can be a gold mine into figuring out what is going through customer’s minds and they are easier to get than you may think. There two types of search terms, each with their own valuable insights.

You can use Google Search Console to see what terms or phrases people are typing into a search engine to reach your website. Google Analytics, on the other hand, can be configured to give you a list of what people are searching for once they are actually on your website. Think of these terms as a free gift — people are telling you exactly what it is they’re looking for.

You can also use Google Trends to take a look at what search terms are trending in your region or across the globe. You may discover that people are asking a question that you have an answer for, so you can now make it your mission to let them know.

Talk To Your People

Data is a powerful tool, but nothing beats a boots-on-the-ground approach. If your business model allows you to interact with customers, do it! You don’t need to be pushy, but sincere curiosity can lead to valuable insights.

Even if the topic of conversation has nothing to do with the business itself, learning more about your customers’ daily lives can help you build empathy so that you can make your messaging more relatable. You don’t need to track people’s phones to find out what their favorite restaurant is or where they like to shop — if you engage with them openly and honestly, they will probably tell you themselves.

And even if you don’t deal directly with customers, someone on your team does. Your front desk and phone teams have the most direct interactions with your customers and they probably already have a list of common pain points as well as a general sense of what your customer’s lives are like. So don’t forget to ask them about it!

Conduct Formal Surveys

The old standbys of marketing research, consumer surveys do still have a place in the modern world. Depending on your scale and resources, this may be as simple as an online form or as sophisticated as an in-person focus group.

In order to get the most value from these tools though, you need to keep in mind that people are more willing to share surface-level feedback than their true feelings and opinions. A good survey will be able to dig into the why behind their feelings. That is the information you need to make sure your business is actually solving their problems.

So now that you’ve gathered the data, what do you with it? Create user personas! User personas are amalgamations of your average customers: their likes, dislikes, challenges, and needs. And now that you are armed with your customer research, the process will be much easier. Learn more about personas (and how to use them) in this post.

And if you need help along the way, Matt Jensen Marketing is here to be your guide. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you define and reach your desired audience.

Save Time, Dollars, and Guesses with Customer Personas

There are plenty of marketing strategies that aren’t worth the time, dollars, or guesswork.

Building customer personas isn’t one of them.

The vast reach of social media and the web in general can be a siren song to many marketers and business leaders — it seems logical that the more people who see and hear your message, the better.

But the reality is, blanketing your message to large groups that only meet your basic demographics is diluting the message for your true prospects and wasting it on people who never were your prospects in the first place.

Enter the customer persona. A well-researched one will lessen your workload and target your marketing dollars toward your best prospects.

Personas also help you empathize with your customers. It’s easy to only think about what your business wants from those who use your products and services without considering what they need from your business. Increasingly, consumers are seeking companies they trust. One way to build trust? Empathy. One way to empathize with your customers? Personas.

What exactly is a persona?

A persona is a fictitious character who represents a group of real customers with common traits. Creating a persona is much like a novelist creating the heroine for his next bestseller. Except in this case, instead of using your imagination, you’ll draw from research. This can include surveys, data analysis, and demographics.

However, since data points can’t be marketed to, personas must also include details about customer attitudes, beliefs, goals, and motivations. It’s not enough to know that most cataract patients are in their late 60s to early 70s and are 60% female. You need to note that on the day of their surgery they’re likely to clear their calendar, dress a little nicer, arrive with plenty of extra time, and feel nervous.

A persona is useless unless it gives insight into what your customers are thinking, feeling, and doing while they try to meet their needs. That’s the information you need in order to see how best to help them succeed.

How do you build a persona?

Like many things, there’s no one right way to create a customer persona; however, at MJM we recommend these steps to our clients who are just starting out.

Step 1

Gather your customer data. This likely begins with basic demographic information. Here’s a quick tutorial on how to glean that data from your Google Analytics and website logs. This will give you a base you can use to build your persona. Demographic data largely reinforces what you already know so use it only to begin seeking insights you may not already have.

Step 2

Identify customers you can talk to and ask them lots of questions. MJM strongly recommends gathering as much firsthand insight as possible. The only way to truly do that is to take the time to talk (and listen!) to your customers. You may even consider specifically seeking out those whose experience was less than ideal as their assessment can point out gaps in service your satisfied customers may overlook.

