Recently, GoDaddy debuted a new ad campaign that uses influencers who talk about how GoDaddy enabled them to build a great website (or built a great website for them).  As a professional, seeing these commercials is amusing because sure, the sites are great–but they are completely enlivened by exotic, personalized assets: beautiful, eye-catching photography and video.

When most people look at a website, they see it and make a decision about it in microseconds.  This looks good, or, this doesn’t look good.  It makes sense, or it doesn’t.  The offer is clear, or it isn’t. Most people will attribute this to a good design, which is in part correct.  Good copy is less immediately flashy than something highly styled, but good copy is often like good service: it’s best when you get what you want without noticing it was there.  Good technology is almost invisible, concealed by the artless phrase that something “just works.”  Most people simply aren’t trained enough to recognize the choices that went into each of these interdependent layers.

One of the most important of these, and the most commonly overlooked by small businesses, is the element of Design assets.  Assets are hard physical (virtual) items, the owned product that makes up the building blocks of the design.  In digital marketing this of course means files: Photographs, video files, audio files, fonts, illustrations, infographics, animations and so on.

Most web design companies like GoDaddy (but never designers, obviously!) are only too happy to gloss over this element because they can show a completed web design with assets, as if by magic, in their commercials.  Accordingly, many business owners expect that building a website means the website will simply come preloaded with the right assets in it.  And it will, but if these aren’t custom assets, then they are off-the-shelf assets: so-called stock images and video.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with using stock, and it’s a core element of most good design strategies. Some percentage of the assets are always off-the-shelf parts, sometimes embellished and augmented.

But for other cases, you want to use custom assets.  That means purpose-built images and videos.  Specific, topical imagery, usually created during a video or photo shoot, or, as is increasingly common, obtained more informally, even via cameraphones, a preferred “influencer-style” conversational (“Hey, guys”) approach.

The expense for asset creation is always a separate line-item from website creation.  Photo shoots can be included in an overall price structure, but they are never assumed. This is too bad, because this is the element that most untrained eyes are going to view as the most memorable.

Clients are often surprised by this and don’t factor asset creation into their budgets. This is a mistake.  Owned assets can be re-used in print, billboards, stationery, promotional items.  They are absolutely essential for anything digital: websites yes, and also social channels, email, and everything else, and they will form the foundation of your brand identity.

Are custom assets necessary for your business?  It depends:

  • Profiles need assets but they might not necessarily need a distinct shoot.  Often, other images are substituted and enhanced–indeed, 90% of all influencer marketing appears to be hand-shot from phones.  Alternately, professional headshots can be created without the expense of a full shoot.
  • For blog posts custom assets are rarely necessary.  Often the photography needs to be conceptual, not literal, so even casual readers have probably noticed that varying quality  stock is used most of the time.  And this is fine!  An abstract photo of a kayaker might do more to convey solitude, for example, than a picture of someone alone in a room.
  • For product shots, custom assets are typically an absolute necessity unless you are using a commodity that is easily represented, or can re-use imagery provided by the manufacturer.
  • For non-profits or other scenarios where users read a personalized sales story about a particular mission, person or group of people before being asked to donate, it’s strongly recommended, but not necessary, to have custom photography.  The reason for this is that high-quality photography might already be available and visitors might not be able to tell the difference between stock and custom.  I’m not saying show a picture of stock person A when you are talking about person B, but rather, if you are, for example,  describing a program for donating money to buy farm animals (like Heifer International) there’s plenty of imagery available of people from all over the world with various animals and visitors can’t possibly expect to know the difference.  
  • Audiences will occasionally allow for lower-quality photography for non-profits and mom and pops, as it can convey a less-polished, earnest image.  Sometimes having overly slick imagery actually inhibits trust!  

Clients should be advised early and often that their website can be coded and it can be updated, and a strong brand voice expressed through elegant copywriting is an absolute prerequisite.  But strong photographic and video assets are what transforms something generically pleasant into something specific and memorable.  Plan for it!


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