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Steer Clear of Overused Stock Photos With These Planning Tips and Resources

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Steer Clear of Overused Stock Photos With These Planning Tips and Resources

Marketers use a lot of images.

In an average week, 42.8% of surveyed marketers publish at least five visuals, and 40.8% use two to five images, according to a Venngage study.

Sourcing and organizing all those images take up a lot of the content marketing’s team time. That’s why so many teams rely on image banks filled with inexpensive (but sometimes clichéd or less than ideal) options.

You can cut down that work and end up with better images with some planning. Try these tips to create your own “stock” photography library and update your list of other stock resources.

Plan to do more with the images you’re already capturing

Many companies create customer stories, profiles, case studies, and testimonials. If your company does, find out whether a professional photographer will be shooting images to support it. Then, plan to enlist the photographer to capture a few extras.

Consider this photograph in a Stearns Bank customer story about Danielle Bennett, who works for a property group that sought the bank’s help in financing a senior living community:

An image of a woman smiling and sitting at her desk.

A cursory review indicates this seems to be the only image of Danielle or her office in their digital marketing materials. But imagine if Stearns had turned this need for a customer story image into a photo shoot to capture several “stock” images for other content, such as blogs and social media. For example, with the subject’s permission, the photographer could have created images, such as a woman working on a computer, an office with glass walls, or a close-up of a hand grasping a pen and writing in a notebook.

TBH Creative regularly does that kind of multi-task photo shoots for the firm and its clients, says Joy Olivia Miller, a content strategist at the agency. (Joy worked with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Don Dry early in her career.)

The photographer takes images for websites, social media, presentations, email campaigns, signature graphics, case studies, downloadable content offers, and so on. They also may shoot one-off assets for other marketing and advertising content, such as store window posters, in-store digital displays, events, banners, and booths.

“We are able to get so much out of these branded photo shoots … because we do a lot of planning up front,” Joy says.

Get more out of branded photo shoots by planning to capture #images for more than one #ContentMarketing asset or medium, says Joy Miller of @tbhcreative via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet


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How to make the most of a photo shoot

Joy shared the planning tips she relies on for efficient photo shoots:

  • Aim for timeless imagery. Make sure subjects don’t wear trendy clothes or patterns that indicate the images’ date. Simplify backgrounds and ask the subjects to wear clothes in brand colors.
  • Do a lighting test before the shoot to make sure the space works for your photographer’s needs. Will a backdrop and lights fit? Are there sufficient outlets? If not, is natural light enough to create the feel you want even on a gray day?
  • Prep the props. For example, if a person will be using a computer in the photo, is the screen ready? Does it show proprietary data you wouldn’t want viewers to see? Do you have another sweater or jacket ready to swap out to achieve a different look on the model?

To make the most of your photographer’s time and ensure you get sufficient images for your primary and secondary content uses, follow this advice from Joy:

  • Shoot in more than one direction. Capture images in vertical and horizontal formats.
  • Shoot close-ups and wide shots to have more flexibility with the images.
  • Set up scenes to accommodate adding subjects or messages later. For example, if an executive isn’t available for a team shot, leave space for her in the picture. Or shoot a blank screen or whiteboard where you can add and change product photos and messages.
  • Get routine shots of your company. For example, get a picture of your building to use on your website and Google My Business profile.
  • Don’t rely solely on the photographer. Take your own photos to give viewers a behind-the-scenes view. You can share them to show your viewers a glimpse of the subjects in more relaxed settings.

When you receive the images from the photo shoot, you can use them for the primary purpose and categorize them so they’re accessible in a visual content library when content marketers and others need an image for another purpose.

TIP: Ensure all images taken at a photo shoot are owned and licensed by you for commercial use, says Kamyar Shah, business consultant.

Ensure all #images taken at a photo shoot are owned and licensed by you for commercial use, says @bsnscnslt via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Skip the ‘stock’ stock sites

Of course, it takes time to build your in-house image library. Even if you have one, you may need to turn to commercially available stock photography occasionally. Almost 30% of marketers in the Venngage survey say they use stock photos, but only 8.9% of that group said those stock photos helped them reach their marketing goals.

Almost 30% of marketers say they use stock #photos, but less than 10% of those feel the stock photos helped them reach their goals, according to a @Venngage study via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

The problem? Stock photography can appear unoriginal. Marketers often rely on the same-old, same-old images from the most popular stock imagery sites. Your audience has probably seen that guy standing in front of the conference table on multiple websites. That happy family? Yes, they show up in various scenarios in a half-dozen content assets from six different companies.

