Do Photos of People Improve Ecommerce Conversion?

A recent study by Dianne Cyr, professor at Simon Fraser University, found that online stores that used “friendly faces and culturally appropriate colors” were perceived as more appealing and trustworthy than those that didn’t. Findings were based on lab tests with participants from Canada, Japan and Germany, using eye tracking, interviews and questionnaires.

Showing pictures of smiling humans may make give off more happy vibes – but do they result in more site visitors taking action? (E.g. buying something, signing up for email offers, contacting a sales representative).

The answer is yes, no and maybe.

Testing images

Showing pictures of real artists, rather than thumbnails of art pieces, doubled conversion rate for an online art store.

On the flip side, a landing page test for Overnight Printing conducted by Wider Funnel found 18.2% more people clicked the call to action on the version without “shiny happy people.”

Interestingly, Wider Funnel conducted another test on behalf of Cook Travel and found the version without a photo of people resulted in 23.77% more telephone conversions, but the “people version” received 5.25% more conversions online. The “no-people version” was the hands-down winner in terms of revenue, as telephone customers typically have higher order value.

ClearDebt ran a split test between two images with models and found that the image on the right achieved 33% higher conversion.

Perhaps it’s because the woman on the left looks bored out of her tree, or the monster looks extra creepy. Or, it could be that the model on the right is looking toward the call to action (it’s well known that our eyes tend to follow where the model’s eyes are looking).

The ClearDebt test illustrates how simply testing a page with a human image and without isn’t enough. It also depends on which images are tested. If Version A (above, left) was tested against a control with no human face, it may have “lost,” or Version B may have won against a control. Tested as one-offs, ClearDebt may have concluded that human images do or don’t work. A better approach would be to test a control (no humans) against several images with humans. Perhaps Overnight Printing and Cook Travel can still find images that “win.”

Tips and cautions for choosing human images to test

1. Understand the demographics, attitudes and preferences of the target market.

Images of people can produce very strong positive or negative reactions. They can persuade or repel. It’s important to consider the impact of showing a young face to an older crowd, a male face to females, a female face to males, etc. You can estimate the demographic distribution of your site with a free tool like Microsoft AdLab Demographics Prediction or a paid service like Invest some time in understanding what works and doesn’t work for your target market and/or personas.

2. Remember the call to action.

The benefit of human images are they attract attention – they’ll capture the eye gaze. But the problem is they can take away from the visibility of your call to action. Examples (from email campaigns):

Ralph Lauren’s email features Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The eye is either drawn to the men or to the key. Do you see the call to action?

Both models are looking in different directions, neither at the call to action buttons below. The image is also framed which may stop the eye even more. Unfortunately, it’s important for the recipient to take an action on this email, otherwise he or she may continue to receive Direct to Business emails that are not relevant.

Better to choose a model that looks toward the copy or button you want the end viewer to notice.

And don’t take your online design inspiration from the print industry. Print ads are designed for recall, not immediate action.

3. Consider using “real” people.

You can expect George Foreman’s smiling grill to resonate better with customers than without, George IS the brand, and his face builds instant trust and goodwill with the online store.


For the majority of online shops that don’t have the luxury of a celebrity brand, consider using customers’ and staff photos.

EyeBuyDirect’s Wall of Frame showcases the site’s own community users, which builds a lot of trust while showing the products in use. Seeing images of customers like them encourages site visitors to use the try-before-you-buy tool, which leads to an emotional investment in the site and a better idea of what the frames would look like on one’s face.

Crutchfield was the king of human faces on its home page (including pictures of Crutchfield staff and even its CEO), but today’s home page includes the photo of an actual customer accompanied by a testimonial. Whether showing helpful staff or satisfied customers, these images support the Crutchfield value proposition of excellent customer service.

4. Know what to measure.

Before testing, understand what it is you hope to gain by adding human faces. Is it a reduced bounce rate on the home page? Is it more pages per visit? Is it more repeat visits? These are quantitative measures of site trust – even if there is no improvement in conversion (remember, it might be your products and offers that are the problem), these metrics indicate higher interest in and loyalty to your site. You’ve found a branding/trust “win.”

