Stills or Video: Which Works Better In Online Advertising?

Posted on 5/14/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

In web advertising what produces the best results still photos or videos?

During the Obama campaign of 2008 his staffers were trying to figure out how to turn visitors into donors. The advertising experts decided they would start with a luminous turquoise photo of Obama and a bright red “Sign Up” button. Very few people clicked the button.

Next they decided to test what really appealed to users by simultaneously offering two or three versions of the same ad to various segments of their mailing list to see which produced the best results.

Almost unanimously, staffers expected that a video of Obama speaking at a rally would outperform any still photo. But in fact the video fared 30.3 percent worse than the turquoise image. They also discovered that a black-and-white photo of the Obama family outperformed the default turquoise image by 13.1 percent.

In addition they tested three new word choices—”Learn More,” “Join Us Now,” and “Sign Up Now”— instead of the original version’s “Sign Up.”  It turned out that “Learn More” produced 18.6 percent more signups per visitor than “Sign Up.” All told using both the B&W family image and “Learn More,” signups increased 40 percent compared to the original version. If they had kept “Sign Up” as the button text and swapped out the photo for the video the sign-up rate would have slipped to 70 percent of the baseline.

This was only one of several promotions used during the campaign, but by the end it was estimated that a full 4 million of the 13 million addresses in the campaign’s email list, and some $75 million of the money raised, resulted from testing various promotions in this manner.

(This information came from an article on A/B testing in the May 2012 edition of Wired Magazine. For a better understanding of how A/B testing works read the entire article.)

A/B Testing

The important thing here is not how much money Obama brought in, but how testing various versions of an ad or promotion can produce better results. This strategy for determining what is most likely to get a response from the consumer has been used by Google for over a decade. In the last few years it has become much more widely used by everyone in advertising.

So what are some of the implications for those in the stock photography business? First, while there seems to be an increasing use of video in web ads it may not always be producing the desired results. As advertisers learn more through testing they may discover that stills work better. However it may not be edgy, unique shot that art directors love to use in print ads in order to win contests. Rather, it may be the simple microstock shot that clearly illustrates the concept.

We also need to remember that what worked in the Obama situation won’t work in every case. A different approach may be required for every unique product and every unique customer group. Nevertheless, the best approach can often be determined by testing. No longer will the “highest paid person’s opinion” (Wired calls them HiPPOs) determine which image will be used.

This could mean that a lot more images will be used, if for each campaign two, three or several versions are tested. It will undoubtedly mean that customers will be less willing to pay high fees to use such images because now instead of buying one image for a campaign they will need to purchase three or four for the same budget.

Licensing Stock

The A/B testing strategy could also be useful for stock photo distributors who are trying to license rights to images. Instead of using the HiPPO strategy to determine how to deliver search results it might be better to determine what really appeals to customers by offering them options. To a certain extent this can be determined by the small “Focus Groups” some big distributors use.
But questioning focus groups is expensive and sometimes leads to bad decisions because the wrong questions are asked to the wrong customers. A/B testing takes every customer’s opinion into account because the customer either make a choice or doesn’t. This testing method also makes it possible to determine which customers prefer which method of delivery of search returns.

Microstock sites offer a version of A/B testing when they give their customers options for organizing search returns. (Best Match, Number of Downloads, Newest, etc.) Most traditional agencies prefer to live in the 20th Century and make their best guess as to what will appeal to the customers. The German distributor Picturemaxx, which represents many agencies, lets its customers choose which agency’s images they want to see first. Each customer can set up its own default order.
Most traditional agencies talk about offering free research, but none that I know of bother to put together a small group of a few hundred images they consider the best new images, the best historical images, or the best or certain high demand subjects. They could then give their customers the option to searching those collections first before searching the entire collection.
As web marketing grows the winners will undoubtedly be those who can figure ways to learn what specific customers want and to segment their offering to deliver to each customer exactly what appeals to him. Such segmenting will probably never be perfect, but each little move in that direction should increase sales.

Copyright © 2012 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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