Another problem? Your audience doesn’t see themselves or people who are different from them. Though progress is being made, white people dominate the options, as do stereotypical roles and families. And that’s a mistake.

Microsoft Advertising’s research, The Psychology of Inclusion and the Effects in Advertising, found over 60% of people are more trusting of brands and think those brands are more authentic when they reflect diversity in their ads. That same survey also found that the purchase intent for the “most inclusive” ad – featuring people across age, gender, and ethnicity who all had some form of a disability – was 13 points higher than for the “most appealing” ad and 23 points higher than all the ads shown.

“We need more inclusive photos and more photos with equal power,” says marketer Penny Gralewski.

We need more inclusive photos and more powerful photos in #ContentMarketing, says @virtualpenny via @AnnGynn @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Try these diverse image collections

To help in that process, here are some go-to sites for inclusive and diverse stock imagery:

  • CreateHER Stock features “melanated women,” says Penny, who learned about the site from Christine Michael Carter at Content Marketing World.
  • She Bold Stock comes recommended by Anita Kirkbride of Twirp Communications, who says: “The photos are bright and well laid out. There is a great diversity of people in the images.”
  • AllGo specializes in photography of plus-sized people, and Picnoi includes diverse collections of minority people from all walks of life (recommended by Zach Blenkinsopp of Digital Roofing Innovations).
  • WOCinTech features women of color in tech; Mocha Stock includes multicultural photography and illustrations (recommended by business consultant Kamyar Shah).
  • Nappy focuses on Black and Brown people (recommended by Herbert Lui of Wondershuttle).
  • The Gender Spectrum Collection from Vice focuses on trans and nonbinary models; Representation Matters lists of diverse stock photo sites (recommended by Richard Lubicky of RealPeopleSearch).
  • Unsplash offers a vast beautiful library that credits the photographers and is easily searchable; Pexels offers some unusual alternative images (recommended by Beth Kapes of Moving Words Into Action).

Ask for the images you need

If you see a photographer’s images that have some relevancy to what you need, reach out to the photographer to see if they have another version, says Joy Olivia Miller of TBH Creative.

For example, if you need a picture of a college student in a wheelchair and see an image of a young adult in a wheelchair behind a desk, reach out to that photographer and ask whether they have other versions. If you see a photo showing an older male doctor treating a young woman patient, ask the photographer if they have other pictures with different models. “Sometimes they mix up their shoots and have people swap in and out,” Joy says.

Doing more with planned photo shoots and expanding your stock photo options will improve your visual content development. You’ll appreciate having more relevant image choices for your content assets.

And more importantly, your audience will appreciate seeing original, diverse, and inclusive imagery that’s relevant to them.

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Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute




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Why We Are Always ‘Clicking to Buy’, According to Psychologists

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Why We Are Always 'Clicking to Buy', According to Psychologists

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A deeper dive into data, personalization and Copilots

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A deeper dive into data, personalization and Copilots

Salesforce launched a collection of new, generative AI-related products at Connections in Chicago this week. They included new Einstein Copilots for marketers and merchants and Einstein Personalization.

To better understand, not only the potential impact of the new products, but the evolving Salesforce architecture, we sat down with Bobby Jania, CMO, Marketing Cloud.

Dig deeper: Salesforce piles on the Einstein Copilots

Salesforce’s evolving architecture

It’s hard to deny that Salesforce likes coming up with new names for platforms and products (what happened to Customer 360?) and this can sometimes make the observer wonder if something is brand new, or old but with a brand new name. In particular, what exactly is Einstein 1 and how is it related to Salesforce Data Cloud?

“Data Cloud is built on the Einstein 1 platform,” Jania explained. “The Einstein 1 platform is our entire Salesforce platform and that includes products like Sales Cloud, Service Cloud — that it includes the original idea of Salesforce not just being in the cloud, but being multi-tenancy.”

Data Cloud — not an acquisition, of course — was built natively on that platform. It was the first product built on Hyperforce, Salesforce’s new cloud infrastructure architecture. “Since Data Cloud was on what we now call the Einstein 1 platform from Day One, it has always natively connected to, and been able to read anything in Sales Cloud, Service Cloud [and so on]. On top of that, we can now bring in, not only structured but unstructured data.”