Step 3

Group customers and look for patterns. Find similar responses and traits from the customers you’ve spoken to and build a persona around them. Highlight the beliefs, goals, and frustrations that bring this group to life. Give your fictitious customer a name or title and attach a photo to make the character memorable and more realistic.

Have fun with this! Some of our clients have found that they enjoy the process and when it’s done, they’re relieved to have that “person” to return to time and again to make wise marketing decisions.

The MJM team loves personas! And we’d love to help you with yours. Download our starter worksheet or contact us for a consultation.

Pinpointing the Competition Starts With Your Customers

Scoping out your competitors is to business what a flashlight is to hiking in the dark.

In a word, it’s essential.

However, selecting which competitors you’ll keep tabs on can also be overwhelming. A Google search can bring back hundreds of businesses similar to yours, making it hard to choose which to watch and which to ignore. Even companies with seemingly obvious competitors can overlook valuable data if they don’t have a solid approach to pinpointing who their competition really is.

If we’ve learned anything about competitor research at MJM, it’s this: begin with a thorough profile of your ideal customer. Why? Because understanding your customers’ values and mindset will lead straight to the places where they spend their time and dollars.

As you build customer profiles, keep in mind that consumers are often buying experiences, identities, or even aspirations more than they’re buying goods and services. Gym membership, anybody? Many of the other companies that your ideal customers do business with are your competitors even though they may occupy different spaces. A restaurant and a clothing boutique are markedly different, but because both vie for the same slice of a consumer’s household budget — in this case, disposable income — they become competitors.

This isn’t to say that if you’re trying to market your dental practice you shouldn’t monitor other practices. You should do that, too.

Here are a few tips for selecting your direct competitors:

  • Google search. We panned it at the beginning of this article, but here’s how to get it right. Instead of searching “dentists in Orlando,” which will bring back too many results, search your own business instead. Then, look at the four or five results that surround it. For comparison’s sake, you should search your version of “dentists in Orlando” to see how you rank among the larger pool of similar businesses, but when it comes to those you really want to dig into, keep it to the few who lead the search results when you search your specific business by name.
  • Old-fashioned sleuthing. Not all your research has to be digital. Local and national magazines cater to specific demographics. Find one that reaches yours and flip through it. Who’s advertising in it? Likewise, billboard and outdoor advertising in the part of town your customers frequent or the commercials during television shows, podcasts, or radio programs they prefer are good places to pay attention. This includes both over the air and streaming platforms.
  • Just ask. Being direct always yields results. Draft a survey or, if possible, talk to your customers in person about the other companies they do business with. Asking for their preferences takes out the guesswork, but be sure to approach your interview so that customers give their honest feedback rather than what fits your agenda.
  • Use digital tools and platforms. Google offers competitor analysis tools that show which companies compete most with your content on search engines. Facebook has rolled out a similar program, and if you pay for digital ads, there are plenty of tools to gauge how much traction you’re getting among your competitors.

Pinpointing a few competitors to monitor is essential, but being overwhelmed by it isn’t. Implementing just a few of the tips above will have you reaping the benefits in no time.

To get you started on your customer profile, we’ve compiled a report on how the pandemic has influenced consumer behavior. Download yours: 

Scouting the Competition? You Should

Imagine you’re camping for the weekend. You’ve hiked and cooked over an open fire and now it’s time to settle into your tent for the night. You kick off your shoes and climb through the zippered opening, and as you do, you realize you’ve left your toothbrush in the car. Slipping back into your shoes for the hike to the car, you reach for a flashlight.

To borrow grade school language arts, that flashlight is to your hike what scouting the competition is to your business. It sheds light on the landscape and provides important clues for your success and survival.

It can be scary to click on the light (what if there’s a bear nearby?), but it could be even scarier not to (what if there’s time to escape?). Having all the information always leads to better decisions, and that’s never more true than when it comes to scouting your business’s competition.

