Like most marketers, I've used stock photo or stock art in ads, brochures, and web sites. Especially these days, it's really inexpensive and a lot of it is really good. Unless you have an idea that is so particular - or so far out - you can likely find some stock photo to support it.
Of course, you also run the risk that the same stock will show up somewhere else, unless you buy perpetual and permanent rights to it. Even if you think, hope, and pray that you're the only one in your industry that's using it, these days there's no escaping the fact that someone might run into "your stuff" somewhere else.
Thus, we see the same pensive looking young professionals leaning over the computer in an ad for financial services and on a web site for a consulting firm. And if I see those spectacles resting on the pile of dollar bills one more time....
But for the most part, stock photos work.
Which is not to say that they work in all cases.
And one of the cases in which stock photo will decidedly not work is when you use it where someone might reasonably expect to find the pictures of people who actually work in your company.
Shots of the company picnic should actually be taken at the company picnic. Head shots should obviously be the shots of your executives' real heads. And any overall photo used on your management page should be of your management team - or something that looks undisputedly managerial.
I can think of two humorous instances when this was not the case.
One was pointed out to me a while back by fellow Opinionated Marketer John Whiteside, who showed me a site in which the picture on the management bio page was of an empty conference room. Maybe they were trying to get across that their management team is about action, not meetings; about external, not internal. Whatever they intended, it just came across as weird. A few steps up from showing empty suits on hangers, but still weird.
My favorite use of stock photo, however, was something I saw years ago on a web site.
From the names of the members of the management team, it was relatively easy to conclude that in all likelihood the members of the management team were men. And it was easy to conclude with nearly the same certainty that these men were all white.
Yes, anything is possible. (A few years back, the beat cop in our neighborhood had a name like Brian O'Riley, and he was African American.) But in the case of this web site, a reasonable person would have concluded from the first names, ethnicity and bios of the management team members that they were, in fact, all white males.
So what did a company with a management team with names that were not that far off from Nikita Khrushchev, Vladimir Lenin, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Leonid Brezhnev, and who'd all pretty much graduated from Moscow Tech, use for their team photo?
A very nice assemblage that included an Asian woman, a black man, a man who appeared to be South Asian, a white woman, and two white men. Even the number count was off. Not to mention the average age, which was shaved by a good twenty years.
The bottom line: most stock photo is just fine. But if you're going to use pictures of real people to represent your real people, you might want to make sure that they bear at least some resemblance.