That’s a significant progression from the position, several years ago, when Salesforce had stitched together a platform around various acquisitions (ExactTarget, for example) that didn’t necessarily talk to each other.

“At times, what we would do is have a kind of behind-the-scenes flow where data from one product could be moved into another product,” said Jania, “but in many of those cases the data would then be in both, whereas now the data is in Data Cloud. Tableau will run natively off Data Cloud; Commerce Cloud, Service Cloud, Marketing Cloud — they’re all going to the same operational customer profile.” They’re not copying the data from Data Cloud, Jania confirmed.

Another thing to know is tit’s possible for Salesforce customers to import their own datasets into Data Cloud. “We wanted to create a federated data model,” said Jania. “If you’re using Snowflake, for example, we more or less virtually sit on your data lake. The value we add is that we will look at all your data and help you form these operational customer profiles.”

Let’s learn more about Einstein Copilot

“Copilot means that I have an assistant with me in the tool where I need to be working that contextually knows what I am trying to do and helps me at every step of the process,” Jania said.

For marketers, this might begin with a campaign brief developed with Copilot’s assistance, the identification of an audience based on the brief, and then the development of email or other content. “What’s really cool is the idea of Einstein Studio where our customers will create actions [for Copilot] that we hadn’t even thought about.”

Here’s a key insight (back to nomenclature). We reported on Copilot for markets, Copilot for merchants, Copilot for shoppers. It turns out, however, that there is just one Copilot, Einstein Copilot, and these are use cases. “There’s just one Copilot, we just add these for a little clarity; we’re going to talk about marketing use cases, about shoppers’ use cases. These are actions for the marketing use cases we built out of the box; you can build your own.”

It’s surely going to take a little time for marketers to learn to work easily with Copilot. “There’s always time for adoption,” Jania agreed. “What is directly connected with this is, this is my ninth Connections and this one has the most hands-on training that I’ve seen since 2014 — and a lot of that is getting people using Data Cloud, using these tools rather than just being given a demo.”

What’s new about Einstein Personalization

Salesforce Einstein has been around since 2016 and many of the use cases seem to have involved personalization in various forms. What’s new?

“Einstein Personalization is a real-time decision engine and it’s going to choose next-best-action, next-best-offer. What is new is that it’s a service now that runs natively on top of Data Cloud.” A lot of real-time decision engines need their own set of data that might actually be a subset of data. “Einstein Personalization is going to look holistically at a customer and recommend a next-best-action that could be natively surfaced in Service Cloud, Sales Cloud or Marketing Cloud.”

Finally, trust

One feature of the presentations at Connections was the reassurance that, although public LLMs like ChatGPT could be selected for application to customer data, none of that data would be retained by the LLMs. Is this just a matter of written agreements? No, not just that, said Jania.

“In the Einstein Trust Layer, all of the data, when it connects to an LLM, runs through our gateway. If there was a prompt that had personally identifiable information — a credit card number, an email address — at a mimum, all that is stripped out. The LLMs do not store the output; we store the output for auditing back in Salesforce. Any output that comes back through our gateway is logged in our system; it runs through a toxicity model; and only at the end do we put PII data back into the answer. There are real pieces beyond a handshake that this data is safe.”

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Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads (And How To Fix It)

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Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads (And How To Fix It)

Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

You ask the head of marketing how the team is doing and get a giant thumbs up. 👍

“Our MQLs are up!”

“Website conversion rates are at an all-time high!”

“Email click rates have never been this good!”

But when you ask the head of sales the same question, you get the response that echoes across sales desks worldwide — the leads from marketing suck. 

If you’re in this boat, you’re not alone. The issue of “leads from marketing suck” is a common situation in most organizations. In a HubSpot survey, only 9.1% of salespeople said leads they received from marketing were of very high quality.

Why do sales teams hate marketing-generated leads? And how can marketers help their sales peers fall in love with their leads? 

Let’s dive into the answers to these questions. Then, I’ll give you my secret lead gen kung-fu to ensure your sales team loves their marketing leads. 

Marketers Must Take Ownership

“I’ve hit the lead goal. If sales can’t close them, it’s their problem.”

How many times have you heard one of your marketers say something like this? When your teams are heavily siloed, it’s not hard to see how they get to this mindset — after all, if your marketing metrics look strong, they’ve done their part, right?

