Pics Mix

Time for a pop quiz.

Which would you prefer to look at, a photograph of a friend or a table of numbers describing that friend?

Most of us would prefer seeing the photograph rather than a table of specifications describing the person, even though both would be accurate descriptions. Colorful photographs can convey an emotional message with less effort on the part of the viewer than data or long paragraphs of text.

We’ve grown up with photographs everywhere we turn, from textbooks to magazines to direct mail and catalogs.

However, on the web the use of photography is a different story. Very few web sites use photography, especially photographs of people, to help tell the story.

What’s especially surprising is that companies which make extensive use of image photography in their corporate brochures, catalogs, and annual reports use very few photographs on their web sites.

Most e-commerce sites have photographs of the products they’re selling, but very few of these sites use photography to help position their company and create a positive selling environment.

While product photographs help customers understand the products that are for sale, photographs of people convey the emotional understanding that the people in the photographs are like us. We see people in photographs doing the things we would like to do, so we project ourselves into that situation.

Direct marketers use photographs of people enjoying their products to help convince us that purchasing these products will make us happy, too.

But what happens when the people in the photographs are not like us? It’s a turn-off. We start to feel that the products those people are using are not for us.

The technique of tailoring people in advertising and marketing materials to match the target audience has been used for years. Print ads in magazines show people that are similar to the magazine’s target audience. Television commercials on non-English speaking television stations use actors who speak the language of that station’s audience.

On the other hand, very few web sites use any photography at all, outside of product shots on e-commerce web sites. Most web sites are missing an opportunity to quickly set the stage and build an emotional bond with their audience.

There are, however, a few sites that make great use of photography, such as the new Personalization.com site. Since that site is dedicated to helping marketers understand how and when to use personalization to create customer relationships, it made great sense to use photographs of people to help drive home the focus of the site.

Another site that uses photographs of people well is General Electric. GE makes everything from appliances to jet engines, and photographs are used throughout the site, showing people using or making the products they sell.

While both of these sites use photographs of people effectively, neither attempt to match the photographs to the visitor’s demographic or interest profile to build a tighter relationship.

Web personalization is generally thought of as a tool to tailor textual content to give readers the material to read that matches their interests; however, personalization software can just as easily use individual profiles to select photographs that match the web visitor’s background and interests.

For instance, certain automotive products can be used on cars, trucks, highway construction equipment, and forest management vehicles. After asking visitors about their industry and updating their profile, an automotive products site could display photos of people in their particular industry.

It’s sometimes surprising how many different industries buy the same products. This creates opportunities to use individual profiles to tailor the graphical look and feel of a web site selling to different industries.

There are several challenges that need to be evaluated before starting to personalize the mix of photos on a site.

One challenge is the technological issue of storing and retrieving the profiles needed to tailor the content. Another issue is where to obtain quality photos that convey your image accurately.

The first place to look for photos is the company’s corporate brochure or annual report. If these sources don’t yield good photos, take a look at what is available from the stock photo houses.

If you haven’t used a quality web-based stock photo house, then you’ve missed a treasure trove of images. Companies such as PhotoDisc sell a usage license online and allow you to download photographs in a matter of minutes.

In the first few years of web popularity, the use of photographs slowed the download of pages and many web marketers moved away from “heavy” graphics. Today, with faster connections for most users, and browsers that can accept highly compressed JPEG images, there are few technical reasons to avoid using photographs.

By combining creative use of existing or stock photography with profile data collected about each web visitor, it is possible to achieve a look and feel that is relevant and inviting to each individual.

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