“I want to go to there,” says Liz Lemon.

She’s just watched a sexily rumpled John Hamm walk out of the kitchen only to tell her:


Now that’s an image that inspires action, amiright?

We see.

We want.

We make happen.

The connection between sight and longing is visceral, primal – not to be ignored.

Except here’s the thing: most of us content creators do ignore it. In an effort to draw a prospect in with our words, copywriters may dismiss the power of images. Or, at best, we may find ourselves using them as meek supporting characters to the textual stars of our shows.

But images are far too powerful to be relegated to the backgrounds.

And words with images? You put the right ones together and you not only get momentum – you could start a movement. Says science.



Researchers at Yale coined the phrase “cute aggression” to describe the phenomenon of seeing a picture of a cute fluffy animal and saying something like “I just want to SQUEEZE its fluffy widdle face!”

That’s weird, right? If you examine it for a second, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that it’s a crazy impulse. See something cute => squeeze ‘til you destroy it? That’s just… sick.

Or is it?

In this paper, presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s annual meeting in 2013, researchers found that the cuter the animal, the more aggressive the reactions. With this data-driven insight, they formed a theory: The reason for pent-up cute aggression is a desire to take care of the fluffy critter. But because you can’t take care of the picture of a puppy and you can’t hold onto most cats for longer than three seconds, you can’t take care of said critter. This creates a sense of frustration. This leads to aggression.

Just look at this to see what I mean:


The image makes us want to take action so much that, when we can’t, we go a little nuts.

Now what if you could harness that emotional power in your marketing? Without resorting to posting cat pics across your site, of course…

Monkey see, monkey click:
How to connect emotionally using images on your site


Research from the University of Glasgow suggests that human beings really only have four emotions out of which all of the other nuances of emotion come.

Only four emotions? you wonder. I hear that. But think of it this way: you can use tomatoes, basil, parmesan and olive oil to make pesto. Or to make marinara. Or to turn your flatbread into a margarita pizza. A few essential ingredients can combine to produce a lot of variations.

The four core emotions are:


  1. Happy
  2. Sad
  3. Fear/Surprise
  4. Anger/Disgust

These emotions have a huge impact on our actions. They’re hard-wired to produce results.

Happiness, for example, makes us want to share. Just look at the mirroring behavior that happens when you smile at someone. Unless you’re at the DMV, on the NYC subway or standing in line at your local bank, when you smile at someone, they smile back. Even newborn babies do this. It’s called “social smiling.”

It’s not a big leap to say that it’s in the fabric of our DNA to share happiness.

Social media data supports this – positive articles are much more likely to be shared than sad ones. (That said, articles that provoke anger and anxiety also get plenty of shares. But we can get into that in just a bit.)

Fractl published a list of “Top 10 Emotions” that drove “viral” content. Take a look at them, and see if you can’t find the common thread running through all ten:

  1. Amusement
  2. Interest
  3. Surprise
  4. Happiness
  5. Delight
  6. Pleasure
  7. Joy
  8. Hope
  9. Affection
  10. Excitement


Each and every one of those top 10 virality-creating emotions is related to happiness. People share things that tap into that core emotion: happiness.

But that’s not all.

In that same study, the folks in the white lab coats showed study participants 30 “viral” images. After showing each image, they asked the participant to state their top two emotions. Here’s what they found: viral images tend to not only elicit happy-spectrum emotions – they also elicit contrasting emotions. Like “amused” and “irritated.” The images that elicited the most contrasting emotions tended to be the most emotionally impactful.

Lemme show you what I mean.

Editor’s note: The image that follows is pretty disturbing.


Bunny! Cute!

Dribbling blood! Gross!

(BTW, I’m assured that all that red is from a cherry. Mr. Bunny loves cherries almost as much as he loves screwing with our emotions.)

And here’s the emotional heat map Frac.tl created based on participants’ responses to that cherry-eating, stuff-of-nightmares bunny:


Like the bunny image, the vast majority of viral images had “Surprise” and “Anticipation” in common. But odd couples like these also made frequent appearances:

  • Joy and sadness
  • Anger and fear
  • Trust and disgust
  • Joy and disgust

So what can you do with that information today? Pics that get maximum shares = Happy + surprising + contrasting emotions.

