In content publishing, we know that every article needs a title and a header image. But while we often spend a great deal of time and effort thinking about just the right title – making it attention-grabbing, clickable and relevant to the piece – we don’t always apply that same focus to the image.

Sometimes, we pick any stock photo that’s remotely related to our topic. Other times we yank one off social media or waste away the day trying to find something usable on Google Images. Maybe we don’t feel artistic enough to create something or that a good graphic doesn’t really matter.

But graphics and photos have the power to capture attention, to keep it, direct it and effectively deliver a compelling message. The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and visual stimuli have been proven not only to communicate a message, but also to influence response behavior. People are visual creatures and many are visual learners; a great image can help them to be aware of and better understand, retain and use information related to your brand.

So, let’s figure out where that image is going to come from.

Should you use stock photos?

Trick question: In content marketing, it’s not a matter of if, but rather how much you should use stock and where to get it.

The internet is a visual place, so you’ll need graphics to supplement your writing. If your goal is lead generation, walls of plain article text will drive the reader away long before they ever get to learn about your brand. And when a lead takes the first steps toward becoming a customer, your webpage’s header image might be the first thing they see on their way into the pipeline.

Let’s assume going out with your iPhone to snap the perfect picture for every topic is not feasible. If you try to pull images from random places on the internet, you’re flirting with usage rights and potential legal problems. So that leaves stock photos as the obvious solution, and there are plenty of websites out there to provide it for you with a minor investment.

The question with stock sites is, to pay or not to pay?

Paid stock sites

Paid sites are best for brands who publish a lot of content. That means those having multiple writers and editors, producing frequent blogs or furnishing images for various clients’ needs.

If you’re going to go paid, it’s best to go monthly. Credits for single images on stock sites often run much more expensive than subscriptions. For example, a monthly subscription to Adobe Stock costs the same as a single license for one of their cheapest images. So, unless there’s just one particular picture you’re dying to use, then, like most things, you’ll save by buying in bulk.

There are countless paid sites, but here are three standouts:


The biggest name out there, offering 300 million images. So purely based on probability, there’s likely the perfect photo for any piece of content somewhere on Shutterstock. Plans start at $20 per month for 10 images.


A smaller microstock provider but it’s no slouch, with 150 million images. Dreamstime subscriptions start at $25 a month for 5 images, but there are also a lot of special offers.

Adobe Stock

It’s hard to get an image count for this one, but it’s the best-curated, coming from the people whose entire job is media. Adobe also has the best library of illustrations.

Free stock sites

Free stock sites are best for small operations that publish content occasionally, such as one-writer blogs that don’t update daily. These have smaller and more specific libraries of images (thousands instead of millions), but the photo quality is only getting better as professional photo gear becomes increasingly accessible and cheaper.


A solid go-to for all your generic stock needs. If you just need an image of a nice desk, a cityscape or someone looking pensively into the distance, Unsplash has you covered.

Shopify Burst

As you might have guessed from the company it belongs to, Shopify Burst is aimed at businesses, with store-themed images that are good for product sellers’ lead gen pages.


Another option aimed at businesses, it also features lots of “flavor images” that make great backgrounds or headers for posts with general themes. Pexels is also one of the few free sites to offer stock videos.

Design aids

If your website easily adapts to different image sizes and has large, buzzy post titles, you might not need to change photos much or add text. But it’s still always nice to have a graphic design program on standby. Here are three recommendations – two programs and a website:

Paid program: Photoshop

The classic. What else needs to be said? Photoshop (CC or CS6) is the standard and costs $10 a month if it’s the only Adobe program you need.

It’s best for brands that regularly need graphics with header text and people who want images customized for specific situations (e.g., editing stock models into settings). It’s not really for those that only need images cropped to a certain size and text added, with few filters or effects.

Free program: GIMP

Photoshop’s awkward cousin has really come into its own lately. This free graphics program used to have some serious drawbacks, but its interface and functions have improved so much that it’s now a fully viable alternative for graphic design. GIMP is much more user-friendly and less glitchy than in the past.

Free website: Canva

There are plenty of WYSIWYG online editors, but this is a versatile one with stunning templates and all its key features are free. Canva doesn’t have specific templates for header graphics, but its website, presentation and Facebook post templates can be easily cropped and adapted to work as content headers.

How to make images work for you?

We’ve all seen the cliché images: smiley person using a computer without looking at the screen; mundane activities made weirdly suggestive; woman misunderstanding how food works.

There’s plenty of bad stock photography out there, and plenty of ways to misuse it. Thankfully, the guidelines on how to do it right are pretty simple:

Consider your brand

If you have brand colors – which you should – favor images that use them. But even more important is making sure that the tone of your content’s images matches the feeling of your brand. If you’re a tech company whose website is all sleek whites and cool blues, go for minimal images dominated by those colors. Or if you’re an earthier brand – warm colors and retro fonts – lean towards warm-colored images, perhaps ones that invoke themes of nature or home.

Be authentic

Avoid using generic stock models to represent your employees, such as a picture of a random pretty person with a headset on your customer support page. You don’t want to begin your customer interactions on a note of insincerity.

Err on the side of subtlety

Remember, an image’s purpose is to enhance the content, not draw attention away from it. Your blog images, whether stock or not, should illustrate something in the text, so it’s better to have them blend in too much than sticks out so much they distract the reader. If someone has to stop and think about why you chose that baffling image, suddenly they’re not paying attention to the article’s content anymore.

Nevertheless, while you may write beautiful body copy, the header image is still the face of your post, and every bit as important to the content as the title. We’ve all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, many more people are going to read those thousand words – or 600 or 3,000 – if they are attracted to and stimulated by that picture.

Does doing all of this yourself sound like a hassle? Think your company needs the creative touch of content experts? We are brand journalists and professional publishers and we can help make your content speak up, look pretty and get results. Don’t just do marketing; PowerPublish.