Lauren Kaye

My ability to wield metaphors falls flat when it comes to visuals. As a writer, I like to think I have a pretty good handle on communicating concepts in simpler or more evocative ways. 

95 percent marketers say visual content is over 2x more effective than stand-alone text.

But if I’m looking for an image to post with a blog about “online video marketing,” I immediately gravitate toward a picture of someone watching a video on a computer screen. If I’m really going out on a limb, I’ll go for a video reel or film. Neither of these are very visually interesting or original, and they get repetitive quickly.

I’ve come to accept that visually, I’m a literal thinker.

A lot of marketers are in the same boat. I know, because I see them using the same exact photos for their own blogs.

We’re all working to build stronger brand identities online, but we’re clearly missing opportunities. Marketers need to see every featured image as a chance to establish visual cues that will help them stand out and increase consumer recognition.

This is why we need to hire visual thinkers like graphic designers and animators who can bring variety to our image choices – and make our brands look better online. They know how to convey concepts in interesting and effective ways to make sure your corporate blog isn’t just a series of cheesy Shutterstock photos.

Small Cheesy shutterstock image tweet

If you’re choosing an image to represent ‘marketing strategy,’ avoid a chess board. Don’t you click that jigsaw puzzle image, either, and forget about the hand writing in the air with a sharpie. These are fine to use sparingly – they *do* visually convey the point, but overuse falls flat.

There are the common visual metaphors that have been used to the point of cliche:

  • Moving gears for technology and processes
  • Magnifying glasses for evaluation and research
  • Hands shaking for compliance and customer satisfaction

Avoid these when possible. They’ll have the same effect as a one-to-one comparison (a computer for technology, a word-cloud that says research, a customer satisfaction survey).

Take the risk and use something that’s further from the literal meaning. The more playful the images, the more universal they are. 

I asked two people on our videography team, Animation Supervisor Jim Davis and Senior Animator Bill Cleveland, to come up with examples of visual metaphors that can replace overused stock images to elevate the look of your blog content.

Here are 13 visual metaphors to get your creative juices flowing when picking visuals for your blog content:

1. “Growth”

Instead of someone looking at graph with positive growth, use a rocket ship. 

The growth of digital marketing will outpace overall increases in ad budgets next year.

2. “The Future”

Give the signpost that reads “Future” or “Today/Tomorrow” a rest, and swap in a rising sun instead. Pro-tip: Nature usually gets it right. As Brafton’s Design Director Ken Boostrom explains, an image of a natural landscape will contain complimentary colors that look good together. 


3. “Business Obstacles”

Instead of business person crossing a dangerous crevice, or leaping over obstacles in a business suit,  swap in some Olympic hurdle jumpers.


4. “Negotiation”

Skip the same picture of business people shaking hands. Use a picture of a chemistry set to communicate two things coming together. 


5. “Online Shopping” 

Give the shopping cart button a rest! Does anyone actually have a keyboard button that allows them to make purchases with a keystroke? Use a more stylized image of someone completing a transaction with a shallow depth of field and a pop of color, or show a customer opening packages. If you’re creating an animated video, you can get even more creative with a hand reaching into a computer monitor, or a computer pushing a cart.

Getting customers to hit the buy button requires different content on varying channels.

6. “Cloud Computing”

Besides a cloud with some tools in it, or laptop tethered to the sky, get creative with your concept. Show a group of ants, or other small creatures working together to accomplish something bigger than themselves. 

computer cloud map

7. “Business Solution”

Rather than using an image of a stock business meeting, try a picture of a chemist mixing ingredients. It has a playful feel with a universal message that viewers will immediately understand.

Companies looking to improve their customer service capability have found that Facebook and Twitter are increasingly effective.
SEO not exact science

8. “Data Security”

In place of a lock on a computer screen, show another image that’s related to security. Some examples include a German Shepard, a barbed-wire fence or even sharks with lasers on their heads. 

A study finds even young consumers want privacy when they surf the web.

9. “Web Design”

Look beyond the picture of someone writing words related to web design on a screen. Opt for something a little less literal, like a spider weaving a web or something being assembled from many parts to make a cohesive finished product. 

Frequent website testing and analysis can help businesses maximize conversions.

10. “Customer Research” 

Rather than a magnifying glass or an image of customers using their computers, have fun with the concept of customer research. Use an image of person under microscope, someone being inspected with magnifying glass, or people (in the case, dogs) in a line up.

Audience research is key to producing relevant content, and it's something many internet marketers seem to miss.

11. “Business Writing”

It can get repetitive to talk about business writing if you only use images of professionals typing on computers or completing technical paperwork. Marry the two ideas with a business backdrop and a scholarly subject, or alternate with images of creative work spaces and sleek or vintage writing technology. If you’re working in an animation, you could take this concept one step further with a financial building being squished into the top of a typewriter. 

Writing engaging content can help generate new leads.
business writing

12. “Customer Service”

Look past the picture of a customer-service oriented keyboard button. Instead, use an image that shows what good customer services feels like on the receiving end, with a picture of someone opening a car door for a customer,  putting jacket down over a puddle, offering an after-dinner mint on a silver tray, etc. 

Social Customer Support

13. “Customer Loyalty”

Instead of Scrabble letters that spell out loyalty or a ‘customer loyalty’ keyword button, show wedding cake toppers to represent a long-term relationship with customers. 

The happy ever after

Visual content is playing a bigger role in marketing strategies. The 2015 State of the Industry report from Chute and Digiday found 95 percent marketers say visual content is over 2x more effective than their written text alone.

While marketers want to spend more time and money on custom visuals to make their efforts shine, they simply don’t have the time or resources yet. For now, stock photos make up the majority of images brands publish, and we, as marketers, need to take every opportunity to build our brand identities through creative and careful image selection. 

What are the worst Shutterstock crimes you’ve seen online?