Most people shop at brick-and-mortar stores to see, touch, or test what they’re buying before making a purchase. In the world of ecommerce, product images serve as a substitute for these experiences, showing a customer what they can expect to receive. Most customers expect to see product photos when they visit an ecommerce shop and the amount and quality of these photos is known to measurably improve conversion rates.

But, what about intangible products or services? A nonprofit that accepts donations online can’t take a photograph of a donation. Or, a business selling ecourses can’t easily capture the course content in a single image. Accountants, travel agencies, consulting firms, and other service-based businesses struggle with the same issue: How do you design imagery for intangible products and services if there’s nothing to photograph?

Free Download: 3 Helpful Apps for Digital Product Imagery

Emotional Rather than Rational

Tangible product images are designed to appeal to the rational side of a customer by enabling them to see the product’s features. For example, the image below is from a blender that’s sold on Amazon. It predictably shows the customer what’s included with the product they’re purchasing and an example of how it can be used (blending fruit). Other images on the same page show close-ups of the blade and a blended drink to demonstrate the result.

By contrast, intangible products images – and well-marketed tangible products – appeal to the emotional side of a customer to show the benefits. Peter Noel Murray, principle of a consumer psychology practice in New York City, says that likeability is the most predictive measure of whether an ad will increase a brand’s sales. And it’s hard to deny that many products have a generic alternative at a cheaper price, but people still buy the branded products anyway.

Rather than show the product itself, the goal is to use images to create an emotional connection with the potential customer. For example, nonprofits accepting online donations may choose to show how a donation is improving someone else’s life. Or, an ecourse teaching subscribers how to draw might show someone finishing up a great drawing. The goal is to show the benefits of the intangible product or service rather than the features.

For example, GiveDirectly’s homepage shows a background image of an actual recipient, as well as real photos of people that have received donations.

Tips for Choosing the Right Images

More than two-thirds of online shoppers rate high-quality images as being “very important” to their purchase decision, which outweighed “product specific information” and “reviews and ratings”. According to the Tilburg Institute for Behavioral Economics Research, imagery has the ability to influence a person’s mood even without his or her realization. This makes images extremely important – especially for intangible goods and services.

Free Download: 3 Helpful Apps for Digital Product Imagery

#1: Avoid Stock Photos

Stock photos may be extremely convenient, but they’ve also been used by thousands of other businesses. Since people associate photos with emotions, the use of a stock photo could elicit negative emotions stemming from a completely separate experience. For example, a study by Marketing Experiments tested a real photo of a client against a top-performing stock photo and found that nearly 35 percent of visitors preferred the real photo.

#2: Show Real Faces

Human faces make it easier to establish an emotional connection with a customer since we’re naturally drawn to them. In fact, a study in the Journal of Consumer Marketing found that pictures of smiling models resulted in positive product evaluations. The technique works best when the human faces are real customers paired with a testimonial, which can help build trust and convey the success that the product or service has had on previous buyers.

#3: Use a Mascot

Mascots are a great way to personify an intangible product or service. Aflac’s Duck, GEICO’s Gecko, and MailChimp’s Chimpanzee are all examples of mascots created for intangible products and services. According to Convince and Convert, mascots significantly improve shareability across social media channels. But, it’s worth noting that the development of a mascot is a large undertaking given the crossover with marketing.

#4: Create a Package

Many intangible products and services use simulated packaging to help customers relate to the product. For example, ebook authors may create a simulated cover to relate it to a conventional book. The same goes for tour guides that might create a virtual guidebook cover or musicians that might create album art without ever selling a tangible album. The idea is to draw a comparison with a tangible product that customers can relate to when making a decision.

#5: See What Works for You

The best way to improve conversion rates over the long-run is to experiment to see what works best. Google Content Experiments (formerly Google Website Optimizer) and other A/B testing software helps you see what images perform best and constantly optimize your conversion rates. It’s tempting to put in the work once and then leave the product or service imagery as-is, but it’s hard to know if conversion rates are good or bad without a baseline.

The Bottom Line

It can be challenging to come up with imagery for intangible products and services. By focusing on emotional rather than rational buying motivations, you can help reassure the customer that he or she is making the right purchasing decision and increase your conversion rates. But, you should avoid common pitfalls like using stock photographs and be prepared to put in some work to make the brand more successful.