Knowing what your competition is up to can:

  1. Give benchmarks. Sticking with our analogy, there’s no need to stumble around in the dark. Not sure where to set your price? Check your competitors. Wondering how to structure your offer? Check your competitors. Thinking of sending emails but not sure how often? Check your… well, you know what to do. Gathering data from the field gives perspective, takes minimal time, and saves you the anxiety of guessing.
  2. Push you to do better. Comparing your business only to itself cheats it out of the healthy pressure sparked by competition. It isn’t uncommon for CEOs to cite competition as the reason for their greatest periods of growth. To stay ahead, they had to strive for top notch customer service, products, and business operations and were better for it. Keeping tabs on the competition means keeping away from a complacent mindset.
  3. Help avoid pitfalls. While checking in on a competitor, let’s say you notice two social media posts — one that received lots of attention and one that, even though it advertised a sale, didn’t get a single like. It doesn’t take long to see why (there’s too much text on the sale post), and you’ve just gleaned valuable information that will help your own social media campaigns. Scanning Google for reviews will often yield similar results as customers air their unfiltered opinions about what pleased or displeased them. Put the detailed information they share to good use on your own customers.
  4. Hone your strategy. Deciding how to stretch precious marketing dollars can feel like roulette, but evaluating where your competitors are spending theirs can provide clarity. If one of your competitors is dominating billboards, do you go head-to-head or spend your budget elsewhere in order to own another space instead? How are others using social media and what can you do to stand out on those platforms? That kind of research and the discussion it sparks can lead to big payoffs.

The moral of the story? Avoid bears, but not competition. Having competitors means there’s a market for what you offer and that’s a good thing. Regularly taking stock of what others are doing reaps benefits for your business, your industry, and most of all, your customers.

Need help identifying your competitors and ways to outperform them? Here are some steps to get you started. Need more assistance or just want to chat? We’d love to. Contact us today.

5 COVID Consumer Habits to Refine Your 2021 Media Budget

A pandemic changes everything.

Or does it?

MJM recently performed a market analysis for one of its clients with locations across the Midwest, and while our findings may not be an apples-to-apples comparison for your company, our research did bring to light a more accurate assessment of consumer choices during the pandemic. In a nutshell, COVID is accelerating trends we were already seeing.

The acceleration is most notable in consumers’ media consumption, which, unsurprisingly, is up from 2019.

In 2020 consumers chose to:

  • Cut the cord more than ever before. We’ve seen a steady migration to streaming services, particularly Hulu and Sling TV, from cable; however, the pandemic was a boon for both (+44% and +30% respectively). Cable television is still a major contender, but streaming platforms should not be overlooked for 2021 media placement. In addition to their growing viewership, ads can’t always be skipped and are highly targeted. Additionally, 2020 saw those aged 55+ adopt streaming services in record numbers, a trend experts don’t expect will reverse post-pandemic.
  • Tune in to local news. It seems contrary to the cord cutting trend, but consumers still trust their local news stations. While prime time television viewership has declined, according to Nielsen, local news broadcasts have spiked as much as 192% over 2019 as viewers seek the latest COVID updates for their area.
  • Consume media throughout the day. The shift to working and schooling from home is reflected by a reciprocal shift in viewing times. Consumers are now tuning in, logging on, and scrolling throughout the day instead of confining their use to lunch breaks and after 5 p.m. Furloughs, layoffs, and less commuting is also contributing to this trend.
  • Give podcasts a try. Podcasts were already trending upward, but during the pandemic their listenership has tripled. More than 55% of Americans report listening to podcasts in 2020. This media presents a double opportunity for 2021 as companies explore creating their own podcasts to educate their customers or purchasing ads during existing ones already catering to their target demographic.
  • Skip the sports. The kingpin of many media buying strategies, sporting events and the related content they generate, toppled during the pandemic. They have rebounded some, but it’s too early to tell how they’ll perform in 2021. Setting aside some advertising dollars and monitoring the situation is the best plan, especially for the first quarter of 2021.

These and other insights are included in MJM’s 2020 Consumer Analysis. Just fill out the form below to download the full report. Need one that’s specific to your company? Contact our team to get started.

Consumer Analysis Download

How To Cultivate Lifelong Learning

Do we really value lifelong learning?

The value of lifelong learning has long been extolled. For those of us that are knowledge workers, it’s essential. But as much as we tout that as a value, our behavior rarely reflects it. It’s easy to become distracted and even complacent with our learning, more so than ever with the barrage of information from an explosion of new sources and media.

