By Steph Jones

Is it okay to use stock images in my social media content?

June 8th, 2023
3 min read

A strong visual game is crucial to building an effective social media presence. It is well-documented that image-led social media posts achieve significantly better engagement rates than their text-only counterparts. However, if every single post needs a graphic, where do you find them all?

Creating original graphics for social media is time-consuming and, unless you have the skills in-house, can end up looking sub-par. That’s why heading over to a stock image website is appealing for many digital marketers, whether they’re marketing for their own brand or their clients’. Here, we’re going to look at the pros and cons of using stock images, the difference between free and premium options, and the alternatives.

Firstly, here’s why using stock images is so popular:

  1. They’re ready to use – you don’t need to plan a shoot, book a photographer and a graphic designer and wait for them to be edited.

  2. Stock images (in the most part!) are high-quality, high-resolution images with a professional feel.

  3. You can usually find an image depicting what you need to fit your content.

  4. They’re easy to find, save and upload to social media, blogs or any other content you want.

Free vs premium stock images

There is a significant difference between free stock image libraries and those where you need to pay a subscription or per-image fee. As a general rule, premium image libraries are more extensive and contain higher quality images so you’re more likely to find something that’s unique and something that really says what you need.

You can find high-quality free, royalty free images that you can use wherever, however, forever. Websites like Unsplash permit a no strings attached use of their images.

Paying for more expensive libraries of stock images means you’re more likely to have exclusive (or near-exclusive) use of an image. This means audiences are less likely to have seen it before and more likely to stop scrolling and take note.

Overall, if you’re using stock images regularly and visual appeal is important for the brand, having a premium stock image account makes sense. If your competitors are scrabbling around for half-decent stock images but you have the highest quality at your fingertips, you will certainly have the edge.

So what are the downsides of stock images in social content?

  1. Stock images tend to have a certain feel to them and some people can spot them a long way off.

  2. People will have used them before so people will have seen them before (especially if they’re free!).

  3. In busy social media feeds, they’re unlikely to grab people’s attention.

  4. They’re designed for multiple potential uses, meaning they’re unlikely to be specific to your industry, product and purpose.

  5. Naturally, they’re less useful for marketing a consumer product because the products don’t feature in the images!

Graphic design vs stock imagery

Creating your own graphics by way of a graphic designer is the holy grail for social media marketing. Bespoke, branded and topical graphics are far more likely to hit the spot than something pulled from Getty Images. Having a photographer and access to a studio takes this a step further – generally reserved for the occasional shoot or content creation agencies.

A designer, either in-house, freelance or as part of the social media agency you employ, gives you maximum control and freedom over your content. Here are the top five benefits vs stock imagery:

  1. They’re completely unique to your brand.

  2. They can be optimised for exactly the purpose you want to use them (making them the right ratio and resolution for each platform) or made into short video animations or GIFs, perfect for social.

  3. It’s content with exactly what you need – industry-specific infographics or location, brand and product specific images.

  4. Graphics can be uniform across your networks giving you the same brand feel (similar colours, branding and feel) – much harder to achieve with stock images. 

Modifying your stock images

If it really does make sense to delve into the deepest and darkest depths of a stock image library, remember there are some ways to make those images a little better.

Using a different crop, text or make some basic edit on Canva can turn a mundane stock image into something more relevant to your brand. It might not suit every brand, but give it a go and see what you can do.

The verdict on stock images for social media

Stock photos are a quick and easy source of professional-looking photos that are better used than nothing at all. Depending on the nature of your brand, you may find that they fulfil virtually all of your requirements. However, with some small tweaks, they can be even more versatile.

Of course, if you can afford a graphic designer or photographer to create original content, you’re way ahead of the game.

Steph Jones.
Steph Jones

Head of Social

A hands-on Head of Social, with extensive experience across Charity, Retail and eCommerce, both agency side and client side, with brands such as WWF, Virgin Pure and Purity Brewing. Steph considers all facets of the customer journey through social and paid media, as well as creating engaging content in line with the business goals to capture attention and convert audiences.