Cartoons outperform stock photos 2:1

Ian Lurie

I curse whoever first wrote “Have an image at the top of your blog post.”

Ever since then it’s been a barrage of crappy stock photos slapped at the top of every half-assed blog post across the internet.

Take this example. Am I supposed to believe there’s an company in the world that has this many perfectly-coifed, attractive people? This looks like some kind of Children of the Corn spinoff in the making:

Please don't kill me

Please don't kill me Please don't kill me Please don't kill me

If I do a quick reverse image search on Google, I find that this same photo has been used 140+ times, without alteration:

How exactly is this creativity? In what frakked-up universe does this crapola actually add value to content?

Every time I see something like this, my stomach hurts.

Stock photos don’t kill me. People using un-modified, boring stock photos kill me.

I’m not anti-stock photo. I use them all the time. I love them. What I hate is folks reflexively slapping a random photo that’s vaguely business-related at the top of a blog post. It screams “I don’t give a crap.”

Which is a very long introduction to a fantastic bit of research:

Cartoons outperform stock photos 2:1

Mark Anderson at Andertoons — a great artist and a super-sophisticated marketer in his own right — tested a cartoon versus a stock photo. He had 260 people view a blog post. Half saw the post with one of his cartoons at the top. The other half saw the post with a stock photo.

The results are pretty telling:

people prefer cartoons

But, if you read the whole article, the gap is even larger. In some versions of the test, he had 2:1 or 3:1 result.

Mark’s stuff is brilliant, but there’s a bigger lesson here: People prefer some creativity. If you’re going to add an image to your blog post, your options, best to worst, are:

  • If your post is data-driven, why not really bend reality and present the data?!
  • Original artwork, like a cartoon. It’s not expensive. Mark offers subscription services for $20/month, for example.
  • A stock image, but altered. I love to use animals with speech balloons. It’s corny, but it makes me giggle in a non-too-insane manner, so I keep doing it.
  • Anything but a non-altered stock image.
  • A photo of your dog, Harryhausen, ripping apart a newspaper.
  • A photo of that mole with a hair growing out of it that you have on your arm.
  • A scan of your latest belly-button lint.
  • The latest annoying internet meme.
  • Really, still, not a stock image.
  • A stock image.

This is not a sales pitch for Mark’s work, by the way. I get no kickbacks. But his stuff is awfully good. Check it out.

Update: In the “See! I’m not the only one!” column is this great post by the folks at Overit: How and why to use illustration in web design. I kinda want to abduct their designer to do some titles like that…

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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    1. It’s not about trust. It’s about caring. If I see something that’s obviously a stock image with only a distant connection to the attendant post, the odds that I’ll care are zilch.

  1. When I first started my business, we did a monthly cartoon making fun of ourselves and I miss that. We had great response. I’ve since been challenged to write relevant, funny cartoons … and then also line up the cartoonist as I’m no artist. I think that’s the stumbling block. There are plenty of stock cartoons that get overused or hacked as well.
    Good reinforcement to replace the crappy stock photos on my own website.

  2. Excellent point Ian. Being an avid cartoon-torialist I agree. However, sometimes when you have limited resources- but access to some stock photos – sometimes you can make it work. I occasionally do that for clients – but first request they bury me alive / boil me in oil / and pay enough for me to get psychological counseling.
    Ran across you on @scoopit when I was checking out their new design. You were on the front page @gdecugis

  3. Amen!
    I could not agree with this more. We use all custom illustrations for our blog and I think it presents a more powerful experience. We also encourage clients to get away from stock imagery as much as possible, moving them more toward illustration, motion graphics, and more interactive medium. It’s not the cost people assume that it is. And while it may be somewhat more experience, as you show, the evidence proves it gets you seen. We all ignore stock photography because we’ve seen that same damn handshake picture too many times. We can only take so much!
    [I won’t link whore, but we wrote a post earlier this week about why people should be using illustration vs stock photos. So especially happy to see this conversation 🙂 ]

  4. I also saw the Andertoons post and loved it. I am, of course, prejudiced since I draw. I don’t draw something for every post – I don’t have the time – but I do draw a monthly cartoon.

  5. Interesting. I see you mentioned “stock” photos but didn’t say that all photos are bad. So how about Flickr photos posted under a Creative Commons licence? Are they equally as bad as “stock” photos?
    Also, quick idea: would be great to have a way to subscribe to comments and/or subscribe to comment replies on this blog. Without one of those options, the only way I’ll see replies to my comment is if I bookmark this post.

    1. A stock photo is a stock photo, whether you’re getting it from iStock or Flickr. It’s still an image lots of other people may be using, that’s chosen as much to plunk a color photo at the top of a post as for its relevance to that post.

  6. I’m a cartoonist/illustrator but I don’t think it’s just a matter of stock photos being overused. Unfortunately photography has become almost a commodity online. With stock services and digital cameras anyone can slap a photo on a website.
    However, a professional-quality photo that tells your story in a unique way will always be valuable. Of course there’s a price tag involved that scares off many clients.
    But the same is true for illustrations and cartoons – you have to pay the price for a unique solution.
    Look around and you’ll see certain styles of illustrations, infographics and animations are becoming ubiquitous. It’s just a matter of time before viewers tune them out as well.
    So the answer is the same as it’s always been: Invest in quality illustrations AND photos that enhance your site and convey your message in a memorable way.

  7. The presence of the stock image is so popular in part due to the featured image that is now asked for in many themes for WordPress in particular. In my opinion that causes many people to rush around looking for an image to plonk into their posts and then they end up with the stock image mentioned.
    One source that is often forgotten is Flickr and there are a lot of free images available there and even more if you attribute them.
    Notwithstanding that people do love cartoons and browsing through Marks site there ARE some excellent offers there that will bring some extra weight to a blog or page.
    I think you just have to get a bit more imaginative really – one tip is when you are out and about with your smart phone to snap ideas and keep them in your blog ideas folder for later use. You may end up with tons of them but some may help.
    Good post thanks!

  8. Thank you for drawing attention to this! Back in 1998 I started a company called built around creating custom animation and imagery (primarily in Flash). Back then the market was pretty limited to either corporate accounts or ISP’s. However after the .com crash I couldn’t give work away! Fast forward 15 years and all the changes (specifically mobile) and post’s like this give me the much needed confidence to dust off and update my offerings. Cartoons / Animation can be ‘witty’ and relay complicated subject matter in a affordable timely manner like nothing else.

  9. It’s the truth! Good thing the only thing I’m known for is drawing cartoons 😉 (I really need to make a policy to never publish a post without a drawing in it ever again)

  10. Ha, 8th on the list: “The latest annoying internet meme.”
    I completely agree. They’re almost as bad as stock photography. Whenever somebody uses a meme on their blog post (often inappropriately, too) it screams “please like this, I’m trying really hard to appear internet savvy and funny”. It’s worse when they try and generate their own humorless memes.

  11. Hi Ian, great advice and a great post. The only thing to watch out for is that some stock photo sites do not allow you to edit images in any way or you breach their ToS. So be sure to read the agreement on each site before tweaking images just in case.

  12. Ian, your writing is always so interesting. I agree with you that it is so irritating when stock photos are used when they have no relation to the content. Thanks for another great post!

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