Is your goal to maximize conversion on a landing page or email campaign? Measure click throughs, conversion rates, telephone leads, etc. Don’t forget to measure revenue and average order value.

And finally, test a control (no human image) against several versions of human images, rather than just one treatment version. This reduces your risk of concluding “images work” or “images don’t work” prematurely.

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21 Responses to “Do Photos of People Improve Ecommerce Conversion?”

  1. Rishi Rawat says:

    Great article. Thanks for presenting both for and against arguments.

  2. goobernutz says:

    Stock photos = fail

  3. schmeetz says:

    GOLD! I love this post. It’s the type of thing i’m always too lazy to test. Huge takeaway factor. Thank you!

  4. At the end of the day, we want to know that there is a real-life person that we can talk to.

    The study of Cook Travel represents this idea well. Because visitors didn’t see any human element to the company, they needed to call to get reassurance that this company would meet their expectations.

    No-one on the web buys a product based on the value of the offering. They buy products and services based on their level of emotional trust with that brand.

  5. “They buy products and services based on their level of emotional trust with that brand”– I totally agree with Josh.

  6. Nicole says:

    A huge take-away from this post is that if ecommerce sites opt for a picture, it better be authentic! Customers are looking for a “real-life” experience, proven by the increased conversion on sites that have photos of ACTUAL customer service reps and pictures of models looking AT their featured products.

    In fact, there are some hilarious customer service rep pictures out there-I’ve kept a running collection of the funniest ones, enough to compose a blog post of them:

  7. Roland says:

    Great stuff Linda!

    Again, looking at the Cook travel example I’d venture to guess that the stock photography does little to reassure because one knows that they’re not going to be talking to the guy in the photo when they pick up the phone (so potentially the effect is to discourage phone calls rather than encourage online sales?). Does anyone know of studies looking at stock photography vs not ?

    I work in the live chat space and the ability of a human image to indicate the call to action and convey trust is very important. I suspect that, just like with the phone, people like to have some indication of who they are going to speak with before any conversation begins (I mean how often in do we initiate conversations in real life without seeing the person’s face first — probably only when we’re shouting for help!). We’re about to roll out some features surrounding this that will hopefully shed some light on additional best practices as our users start testing this out on a large scale — I’ll let you guys know if anything interesting comes to light!

  8. Very informative post. There’s always a certain clash human photos can have with certain products or brands as well as a synergy with others. Finding the right match is tricky. I really resonate with the people that don’t like the stock photos over the live chat / customer service buttons. Those are so cheesy! I like seeing real people (if the product or brand has a human element).

  9. having a photo is more important for service based business rather than product based.

  10. JennyHow says:

    Great tests. i think putting in a photo of site owner gives a sense of feeling that the site and service is real… and to increase trustworthyness.

  11. Real photos give a human element to the site, a feeling of validity to the business. As for brands like George Foreman, putting his ad out there without his face, just doesn’t jive with expectations and brand identity. It would make me feel as if perhaps the ad didn’t come from the official company. Again it boils down to customer expectation and building trust.

  12. Very informative post and one I am going to be reviewing with my team as we spend countless hours tracking our conversions throughout out site and spend time trying to tweak each page to get a better result. Some very good tips I am excited to learn about. Thank you.

  13. John says:

    Oh wow! I never really thought into this much detail about how to use photos. The hair product with the model looking at you & then at the product was an interesting study. It is amazing how what seems like a small difference can be a big deal. Thanks for sure an informative post.

  14. Dave says:

    The heat map demonstrating the impact of where the eyes direct you is an excellent example. Makes you want to put one beside all your add to cart buttons.

  15. Alex says:

    Good reminder to not copy the design of print ads. Human faces are still underutilized in online market, probably because it takes so much effort.

  16. wall art says:

    Great post, I read this with real interest – do you think the attractiveness of the person matters? I’m not talking about putting circus freaks on the front page, but would it be better to hire a couple of models than risk putting people off with my ugly mug?

    • I would say that it really depends. There’s something authentic about a real person’s photo – it lends credibility and builds trust. Personally, I am not impressed by stock models on any website. I prefer real people.

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