Appealing to emotions not only increases shares.

It can also increase conversions.

Researchers at UCLA and George Washington University created two types of ads.

  • The first type was called “logical persuasion” or “LP, and heavily featured facts and figures.
  • The second type was called “nonrational influence” (or NI) and heavily featured fun, vague, or sexy scenes.

Tell me if the results fascinate you too: They found that when participants looked at the LP ads, their brains responded with significantly higher activity in the regions responsible for decision-making and emotional processing. So facts and figures trigger emotions and decisions.

Sounds good, right? Just throw some numbers into an ad – voila. Prospects become emotionally engaged. Prospects make decisions. Great.

…Not so fast, though.

(Here’s where the study gets interesting.)

Turns out that the regions responsible for decision-making and emotional processing are the same brain regions responsible for inhibiting responses, like impulse purchases.

So facts and figures could inhibit conversions.

Now, what happened with the NI ads in the study? – the ones featuring the fun, vague, sexy scenes. Well, they didn’t trigger any major activity in those brain regions. They lead to less behavioral inhibition… and could then lead to less restraint re: your “Buy” button.

So what can you do with that information today? If you want that emotional purchase, ditch the data and show your prospects something fun.

Not all images are created equal (thank you David Ogilvy)

Not-all-images-are-created-equal (1)

David Ogilvy, one of the greatest admen of all time, commissioned research into the use of images.

He found that the wrong images can actually reduce readership – and conversions.

The prevailing wisdom then, as now, was that any picture would attract attention. But Ogilvy wanted to make sure that the images used in his ads would actually increase response rates. Here’s what his researchers uncovered. (Take notes.)

If you want to use images, do these 4 things…


Images work best to get people to read the copy when they’re above the copy. Before the headline even. And definitely, if we’re talking website design, above the fold. Ogilvy found that headlines placed below an image were read by 10% more people than headlines above an image.



Captions are read 300% more than body copy. So put a caption under every image. And actually work on the caption copy. It’s 300% more important than most of the other words on the page.



Don’t align your images left. It messes with the eyes to have that left margin broken by images. Right is fine. Center is fine. Left will drive people away.



Choose images that tell a story or demonstrate a concept. Above all, choose images that are relevant to your value proposition.

Bonus: Articles containing relevant images have 94% more total views than articles without images That’s not Ogilvy – that’s Quicksprout.

But you don’t have to be David Ogilvy – or his research team – to figure out that not every image works. Poor quality photos, obvious stock photography, images that make people go “Ewww,” (see bunny above) and blurry or distorted images all are certain to turn people off.

So what images do work? Ogilvy preferred images that provoked curiosity, like his famous The man in the Hathaway shirt ad in 1951. If you ask me, it’s the precursor to Dos Equis’s “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

“What do work are photographs which arouse the reader’s curiosity. He glances at the photograph and says to himself, “What goes on here?” Then he reads your copy to find out. This is the trap to set. Harold Rudolph called this magic element “story appeal,” and demonstrated that the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people will look at your advertisements. […]” – David Ogilvy

What we need is an image that tells a story. A happy story, with an element of surprise. That’s enough to attract attention and provoke shares.

But what if you want to do something else? Something more?

How to find the right image to provoke a specific action

Researchers are finding more and more direct links between types of images and types of responses.

Here are 5 main actions on your marketing wishlist that just the right picture can facilitate.

1. Images to use when you want people to ask you for help

Researchers at the University of Newcastle had more than 100 students answer questions online about their general proclivity for seeking help or going DIY.

The students were shown a picture of two people standing side by side – either a man and woman, or a woman and child. To throw another variable into the mix, one picture showed the two photographed subjects holding hands. So where were these four images, and each participant only saw one:

  1. Man and woman
  2. Man and woman holding hands (romantic)
  3. Woman and child
  4. Woman and child holding hands (non-romantic)

Participants who saw the first two images were asked to imagine for a moment that they were the woman.

