How to use employees in your content marketing

Ross Hall

March 31, 2021
(Updated on July 21, 2021)

A man and a woman looking at a book together

Using photographs of employees can add some authenticity to marketing. Showing those who answer the phones or make the products you sell gives people reassurance there’s a real business behind the website. If you’re tempted to grab your phone and snap shots around the office, hold that thought. There are legal, privacy and practical issues you need to address before you can start.

Why would you use employees as models?

All businesses can feel a little detached and inhuman. Using employees shows there is a human side to the business. Staff working with customers, or pictured in their workplace, adds a little depth to the mountains of posed stock photographs the internet is awash with.

There is also a small cost benefit. Employees are already paid for as a resource, and it’s far easier to drag someone away from a desk for 20 minutes than hire models for hours.

Why would you NOT use employees?

If you have a high staff turnover, using employees might be problematic. You could find shots you took last week are suddenly out of date when your model quits. There might be issues around privacy and honesty, particularly if you have photos on your recent blog posts of staff members who left months or even years ago.

Find the right style

Before you start snapping away on your iPhone, think about the style of image you need and how you’re going to use them. Ideally your images should support and reflect your brand, presenting it in the best possible light. They should also be relevant to your content. Corporate style headshots might work on “about us” or “meet the team” pages, but do they engage with a piece on how great your products are? Would you be better showing the office on a recruitment page? Should your staff smile or not?

Two photographs of a black woman in casual and professional clothes placed side-by-side for comparison
Casual or business clothes can dramatically change the feel of an image – and your brand.

For informal content like blog posts and newsletters, shooting casually around the workplace may work. However, if it’s something for corporate literature, cornerstone content or packaging you’ll get better results from good quality equipment and staging images.

When to use a Professional Photographer

Whether you use a professional photographer or rely on a hobbyist from within the team comes down to budget. Professionals will usually produce better results and offer ideas and styles that can make your work stand out. Knowing who your hobbyist photographers are will give you flexibility for ad hoc fill-ins, blog posts and updates.

Again, my guidance is usually to steer towards the professionals for corporate content and use the hobbyist community to fill in for less formal work.

Copyrights

Who owns the copyright to the images isn’t always clear-cut. A professional photographer will probably own the rights, although they may sign them over as part of the contract. If you use staff to take the images you can’t rely on employment contracts, particularly if it isn’t part of their day-to-day duties and they use their own camera. There are extra complications if they shoot on a holiday or outside their normal working hours. A sensible compromise is to ask the staff member to grant an exclusive licence for a small bonus payment.

Get a signed model release

Everyone who appears in a shot should sign a model release. This confirms the subject has given their permission to have their photo taken and used. Relying on a general clause in an employment contract can be problematic when the employee leaves, and employees could argue you invaded their privacy.

Have a Plan B

As I mentioned, employees will leave. When they do, you must decide whether to remove their images or reshoot. For informal blogs this might not be such an issue, for cornerstone content you may harm your branding. It’s sensible to shoot variations of your formal images using different members of staff, either on their own or in groups.

Two employees looking at a book, with one having a badly photoshopped sticker placed over their face because they quit
When an employee leaves, photoshopping a sticker over their face may not be the best move.

A word of caution. I have seen companies try to edit in other employee’s faces or crop departing staff out of images. One company went so far as to put a sales sticker on the face of a former employee on nearly 1,000 leaflets. If the employee’s gone either remove the image, or accept they’re no longer part of the business.

Bottom line

Using employees in your photography can add some authenticity to your marketing. It’s not a cheap fix though, you need to approach it in a structured and managed way. Find the right mix between formal and candid shots, decide whether to use a professional or in-house hobbyist, and get the copyrights and releases signed before you publish.

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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