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Going Beyond Stock Photos to Succeed Locally

by John Yunker | January 27, 2014 | No Comments

154055223Stock photos are the bread and butter of corporate websites and blogs, and, when they are well used, they can catch the eye, communicate a concept, or convey a mood.

But when going global, stock photos that are relevant to one country (such as the US) may not be as suitable for other countries, or, worse, they may be downright offensive. This article provides tips on using photos and images, stock or otherwise, when expanding your website into new markets around the world.

Stay Focused on Your Product and Service

Too often, companies use photos as a sort of window dressing for their websites without giving much thought to how those photos may be perceived outside their domestic markets. Before going global, it’s important to take a step back, audit your usage of photos, and ask: Are these photos absolutely necessary?

Just because your web design template requires a “hero” photo on every page doesn’t mean you need to include one; you might need a new, more “world ready” global design. And if you can avoid using photos that include people, do so. When going global, photos of people convey tremendous emotional and cultural information — and not all of this information may be welcome in all markets. Granted, sometimes you need people to demonstrate the product, but be aware that you may need to create different versions of these photos using local models and settings for each market you enter.

Set Weight Limits

Every photo and image carries weight in kilobytes, which adds seconds to the time required for the web page to display on the user’s browser. If you’re targeting an emerging market such as Brazil, where many web users have slow Internet connections (or services that charge by the kilobyte), you risk alienating your customers the moment they try to bring up your home page. It’s no coincidence that Google’s search engine avoids extraneous visuals on its home page — the company’s first objective is to provide fast-loading web pages regardless of the user’s Internet connection.

Set a weight limit, in kilobytes, for every web page — and one that is more aggressive than competitive websites. While content delivery networks can play an important role in caching photos locally and accelerating page load times, a weight limit ensures that you’re not solely depending on caching to enable a fast-loading website.

Beware of Unintentionally Irrelevant or Offensive Photos

If a photo is worth a thousand words, then you need to be extra careful how those “words” come across to your intended audience. When using photos of people, the risks of alienating or offending someone somewhere increase significantly.

For example, an image of an American family at the beach may not travel well around the world for a number of reasons, including:

  • Ethnicity. The models may not be locally relevant to your target audience.
  • Dress. Some cultures may be offended the way the people are dressed.
  • Seasonality. It may be summer in the US, but it is the winter south of the equator.
  • Relevance. If your target market is deeply landlocked, a beach scene may not be viewed as the most relevant.

The beauty of the global economy we live in is that you can easily find and hire photographers and models based in a given country. And you can reach out to local cultural experts for advice on what photos work best.

Don’t Send the Wrong (Hand) Signal

Gestures are culturally specific and, while some gestures have gone global, there are variations on these gestures and hand signals, in addition to locally unique signals, that you’ll need to know. The peace sign may be globally ubiquitous, but if you were to rotate your hand around, it suddenly becomes an offensive gesture in countries such as the UK and Australia. President George H.W. Bush was widely ridiculed in Australia when he visited in 1992 and gave the peace sign in reverse.

Hand gesture for peace sign

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzut] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The OK sign may be perfectly “OK” in the US, but it can be quite offensive in countries such as Turkey and Brazil. And it can be taken to mean “zero” in France.

Hand signal for OK

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the Middle East, showing the soles of your feet is a major faux pas, and particularly so if you dare to put your feet on a desk. And throwing a shoe at someone is considered a major insult (not to mention somewhat dangerous).

Photo of bottom of feet

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The style of dress shown here may also be deemed too risqué for the intended market.

Avoid Visual Clichés

It may be tempting to place a photo of the Eiffel Tower on your newly launched website for France, but avoid that temptation (unless, of course, you’re selling tour packages of Paris).


Landmarks such as the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Pyramids of Giza are so over-used by websites that they have become visual clichés. If you’re in doubt about using such a visual, I recommend leaving it out.

Sometimes “Foreign” Visuals Are Just Fine

Before investing in the localization of visuals, you should first understand what your brand means to users around the world. Sometimes a visual that is foreign by default is in fact in keeping with the brand itself. For example, it may seem odd for a French wine to have a label that’s all in English. That’s not to say you shouldn’t still consider the cultural implications of what your visuals mean in each market, just that sometimes localization isn’t necessary.

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