I’ve always held that staying curious and learning is a personal value. And yet I often find that even when I’m digging into a large volume of information, it can feel like mindlessly reaching into a bag of snacks. New ideas are fun and addictive. It is a thrill to encounter them, but merely encountering them does not result in knowledge or wisdom gained.

I read a large number of articles and am in the middle of several books. I listen to a variety of podcasts and watch keynote talks and interviews. All with the hope of gaining some valuable insight. But without a strategy for managing the inflow of all that information and putting it into use, a great deal of the potential is lost. For information to become knowledge, it needs personal context. “Knowledge is information in action.”

Lifelong learning in action

Feeling stagnant in my growth, I recently set about building a personal system to manage my learning. After a month or so of tinkering there are some strategies, and tools to enable them, that seem to be working well. In the process, I stumbled into the field of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and learned that this is a journey many have been on long before me.

PKM is about capturing information and ideas that we encounter in our lives and cultivating knowledge out of all of it. There are a few broad movements within: seeking information, making sense of information so it becomes knowledge, and ultimately sharing that knowledge with others. Keep in mind that we’re running with the idea that information and knowledge are distinct things. Knowledge is information that we have personal context for. A personal knowledge management system cultivates knowledge when it facilitates the creation of personal context around information.

A functional knowledge management system enables a set of essential skills related to information. Seven of these skills are identified by Paul Dorsey and his colleagues at Millikin University:

  1. Retrieving information
  2. Evaluating information
  3. Organizing information
  4. Analyzing information
  5. Presenting information
  6. Collaborating around information
  7. Securing information

It’s worth reading their original paper to go deeper into what each of these skills entail. All seven activities contribute to the creation of knowledge. And each skill builds upon or contributes to the others.

It’s important to evaluate the information we retrieve for both quality and intent (what we intend to do with that information). And by organizing the information flowing into our minds (and perhaps a knowledge management system), we help make sense of it, connect it to other ideas, and even analyze it in relation to other information. You can see how the skills start to build.

Learning to share

These seven skills have been helpful as I evaluate the strategies I’ve put in place to manage my lifelong learning. And they’ve opened my eyes to one other observation: that lifelong learning can often be a selfish endeavor when we leave out presentation and collaboration skills from the mix. Maybe this is what stops so many of us from living out our lifelong learning value. We don’t experience the joy of cultivating new ideas in community with others. If value is created in relationships with others, the value of lifelong learning may very well be in sharing what we’ve learned.

Commonplace in Community

A commonplace book is one central location for keeping important, interesting, or useful information. The practice of commonplace was used to keep track of ideas, concepts, facts and any piece of useful information that one might want to return to later. The commonplace book would be a fertile ground for new ideas and insights to form. Sometimes the books were kept as general collections, but were often kept on a specific topic or theme. The curators of these books found immense value in both the practice and the book itself.

These books were recorded by hand, in a journal. Over time, the practice has evolved with technology and now there is a proliferation of ways to keep a commonplace book as well as new kinds of content to keep in them. Digital apps like Evernote are a great way to keep a commonplace book, and are a clear evolution from the traditional pen and paper format.

These books were very personal artifacts for use by an individual. But something interesting has happened with the advent of the internet, blogs, and social media. Our commonplace books have become public, community commonplaces. Tumblr blogs, Instagram accounts, and Pinterest boards all can function as a sort of commonplace book. On Reddit, the community votes the most compelling content to the top.

These are all public, curated collections. And we have the ability to follow the collections of others. Your follower list is a curated collection of notable people. There’s an exponential or fractal quality to it. Or perhaps a kaleidoscope is a better metaphor. Ideas from a variety of sources are brought into friction and collision with one another, in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t if they were strictly private collections.

Commonplace goes digital

But are these collections really in the spirit of keeping a commonplace book? Keeping commonplace is a deliberate practice. It is done with care, and the entries into a book are meaningful — they are recorded for a purpose. If we are to see these public collections of content as commonplace books, they must not be divorced from intention and context. We need to understand why something was shared if we were not the ones to originally share it.