Participants that saw the third or fourth image were asked to imagine that they were the child.
They were then asked a series of questions to reveal their likelihood to seek help.

Here’s what they found:

Participants who’d seen the photo in which the two people were holding hands were far more likely to say that they would seek help than were the participants who’d seen the other picture. (source)

To prime your prospect to seek help from you or your service, consider testing an image of two people holding hands.

2. Images to use when you want to build trust

Humans have been looking at things far longer than we’ve been reading. Little surprise, then, that countless studies show that people:

  • Understand images faster than words,
  • Remember them longer, and
  • Believe what we see more than what we hear (if there’s a discrepancy between the two).

Our brains prioritize visual information over any other kind. That makes images the fast-track to making the connections all marketers are looking for.

The connection we all need? Credibility.

Conversion depends heavily on gaining credibility, and pictures can be very compelling. One study out of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand showed that simply positioning an image alongside your copy makes the copy more believable. That was true even when the image had nothing at all to do with the text!

Essentially, any image is better than nothing.

But the right image? It’s worth even more.

In a similar study by the psychology departments at both Colorado State University and the University of California, researchers experimented with images of brains in particular. It seems that pics of brains are particularly persuasive, especially when the subject of the text is neuroscience.

After three experiments, they found that positioning images of brains in articles summarizing cognitive neuroscience research:

“resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to articles accompanied by bar graphs, a topographical map of brain activation, or no image.”

Seeing is believing: The effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning by David P. McCabe and Alan D. Castel

In short: People are more likely to believe statements are true when there is a picture beside them. And it may be helpful to use images that are directly related to the subject of discussion, especially if the subject has to do with grey matter.

3. Images to use when you want to direct attention

Everyone uses images to grab attention. But they can also be used to direct attention.

If you’ve read The Da Vinci Code, you might be familiar with this technique.

Take a quick glance at this painting:


Who did you see first?


Now take a closer look at the other people in the room. Because, if you missed Jesus the first time around, at least 5 disciples are pointing directly at him. Like, “See! This is the main point! Don’t miss it!”

That was true back in 1495. And it’s true today. If you show a picture of someone pointing, people will look in that direction.

Check out this bad-ass pointing job by Peep Laja, on the home page of ConversionXL.


You may also already know that people will follow the gaze of other people. They’ll follow “line of sight” objects. And they’ll follow arrows. All of those cues direct our attention. And they do so rather reliably.


4. Images to use when you want to sell an experience

Especially persuasive are aspirational images that make us believe, just for a moment, that we can be better versions of ourselves.

Don’t you kinda wanna be this guy?


Then there’s Modcloth, selling happiness straight up.


And Slack, which makes every team feel like they could put robots on Mars – or something equally cool.


These images are powerful because what they’re really selling isn’t the clothes, or the hammock, or the crazy-making non-stop business chat service that doesn’t let you think two thoughts sequentially – no! They are selling what you want most. Your deepest desire. And you believe it because you see it. It’s right there in the picture. It really exists.

Really, it all comes back to happiness.

Why do we want to buy something?

Because we believe that once we possess that thing – that service, that product – we will be happier for it.

In a study called “Neural Predictors of Purchases,” researchers found that when we see an image of a product that we like, an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens lights up. This is the brain’s pleasure center, and it is STOKED (the scientific term for “flooded with dopamine”) at just the thought of getting the thing we want.

In fact, the idea of getting what you want has about the same effect as actually getting it. Some scientists theorize that dissatisfaction with what we have (and the desire to acquire new/more/different things) stems from the evolutionary imperative to constantly improve our chances of survival.

That guy in the Patagonia ad? He looks like a survivor to me.

5. Images to use when you’re going for the paid conversion

Yes, you can use images to influence the purchase process.



Red is traditionally associated with taking action, and we all know it works great on Buy buttons and logos. But there are more subtle color cues that have been shown to attract specific types of customers.