Not necessarily. 

The job of a marketer is not to drive traffic or even leads. The job of the marketer is to create messaging and offers that lead to revenue. Marketing is not a 100-meter sprint — it’s a relay race. The marketing team runs the first leg and hands the baton to sales to sprint to the finish.

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via GIPHY

To make leads valuable beyond the vanity metric of watching your MQLs tick up, you need to segment and nurture them. Screen the leads to see if they meet the parameters of your ideal customer profile. If yes, nurture them to find out how close their intent is to a sale. Only then should you pass the leads to sales. 

Lead Quality Control is a Bitter Pill that Works

Tighter quality control might reduce your overall MQLs. Still, it will ensure only the relevant leads go to sales, which is a win for your team and your organization.

This shift will require a mindset shift for your marketing team: instead of living and dying by the sheer number of MQLs, you need to create a collaborative culture between sales and marketing. Reinforce that “strong” marketing metrics that result in poor leads going to sales aren’t really strong at all.  

When you foster this culture of collaboration and accountability, it will be easier for the marketing team to receive feedback from sales about lead quality without getting defensive. 

Remember, the sales team is only holding marketing accountable so the entire organization can achieve the right results. It’s not sales vs marketing — it’s sales and marketing working together to get a great result. Nothing more, nothing less. 

We’ve identified the problem and where we need to go. So, how you do you get there?

Fix #1: Focus On High ROI Marketing Activities First

What is more valuable to you:

  • One more blog post for a few more views? 
  • One great review that prospective buyers strongly relate to?

Hopefully, you’ll choose the latter. After all, talking to customers and getting a solid testimonial can help your sales team close leads today.  Current customers talking about their previous issues, the other solutions they tried, why they chose you, and the results you helped them achieve is marketing gold.

On the other hand, even the best blog content will take months to gain enough traction to impact your revenue.

Still, many marketers who say they want to prioritize customer reviews focus all their efforts on blog content and other “top of the funnel” (Awareness, Acquisition, and Activation) efforts. 

The bottom half of the growth marketing funnel (Retention, Reputation, and Revenue) often gets ignored, even though it’s where you’ll find some of the highest ROI activities.

1716755163 123 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755163 123 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

Most marketers know retaining a customer is easier than acquiring a new one. But knowing this and working with sales on retention and account expansion are two different things. 

When you start focusing on retention, upselling, and expansion, your entire organization will feel it, from sales to customer success. These happier customers will increase your average account value and drive awareness through strong word of mouth, giving you one heck of a win/win.

Winning the Retention, Reputation, and Referral game also helps feed your Awareness, Acquisition, and Activation activities:

  • Increasing customer retention means more dollars stay within your organization to help achieve revenue goals and fund lead gen initiatives.
  • A fully functioning referral system lowers your customer acquisition cost (CAC) because these leads are already warm coming in the door.
  • Case studies and reviews are powerful marketing assets for lead gen and nurture activities as they demonstrate how you’ve solved identical issues for other companies.

Remember that the bottom half of your marketing and sales funnel is just as important as the top half. After all, there’s no point pouring leads into a leaky funnel. Instead, you want to build a frictionless, powerful growth engine that brings in the right leads, nurtures them into customers, and then delights those customers to the point that they can’t help but rave about you.

So, build a strong foundation and start from the bottom up. You’ll find a better return on your investment. 

Fix #2: Join Sales Calls to Better Understand Your Target Audience

You can’t market well what you don’t know how to sell.

Your sales team speaks directly to customers, understands their pain points, and knows the language they use to talk about those pains. Your marketing team needs this information to craft the perfect marketing messaging your target audience will identify with.

When marketers join sales calls or speak to existing customers, they get firsthand introductions to these pain points. Often, marketers realize that customers’ pain points and reservations are very different from those they address in their messaging. 

Once you understand your ideal customers’ objections, anxieties, and pressing questions, you can create content and messaging to remove some of these reservations before the sales call. This effort removes a barrier for your sales team, resulting in more SQLs.

Fix #3: Create Collateral That Closes Deals

One-pagers, landing pages, PDFs, decks — sales collateral could be anything that helps increase the chance of closing a deal. Let me share an example from Lean Labs. 