At MJM, we use Slack for internal communication, and have several channels that function as commonplace collections of sorts, curated by our whole team. #inspiration is full of articles, quotes, videos, and websites shared by members of our team who were inspired by them. Members of our team with an interest in motion graphics and animation have a channel named #timeline-chatter (after the timeline interface element common to editing and animation programs). We share tips and tricks that we have found as well as examples of animation that we want to learn from.

Inspiration endorsed with enthusiasm

The entries that inspire and engage others are those that include a brief personal note from the poster about why they found the item so interesting. These entries give context and are endorsed with the enthusiasm of someone who shares similar interests. It’s an invitation to dialogue, and helps establish a foothold for a common, shared vocabulary. The goal is not just to find the coolest thing and be the first to share it. Keeping commonplace is a constructive act. The goal is to build and expand upon each other’s curiosity and knowledge. This creation of context and invitation into dialogue is vital to a community collection that is truly in the spirit of commonplace.

This has implications for those of us who create, collect, and manage content for others as well. We should strive to be intentional and constructive with the content we create and share, and not just another distraction. And we must consider how we facilitate the creative act of curation as a unified group, not just a collection of individuals.

A Designer’s Guide to Finding Great Images

Much of our print and digital design work is complimented by compelling images. Great campaigns might only need one, while a set of brochures is helped by a few dozen. They can add a touch of real life to abstract concepts or evoke a visual feeling about the subject.

Like any other part of the project, we work with parameters allowed: time, budget, authenticity and quality.

How can you find the best photos for your project? Here’s a designer’s perspective on where to go.

Search Engine Results

Search Engine Results

Where do you go when you need something quick and free? Not here. Google images, Bing images, Facebook, Pinterest are places to visit when searching for inspiration, but will rarely yield an image you can legally use. Taking someone else’s image is copyright infringement (Learn the basics here). The only time it’s okay to use a search engine to find photos is when compiling ideas. Even then, it’s important to remember to replace the ones you found in a basic search with a photo you have a license to use before your project is published or shared.

Free Stock Photo Websites

There are a few places to find licensed quality photos for free online. These can be great for background photos and for social media posts if you have a limited budget. You may not find exactly what you’re looking for, however, and other people may be using the same photos.

  • Pexels: Pexels provides a wide variety of photos and is simple to search. The quality and selection of photos continues to grow. The downside? The secret is out and you may find other businesses using the same photos for different purposes. There are no advanced search options, so it may be tough to find exactly what you’re looking for.
  • Unsplash: Warning! These photos need attribution and may not be the best option for your project. Unsplash was a reaction to obviously staged stock photos. (You know, the ones featuring someone in a business suit in an unlikely and totally staged situation. You’ve seen them, you know.) But now it’s created a new kind of cliché: the hipster stock photo of woodsy landscapes and moody vibes. Background images are abundant here and it might be a good place to find ideas.
  • Death to the Stock Photo: They take a similar approach to Pexels and Unsplash, but instead curate photos into themed packs for free users and emails them out in a newsletter or subscription-esque model. These photos are always interesting but pop up frequently in other people’s work.
  • Flickr commons: Anyone can contribute to the growing nebula of the photo stockpile that is Flickr. Use this platform with caution! Only photos listed with a “Creative Commons” license can be used without attribution. While the photo selection is wide, the quality varies greatly from professional photography to archaic digital camera photos. We have been able to take advantage of some of the vintage artwork (posters, illustrations and books) that can become part of a larger classic look or feel.

Paid Stock Photo Websites

Most paid sites offer the best advanced search options and perhaps the largest photo selection. Want a photo with one Asian man in his 60s on a fishing trip? You got it. Want a photo of a group of people camping in the wintertime? Done. When a project calls for specifics (i.e. a man old enough to have cataracts enjoying his daughter’s wedding without glasses because his cataract surgery eliminated their need), paid stock photo sites are the fastest and most cost-effective way to get the job done. They all have advanced search options that let you choose whether you want a photo with people, how many people, plus their age, gender, even ethnicity. Most sites also allow you to search by hex color code so you can find a photo that has elements that match your brand colors perfectly.

A license for this photo has been purchased and it’s ready for use!

Stock photo sites also make it easy to test out an image by downloading it with a watermark. Many early drafts contain watermarked images until they get approved. Using a watermarked image in final artwork is a huge faux pas.

