OPINION: Taking stock of website photography

22 Jun 2013

Gareth Dunlop, owner of user-experience consultancy Fathom

Digital marketing expert Gareth Dunlop offers businesses some sage advice about choices they make when deciding how best to illustrate their websites. In short: keep it real folks.

Nothing says “we haven’t put a moment’s thought into our website” like stock photography. Until recently I was sure that top of the league in this perfect-white-teeth, smiling-at-gunpoint parade of farce was the call-centre girl.

You know call-centre girl, smiling as she takes a call, doubtless from someone calling her up to congratulate her because their broadband was performing brilliantly and had just maxed out its previous download speed record, or perhaps a satellite TV customer calling to say just what good value she felt her current package was.

Oh how mistaken I was.

There were depths of Hades as yet unplumbed, levels of fantasy as yet unreached that even a family of four playing on the beach, with a father in his mid-40s sporting a perfect six pack and a mother from a Special-K advert playing with their two children in the blistering heat of Dollymount Strand in Dublin at Easter time couldn’t imagine. This would make someone driving a luxury car in perfect silence through empty city streets blush; heck it would even embarrass those ladies who love nothing more than to go skydiving and bungee jumping at a certain time each month.

The women with the salad

Ladies, and gentlemen, I introduce to you: “Women laughing alone while eating salad.”

These ladies, online at a website near you (and all huddled together on one blog), are so overwhelmed at the taste explosion of dry lettuce bursting onto their tastebuds, so unconcerned at their apparent friendlessness, that they can’t help but break into spontaneous virtual laughter at just how well everything has worked out for them. In the interests of political correctness, they are available in a range of ethnic groups and classes, but they are all skinny, with perfect skin and dazzling white teeth.

This clichéd nonsense as a means of communications is on its last legs, and rightly so. In its place, the smart online shopper demands relevance and accuracy.

Stock imagery showing people using the web gets it wrong, too. The broken down driver searching for a local garage is always much angrier and impatient than the picture suggests. The soccer fan reading the results on his mobile device is always much happier or much sadder than the image shows, depending on how his team performed, and what’s more, he’s in much more of a hurry. The family huddling around the computer to get a message from a loved one is less organised and more confused by the technology than the photo would have you believe.

The switched-on web customer expects that you stop marketing at her and start marketing with her. This impacts many elements of your communication, but top of the list is tone of voice. That tone which once risked cliché and condescension now needs to sound realistic and direct.

Clarity, once again, trumps persuasion.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their websites and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Equality Commission, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, University of Ulster, Ogilvy, Enterprise Ireland and Irish Times Training.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.