We talk a lot about the importance of thinking through your content as a core part of your website redesign process. Planning sustainable, strategic content from the outset of your project helps ensure not only a successful launch, but a viable communications platform for the long term.
But what some people don’t realize is that when we talk about the importance of “content,” we’re not just talking about the words on a page. One of the most important content components on your website is your photography.
Photography is not a design element. It is not a button, a rule, or a texture. It is a communications tool. It is a critical means of conveying messaging, brand, and substantive information about your organization or institution.
Your photo selection should, guided by your communications goals, serve to enhance the meaning of the rest of your on-page content. All elements of content on a page should be complementary to one another. And it requires purposeful focus and ongoing attention to maintain its relevance to the user.
Here are some tips to help you understand how to not only think about but plan and manage photo content for your website.
Define Visual Style
When planning content, you are likely defining your editorial style and messaging. The same goes for your visual content. How does photography reflect your institutional brand? What style of photography are you looking for, and what standards should it adhere to? What is appropriate, and what is not, and can you show examples of both?
Define your style and include it as part of your overall style and branding guidelines. Here are some great examples of photography style guides from a range of institutions:
This is especially important if you don’t have an in-house photographer or use a lot of freelancers. You want to ensure that your stockpile of institutional photography is consistent in style. Defining your style and using it as a barometer for finding the right photographers (then holding them accountable to it) can help ensure your photo archive remains consistent as it grows.
Include Photography in Your Content Planning Process
As your define your information architecture and begin establishing a content hierarchy for various pages, it’s critical to consider photography alongside all other content types. The first and most fundamental question is, does a page need a photo? (Spoiler: it might not! After all, photos are not design elements, so if a photo won’t serve a meaningful communications purpose, we may not need one. And we certainly shouldn’t add a photo simply to “flesh out” or “add color” to a page - don’t make a photo solve design or UX concerns!)
If photography is deemed necessary, consider the page content goals and align your photo selection with them. Provide editorial direction for subject matter (e.g. students in the library, a recent event, faculty and students working together in the lab). Consider the full context of what the page is communicating and consider how a photo can enhance and add to that meaning.
It doesn’t stop there, of course. A website, as we know, is a process, not a project, and you will need to maintain and update your photo selections over time to ensure they are current and appropriate. Be sure to incorporate evaluation of photography into your ongoing content audit process. Your content inventory should note the recency and subject matter of images so future-you (or whomever is charged with auditing your site) can more effectively gauge if they are in need of replacing, updating, or removal. (Captions, as you’ll see shortly, can also help with that.)
You can find a page featuring a photo that is high quality and seems appropriate to the context of the page. But what’s missing? In all likelihood, it’s a caption. Who is in this photo? Where was it taken? What exactly are the people depicted in this photo doing?
Descriptive captions can help lend credibility to your photo content by reassuring users that it is up to date (I’ve seen too many higher ed websites frozen in 2008, or even earlier. No one wears pants like that anymore!) and not a stock photo. Yes, these are real students, or real faculty! They can also enhance the impact of a photo by noting that the setting is not just any old building, but the new LEED Gold certified residence hall that opened in 2014. Zing!
Budget Your Photography Resources
As you plan your photo content, what resources do you have available? Do you have an in-house photographer, and if so, will you be able to dedicate his or her time to meet website photography needs? Do you have budget for additional freelancers? Do you have current, stylistically appropriate photo archives to draw from?
Be realistic about your photo planning by taking stock of your available resources from the get-go. If you need to take a phased approach to actually taking the photos you need for the website, that’s okay - you can still do the upfront editorial planning now and actually take the photos when resources permit.
And of course, as we signaled earlier, keep in mind future resources or costs for new photography to help keep the site current. Take these into account when planning your content budget.
Plan for User-Generated Content
Visual content is the name of the game in social media nowadays. But is there a place for this content on our website? The answer is yes, but with a caveat. While images shared via social media can reflect organic, spontaneous parts of our campus experience that we could never hope to capture in a planned photo shoot, these photos likely do not adhere to our visual brand style. So we need to be thoughtful about how we incorporate them into our overall digital experience, whether it’s through an embedded social feed, a photo gallery, or otherwise.
Develop internal criteria for when and how you would use user-generated photo content, if it merits a special treatment or placement, and how you would use a caption or other context to differentiate it from institutional photography. And don’t forget attribution!
Keep in mind that while the quality of social photo content can vary wildly, a less-than-stellar quality image may still convey something extremely powerful. Be prepared for internal debates to determine how much quality you are willing to compromise to share an otherwise exceptional image.
Consider the Logistics
Beyond visual style and communications goals, there are a lot of logistics to consider when planning photo content for your website, such as:
- Do you use a DAM (digital asset management) system? If so, who has access? Are photos appropriately organized (tags and categories), titled, and described?
- If you don’t have a DAM, how are your photos organized? How do content owners across campus have access to quality, on-brand photography?
- Do you have a photo reuse policy? (No one wants to see the same blond smiling guy in the blue sweater on every landing page.) Is photo reuse tracked in your DAM or otherwise?
- Do you have a system in place for soliciting photo requests (either existing photography or new shoots) from clients across campus?
- Do other units across campus have their own photo archives? Once you identify who has photo assets, build relationships with the owners and find some way of coordinating these resources so you have a more complete sense of what photography is available at your institution. (And perhaps assessing it for brand value and currency.) Your library may be a great resource to help with this project, as this is totally up their alley.
- Do you have a photo release policy? Work with your legal and publications office to make sure you are all on the same page around what your policy is for photo releases and that you are using a common release form, if necessary.
- Have you defined and published guidelines for photo file formats and ideal resolution?
- Are content owners educated about photo copyright and what are appropriate sources of photographs?