Since the mid-2000s the importance of visuality has exploded owing to the proliferation and ubiquity of screens. We live in a hyper-visual world, and organizations must attend closely to their look. Yet the imagery on tech marketing websites is often sidelined and underutilized. By imagery I mean any of a range of assets intended for illustration purposes. These typically include gifs, icons, graphs, and stock photos.
The above is not a complete list of visual assets, of course. The importance of overall design (font, kerning, color palette) cannot be overstated, and possesses its own visual vocabulary. In fact, the rise of page builders and templates has revolutionized (and often standardized) the appearance of marketing websites. In addition, videos play an increasingly significant role in customer testimonial and product tutorial sections. Companies allocate significant resources to the creation of high production value videos (Salesloft’s videos are pretty amazing). However, I am less concerned with these complex visual elements because they function in a unique manner that extends beyond the illustrative.
Why It Matters
My interest in illustration is no secret. This year I published an academic book entitled Illustration in Fin-de-Siècle Transatlantic Romance Fiction. I also spoke about the importance of illustration for web development with Corey Quinn on Screaming in the Cloud. But beyond being a personal hobby horse, imagery has tremendous general marketing impact.
While it may be tempting to express what a product accomplishes in writing alone, monomedia-style approaches fail to account for contemporary consumers’ extreme visual sensibilities. Absent imagery is a missed opportunity to engage consumers. Poorly chosen images may actively undermine a campaign.
A marketing website’s imagery accomplishes the not insignificant task of communicating heady and abstract ideas about products and the customer segments they are intended to target. Images act as visual shorthand to express market fit, quality, price, and features. They can also delineate a type of ideal consumer by seamlessly communicating demographic information.
Moreso than words, images possess je ne sais quoi. Some are cool, others are not. Some seem authentic, others are trying too hard.
Stock Photos Are Irredeemable
Let’s consider the much-maligned stock photo: what makes these images both laughable and requisite, and can they ever be used well?
Stock images have a particularly bad rap among developer-focused tech marketers. As Michael DeHaan, creator of Ansible and Cobbler and currently an industry consultant, complains:
why can’t your webpage have a diagram and a screenshot instead of this, like, picture of a couple of people drinking coffee around a computer, right?
To DeHaan’s way of thinking, sites intended to reach developers would do better to express the function of a technology using schematics rather than abstract and cheesy stock imagery that is intended to communicate ideas, values and lifestyle in lieu of explaining how the product actually works.
Benn Stancil makes a similar point in The End of Big Data:
The pitch we heard from Snowflake was both the dumbest and most effective sales pitch I’ve ever heard. We were told that it was the same as Redshift—and really, the same as Postgres—but big, fast, and stable. We didn’t see any glossy slide decks filled with stock images of strikingly handsome business professionals huddled around a conspicuously unbranded computer. We didn’t hear any customer testimonials from bank executives about how their five-year initiatives came in on schedule and under budget. There were no forced mentions of digital transformations, distributed systems, or, God forbid, the blockchain. They never even told us what we could use Snowflake for. We were told to just keep doing what we’d been doing, except if we did it with Snowflake.
There’s a lot to unpack in Stancil’s quote, but what interests me is its compact invocation of stereotypical marketing BS. If Snowflake’s boringness is its virtue, then stock photos number among the variety of unboring-but-meaningless puffery that marketers use to drive sales. These “glossy” images stand beside testimonials, buzz words, and blockchain in making products appear sexy and cutting edge in a way that makes developers roll their eyes.
If developers hate stock photos so much, why use them? One obvious reason is that marketing websites are not created solely to appeal to developers. But there is good reason to include them even when developers comprise a meaningful subset of the site’s audience. Despite all their cheesiness, stock photos permit vendors to connect with consumers in emotional ways.
Redeeming the Stock Photo
Consider the stock photo in my post’s header. It shows a group of three light-skinned individuals (possibly two women and a man) in casual clothes drinking from uniformly white ceramic mugs, and all gazing at a “conspicuously unbranded computer.” The identity of these persons is obscured by cropping out much of their faces, and particularly their eyes (the better to see ourselves in them). The tableau is silly, but sets a comforting tone of affluence, coziness, youth, and creativity. These coffee shop vibes adhere to any tech product attached to this image (including this blog post). Of course, it is also racially, geographically, and culturally exclusionary, among other sins. However, the feeling it invokes is deep seated and effective.
The function of my header image comes into even starker relief when compared to the stock image below. Possibly more silly in premise and execution, this image conveys a very different tone. The coffee is in disposable travel cups, suggesting the busyness of these individuals. Their clothing is formal and the setting looks like a modern office. The individuals are young and attractive, suggesting that whatever it is they’re discussing must be important. It’s more difficult for viewers to put themselves into the roles of these individuals, but their difference makes them aspirational.
While all stock photos are ripe for mockery (check out Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke’s workplace stock photo skit for Vanity Fair), they can succeed in expressing intangible ideas that simply do not come across as effectively in writing or DeHaan’s diagrams and screenshots. Do you want your company to connote coffee shop vibes, or buttoned-up corporate culture? If I don’t know anything about your brand, stock images give me a quick, pithy window into who you are, what you do, and how it will be to work with you.
Is there a way to completely avoid stock images? Sure, and I’ll write a bit about that in a future post. But for now I think it’s worthwhile to consider what these assets contribute to storytelling. At the end of the day, coffee-drinking technology users should not be the only illustration intended to illuminate your product on your marketing website. Absolutely not. Stock images at their most successful appear beside more explanatory illustrations (diagrams, screenshots, and gifs showing a product’s features) in order to add warmth to these colder forms of visual communication.