Our webinar page has a CTA form that allows visitors to talk to our team. Instead of a simple “get in touch” form, we created a drop-down segmentation based on the user’s challenge and need. This step helps the reader feel seen, gives them hope that they’ll receive real value from the interaction, and provides unique content to users based on their selection.

1716755163 298 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755163 298 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

So, if they select I need help with crushing it on HubSpot, they’ll get a landing page with HubSpot-specific content (including a video) and a meeting scheduler. 

Speaking directly to your audience’s needs and pain points through these steps dramatically increases the chances of them booking a call. Why? Because instead of trusting that a generic “expert” will be able to help them with their highly specific problem, they can see through our content and our form design that Lean Labs can solve their most pressing pain point. 

Fix #4: Focus On Reviews and Create an Impact Loop

A lot of people think good marketing is expensive. You know what’s even more expensive? Bad marketing

To get the best ROI on your marketing efforts, you need to create a marketing machine that pays for itself. When you create this machine, you need to think about two loops: the growth loop and the impact loop.

1716755163 789 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755163 789 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To
  • Growth loop — Awareness ➡ Acquisition ➡ Activation ➡ Revenue ➡ Awareness: This is where most marketers start. 
  • Impact loop — Results ➡ Reviews ➡ Retention ➡ Referrals ➡ Results: This is where great marketers start. 

Most marketers start with their growth loop and then hope that traction feeds into their impact loop. However, the reality is that starting with your impact loop is going to be far more likely to set your marketing engine up for success

Let me share a client story to show you what this looks like in real life.

Client Story: 4X Website Leads In A Single Quarter

We partnered with a health tech startup looking to grow their website leads. One way to grow website leads is to boost organic traffic, of course, but any organic play is going to take time. If you’re playing the SEO game alone, quadrupling conversions can take up to a year or longer.

But we did it in a single quarter. Here’s how.

We realized that the startup’s demos were converting lower than industry standards. A little more digging showed us why: our client was new enough to the market that the average person didn’t trust them enough yet to want to invest in checking out a demo. So, what did we do?

We prioritized the last part of the funnel: reputation.

We ran a 5-star reputation campaign to collect reviews. Once we had the reviews we needed, we showcased them at critical parts of the website and then made sure those same reviews were posted and shown on other third-party review platforms. 

Remember that reputation plays are vital, and they’re one of the plays startups often neglect at best and ignore at worst. What others say about your business is ten times more important than what you say about yourself

By providing customer validation at critical points in the buyer journey, we were able to 4X the website leads in a single quarter!

1716755164 910 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755164 910 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

So, when you talk to customers, always look for opportunities to drive review/referral conversations and use them in marketing collateral throughout the buyer journey. 

Fix #5: Launch Phantom Offers for Higher Quality Leads 

You may be reading this post thinking, okay, my lead magnets and offers might be way off the mark, but how will I get the budget to create a new one that might not even work?

It’s an age-old issue: marketing teams invest way too much time and resources into creating lead magnets that fail to generate quality leads

One way to improve your chances of success, remain nimble, and stay aligned with your audience without breaking the bank is to create phantom offers, i.e., gauge the audience interest in your lead magnet before you create them.

For example, if you want to create a “World Security Report” for Chief Security Officers, don’t do all the research and complete the report as Step One. Instead, tease the offer to your audience before you spend time making it. Put an offer on your site asking visitors to join the waitlist for this report. Then wait and see how that phantom offer converts. 

This is precisely what we did for a report by Allied Universal that ended up generating 80 conversions before its release.

1716755164 348 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To1716755164 348 Why The Sales Team Hates Your Leads And How To

The best thing about a phantom offer is that it’s a win/win scenario: 

  • Best case: You get conversions even before you create your lead magnet.
  • Worst case: You save resources by not creating a lead magnet no one wants.  

Remember, You’re On The Same Team 

We’ve talked a lot about the reasons your marketing leads might suck. However, remember that it’s not all on marketers, either. At the end of the day, marketing and sales professionals are on the same team. They are not in competition with each other. They are allies working together toward a common goal. 

Smaller companies — or anyone under $10M in net new revenue — shouldn’t even separate sales and marketing into different departments. These teams need to be so in sync with one another that your best bet is to align them into a single growth team, one cohesive front with a single goal: profitable customer acquisition.

Interested in learning more about the growth marketing mindset? Check out the Lean Labs Growth Playbook that’s helped 25+ B2B SaaS marketing teams plan, budget, and accelerate growth.


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