There are some drawbacks to paid stock photo sites. Many have criticized stock photo sites for perpetuating stereotypes or lacking options for various ethnic groups. They also pose questions about transparency. When flipping through pages of stock photos, designers have to ask: “Does this photo help illustrate true information for this company? Is it sending the right message even if it’s staged or not from this business?”

This photo uses a spot-color effect so that it can feel like part of a set. Other photos in the set of brochures where this one was used have a similar red pop.

Some stock photo models are more successful than others at portraying a natural look and end up all over. The same woman in your ad might end up getting used to advertise hand soap or athletic apparel or a prescription medication. Stock model Ariane, for example, is so popular that someone created a Facebook page to collect examples of her photos as people came across them all over the world.

I provided just a few examples; there are many places to buy stock photos online. Prices vary based on the number of photos you purchase at a time, the quality of photos, and whether you want to buy exclusive rights to a photo. You can spend anywhere from around $10 to hundreds on one photo.

  • Thinkstock.com
  • iStockPhoto.com (owned by Getty Images)
  • Shutterstock.com
  • Offset.com

Smart Phone Photos

  • …work great for social media post or email newsletters. In fact, they may be more interesting to your audience than stock photos. Cameras on smart phones have improved greatly in the last few years. If you can capture a photo with good lighting that’s social media or newsletter appropriate, it will nearly always beat out a stock image. Examples: Your office holiday decorations, a staff birthday celebration, your company-wide service or community event. These photos need to feel real and this is the fastest, easiest way to produce digital sharing-ready photos. Someone on your team might already have a repertoire of good phone photography skills. Check their Instagram and see if they’re willing to be on-call when something post-worthy happens.
  • …do not work for most print publications. While you may have captured a great candid of your company’s founder interacting with a new employee, it may not be the thing for your brochure cover. Photo quality—both in content and file size—are important here. Phone photos may not have a high enough resolution to make it beyond Facebook and usually have no business on a postcard, brochure or banner. There may be an obvious difference between a phone photo sitting next to a stock image or the resolution may simply make the image pixelated on a paper. Either way, the quality of the materials that promote your work should match the quality of the work you are doing.
  • So, when is the real thing better than a good photo? It all depends on what your audience needs and expects! An ophthalmic surgery center might share a phone photo of a surgeon using a brand new technology but needs a professional photo for their brochure about it. A non-profit that helps local kids is better off sacrificing photo quality for authentic images of their experience (with permission of course!).

Custom Photo Shoot

Custom Photo Shoot

An employee of Vance Thompson Vision sits in as a cataract patient model. The photo was used for a presentation by Dr. Thompson and it was important for the photos to feature their clinic.

Perhaps the best way to help patients or customers understand what their experience will be like with your business is to create your own custom photos. With a custom photo shoot you get to feature images of your actual business. (Crazy, right?) Instead of showing an image of a clean, empty reception area, why not feature a photo of your reception area? The familiarity helps build trust and confidence with a patient or customer’s first encounter at your facility by evoking a, “hey, I’ve seen this before,” reaction.

The same rules apply for shots of your doctors or employees. They may feel static and posed in a headshot, so creating a scene with a patient or customer interaction not only helps puts them in their element it also creates a more realistic image to put online or in a brochure. As a bonus, you won’t be using a stock photo model in place of your professionals and the whole set will have the same tone and feel. For obvious reasons, you should not use real patients in these photo. You’ll need to have everyone’s permission (with model release forms) to pull this off successfully.

Bridal Veil Falls Paul Schiller Photography

You may not need to invest in a photo shoot to be able to use excellent, local photography. Many professional photographers have already invested time in capturing the surrounding landscape and local landmarks.Vance Thompson Vision, for example, uses photos of South Dakota taken by local photographer Paul Schiller. His landscape photography features popular natural landmarks like Lake Sylvan and Bridal Veil Falls. They help unify a series of brochures on the various eye procedure categories available at Vance Thompson Vision.

While there are many ways to do it, finding the right photo shouldn’t be overwhelming. Like most design projects, it starts with identifying the image’s purpose, the available budget and time, and how it fits with the existing brand. Photography tells a huge part of a brand’s story. Used well, it reinforces your message and catches the eye. Happy photo hunting.