  • Red, orange, black and royal blue attract impulse shoppers.
  • Navy blue and teal attract budget shoppers (think Old Navy).
  • Rose, pink and sky blue appeal to traditional buyers.
  • Black is associated with luxury (just check out the websites of Jaguar, Lexus and Lamborghini).

For a fantastic rundown of how images work in product pages, read this from Sparkpay.



Say what you will about the tobacco industry, but their marketers know their stuff. And they’ve read their Cialdini.

Social proof is one of Cialdini’s six principles of influence. It holds that, in moments of uncertainty, people will follow the leads of other people. The more people, the better. And the more your prospect respects or aspires to be like the people in the image, the better:


Three things about the above ad are especially worth noting:

  1. It’s selling an aspirational lifestyle “The Marlboro Weekend”,
  2. It shows the actual product (which is red – because cigarette purchasers are nothing if not impulsive), and
  3. There’s that little line at the bottom: “Now the world’s No.1 selling cigarette.”



The most effective images act as a visual benefits statement. Images can tell entire stories, sometimes requiring no words at all to make the point loud and clear.

Check out this image, from Keloptic:


Their primary benefit doesn’t get any clearer than that.

WeightWatchers has another good one:


When considering the most compelling image, start with your benefits and find the image to match.



Even if you’re not selling fitness products, before and after photos work really well. They’re another way to state your benefits – one that really hammers home the idea, This is what your life could be like.



If readers read captions more than any other piece of copy on the page, it behooves you to not only use captions but to give them weight. Whether that means succinctly stating your main point, the biggest benefit, or a call-to-action is up to you.

But use ‘em.

Rand Fishkin never misses a chance to add a caption, even if it’s just on a picture on his Moz blog. Even though these captions aren’t selling anything, they do one thing very well: They always make you want to read more.


Doesn’t this make you want to read what happened to make THAT face?



Some images are remarkably un-compelling. And, we’ve all seen them.

Ogilvy’s research included a list of images to avoid, and you may be surprised at how many times you see professional marketers committing these blunders. Don’t be one of them.

ONE: Avoid the Crowd Shot

Pictures of crowds are problematic. If your goal is to establish a personal connection with your target customer, a crowd shot will do the opposite. There’s no central focal point.

Consider this…


Versus this…


Neither image is great in terms of marketing potential.

But one is clearly more interesting than the other.

But the truth: best to avoid the whole crowd thing. Choose images with one or two focal points at most that will strongly resonate with your audience.

TWO: Avoid Generic Stock Photos

You can use stock photos.

There are some amazing stock photo websites out there, and some of them are even free.

But there is a right way and a wrong way to use stock photos.

The right way is when the image accomplishes some of the things we’ve outlined above. Perhaps it speaks to your target audience’s deepest desires (and the biggest benefits they gain with your product or service). It evokes anticipation and surprise (or at least happiness). Most importantly, it is pertinent to the message you’re trying to express or the story you’re trying to tell.


The wrong way is to choose an image just because you like it or it fits the bill as a generic picture. It doesn’t say anything about you, your company, or your product. It doesn’t make a promise to your audience – a promise your audience cares about, specifically.

THREE: Avoid Boring Images

Even if you’re a B2B accounting software company. Even if you sell used Saabs. Even if you have the most boring company on the planet. Your images don’t have to be boring! Look at Geico! Car insurance? Hardly thrilling. That little gecko? Adorbs. (To some people, at least.)

Showing some personality with the images you choose will go a long way in making your company – whatever it is, whatever you do – human. And humans are compelling in and of themselves.

People are fascinated by other people. So add some humanity into your images and watch the magic happen.


Because we love David Ogilvy so much ‘round here, let me leave you with his words:

David Ogilvy(Image created with Visage)

Big ideas are simple. Big ideas change lives.

Big ideas speak to the very soul of who we are, what we value, and what we want.

Finding the image that does all of that is anything but simple. Even with visual content tools that make creating compelling images easier, it takes time, effort and often a great deal of money.

But the right image – the image that conveys that big idea – is worth it. And I mean worth it in very real terms. Dollars and cents. Conversions. ROI.

These are the images that make action. And start movements.