Using Visuals to Improve Conversions

Humans are highly visual creatures. In fact, a large part of our brain is devoted to visual processing, and scientific research abounds about how visual imagery helps us cut through the information clutter and process data more efficiently. Armed with this knowledge, it’s no wonder that Web designers and digital marketers make ample use of visuals on websites. The power of visual imagery has a downside, however, that is often overlooked: Photos can kill conversions.

Photos serve many purposes 

Photos play a crucial role in informing, influencing, educating and reassuring customers throughout the buying process. Research has shown that images can improve the quality and speed of learning, aid information retention and convey subtle meanings – but only if they are relevant to the content and audience, and help clarify or add context.

The problem is many website images just don’t serve any purpose at all. As usability expert Jared Spool once wrote, “Graphics help when they improve the user’s experience. However, we’ve found not all graphics improve the experience. Some images just take up space or, in the worst case, confuse the user.”

Using images to direct attention 

Photos are a very effective way to draw attention toward something like a value proposition, a call-to-action or another key conversion element on a page.

Regardless who the target audience is or the type of website operated, count on nearly all visitors to react to certain photos in similar ways. Here are two ways you can use this to your advantage:

1. If a person in one of your photos is looking in a certain direction, your visitors will tend to look in that direction as well. Leverage this subconscious behavior by positioning photos of people so that they are looking toward your key products or call-to-action.

2. High contrast and bright colors draw attention. Use a photo with these qualities to make it the center of attention on the page, and then add your key message points or button inside the photo.

Keep in mind, however, that these principles can just as easily work against conversion goals. If a website contains high-contrast photos that serve no purpose other than to decorate the page, they are probably stealing attention away from the conversion action. Additionally if there are photos of people on your site, be sure that their faces aren’t looking off-page or you’ll risk having your visitors look off-page as well.

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Using images to make an emotional connection 

Research shows that people are innately attracted toward faces, and will react to faces on a Web page faster than anything else on the page. And photos of faces looking directly at the camera will have the greatest emotional impact on visitors.

However, there is a risk of this strategy working against you. It turns out that people have a pretty effective “fake-o-meter” in their brains that helps to evaluate the honesty of a photo. Stock photos that appear obviously posed and/or feature unnaturally beautiful people are filtered out as “fluff,” eliminating any chance of making an emotional connection – even if the subject in the photo is making eye contact with the visitor.

When the aim is to establish trust, build a relationship or set a mood with a photo, avoid low-cost stock imagery at all costs. Opt instead to take your own photos or purchase exclusive rights to an image that uniquely tells your story. And most of all, be sure the image placement is relevant, consistent with visitor expectations, and provides subtle details about your company, product or service that supplement the written word. If the photo doesn’t immediately communicate honest, relevant information that helps answer visitors’ questions and move them one step closer to conversion, then they will disengage. In the words of photographer and UX designer Andres Bohorquez, “If the image does a good job answering user questions and of transporting them into a realm where they can see themselves gaining benefits, the image is successful.”

Using images to sell products 

The right photos can mean the difference between a visitor simply viewing a product page and actually adding the item to his or her cart. When the goal of a page is to sell, using the right images can be far more powerful than even the most convincingly written product description. Photos can literally bridge the gap between a desire and an actual purchase by showing the visitor how this product will benefit his or her life.

If selling products, retailers should let the text be supplementary – focusing their efforts on showing the right images. Use multiple photos that can communicate a more complete story about the product than any visitor would be willing to read. Show the product in context, so that it is being used, worn, driven or otherwise enjoyed. Then show the product from different angles, highlighting any features that may be different than what would ordinarily be expected. Think of all the questions a visitor might have about the product and include a photo that answers each question.

Many people are still reluctant to buy certain products online because they can’t experience the texture, smell, feel, quality, fit and overall experience of the product in the same way as if they were in a physical store, but there are technology solutions that bridge the online and offline worlds (see sidebar).

Photos that kill (conversions, that is)

Having just recommended that site owners include lots of large photos on their websites, a cautionary warning about file sizes and load speed must be given. A study by KISSMetrics indicates that a 1-second delay in page load can cause a 7 percent drop in conversions. Even without this research, the reality is obvious: People want what they want when they want it. If a user clicks to view a product page, it had better load quickly. And if they click to view an enlarged version, the large photo should display immediately, allow the user to pan and zoom smoothly and close quickly upon request.

Another photo no-no that can cause user frustration (thereby costing conversions) is when a product is depicted with other items and it’s not clear what is included in the price, and what are just visual accessories added in to enhance the appeal of the product. A good photographer can add just enough blur to the background images to make the featured product stand out. If that doesn’t match the vision or brand, add a footnote or clear annotation that prominently advises visitors what is being sold.

What purpose do your photos play?? 

If your site is like most, it probably has some photos that are purely decorative. Now is the time to review your website’s photos and question the role of each. Are they conveying the right emotion or answering the right questions given the stage of the visitor journey in which they are placed? Are they effective? Start thinking of website photos as an extension of your sales and marketing team, each playing a valuable role in driving business success, and you’ll stop using images as filler and start putting them to work enhancing usability and driving conversions.

This post originally appeared on Website Magazine, republished with permission from the author.

About the Author

brian lewisBrian Lewis is Director of Optimization at SiteTuners, a firm that improves website conversion rates via conversion-focused redesign blueprints, landing page testing, and training of internal optimization teams. Brian’s 20 years of hands-on and strategic online marketing experience spans a diverse range of industries and has made him a popular expert speaker at industry conferences such as Search Marketing Expo, PPC Summit, Conversion Conference, Online Marketing Summit, and others. Brian earned a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, San Diego and an M.B.A. from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, graduating both schools with honors.

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