You probably shouldn't use stock, but if you do, consider adding a giant owl.

What 20,000 Tweets Taught Us About Twitter Images

Scroll through your Twitter feed. Which messages catch your eye? The ones with great images, right?

Every Tweet that you send without an attached image is a missed opportunity. But simply throwing an image on every Tweet isn’t enough anymore. If you’re trying to separate yourself from the noise, choosing the right image is essential.

Of course, just as there are a number of factors which make certain images more effective than others on social media, the success of a Tweet is based on even greater number of factors: the composition of your audience, the substance and quality of your content, the Tweet copy and the images. All of these factors are important—you can’t rely on one and hope it will compensate for the others.

For this reason, it’s vital that you learn what works for you by testing all of these factors individually and analyzing the results. We do this every day, and breaking down the performance of thousands of Tweets has allowed us to hone in on Twitter images specifically.

Here are 5 good and 5 bad Twitter images and what they taught us about choosing visuals for Tweets.

Lessons from 5 good Twitter images

Words within images—A killer combination

The old cliche ‘an image is worth 1,000 words’ seems very poignant when you’re limited to 140 characters. However, when your image is placed in a stream with 1,000 other images, that value might not be so obvious to your followers. On Twitter, we may need to update that expression to “an image with words is worth 1,000 clicks.”

This may come as a surprise to some, but Twitter images that combine text with photos or design are actually quite powerful for two main reasons.

First, words force a user to slow down their scrolling, to take an extra second or two to look at your Tweet. This is exactly what you want, since those extra few seconds of attention are far more likely to lead to social media engagement or a click on your link. If you can make a person stop scrolling, your Twitter image has done its job. The above image isn’t particularly appealing from an aesthetic standpoint, but people stopped to read the text in each level of the pyramid and because they stopped many of them ended up on our blog. In addition to the over 180 retweets and 120 favorites, the url within that Tweet was clicked 1,274 times—significantly above our average click-through.

The second reason images with words are so powerful is that words add context. When you’re so limited by space, you might want to have a great image that isn’t necessarily explained by the Tweet copy or vice versa. By including text within the image, you get to add context so that your Tweet copy can be self-sustaining. This saves you precious characters and allows you to focus on making both the text and the images as strong as they can be.

Get things moving—Use gifs

When people are scrolling through their Twitter feeds, how long do you think you have to capture their attention? Five seconds? Three seconds? One second? Your image needs to pack a serious punch in that very short time span, which is what makes gifs such an effective tool on Twitter.

Regardless of how you pronounce them, gifs are a powerful visual tool because of their short duration and how they stand-out an otherwise largely static page. Gifs don’t autoplay on Twitter, but that big play symbol has proven to be tempting enough to stop people in their tracks. We’ve found that gifs increase our engagements on Tweets, specifically the number of people who share and retweet our messages. The following Tweet was retweeted and favorited over 80 times respectively, and drew over 760 link clicks.

We created the above gif ourselves, which is great for businesses that have the resources. Unfortunately many businesses don’t have the resources or know-how, so a gif database like is worth bookmarking. You can find a gif for almost any situation or context. Generally gifs lean towards the humorous, as well, which is a positive since people respond to humor on social media.

Of course, you shouldn’t be using gifs for every post, and maybe not even every day. Use them sparingly, only when they really fit the content, and they’ll come as a surprise and a treat to your followers.

Image cliches are cliches because they work

When someone makes a joke about social media and images, it probably involves a cute animal, a meal or a sunset. These images do make up a large part of what you’ll see on social media, so you should avoid them right? The opposite is true. They are cliches for a reason: because people love them. People love looking at food and cute animals. They love laughing at the same memes over and over again. If you use images that fall into these categories, you’re probably going to increase your engagement. It works for us.

In the social media and tech worlds, a desk shot—often an overhead image of a laptop on a pretty wooden surface—has become pretty cliched. And we absolutely use this style of image on Twitter, to great success.

The same goes for memes, which we also use every once in a while to the delight of our followers.

Analytics of Meme Tweet

This isn’t to say you should completely ignore your brand in order to somehow incorporate a puppy photo. But most businesses can find a category of cliched Twitter images that work for them. We use images of dogs as a culture tie-in, when we Tweet about hiring or our work environment, since dogs are welcome in our offices.

Other brands might find memes an effective tools for promoting blog content. An image of a sunset doesn’t have to be about travel; it could be about product evolutions (our old design and our new design are like day and night) or accounting (saving you money, so you can use it to get where you want to be). Think outside of the box and find a way to use cliched images, since they’ve proven to be successful again and again.

Take what people expect of you, throw it out the window

“Hootsuite, f**k your f**king UI.”

These harsh words about Hootsuite surprised a good number of people when they saw them scrolling through their Twitter stream. They were perhaps made even more surprising by the fact that we were the ones that shared them.

This image is one of our most successful ever, and it has a lot to do with the shock value. We’ve used it in a dozen Tweets and people continuously click through to the blog post at an above-average rate.

When you’re tweeting 10 or 20 times every day, your followers will begin to expect certain things from you. They’ll anticipate your tone, your content, and your use of images. When you throw in an image that seems to come out of left field, there’s a good chance your followers will notice, and that’s exactly what you want. When they notice, they’ll stop, when they stop, they’ll click or share.

The surprise factor is an effective tool when it comes to Twitter images. Switching things up keeps it interesting for followers, and the importance of remaining interesting cannot be understated.

What do your followers share? Share that

Do you listen to your followers? Not just what they say about you, but what they say in general? If you’re not listening to your followers, you’re missing out on valuable insight into the types of things that interest them or captivate them. You’re all missing out on getting to know the types of content they share, and the content you should therefore be working to mimic.

The above image doesn’t necessarily scream Hootsuite. However, we’ve found that it does seem to scream ‘Hootsuite follower!’ Listening to our followers has taught us that many of them fall into a mould other people might dub ‘hipster’ but that we dub awesome. They enjoy craft beer, they appreciate a good tattoo, they’re tech-obsessed but they still love the outdoors. All of these insights helped us feel confident sharing the above image, and the results speak to this method. Over 80 retweets, over 100 favorites and an astounding 2,074 link clicks.

Listen to your followers. Build a profile of them and what they like to share on Twitter. Use that information as inspiration for your image choices and track the results. If your content doesn’t perform, you probably don’t really understand your audience. The implications of that probably go well beyond the success of your Tweets.

Lessons from 5 bad Twitter images

Your product may not make for a good image

Our product isn’t a pair of shoes. It isn’t a beautiful meal. It’s not clothing, a car or a vacation getaway. Our product is a social media dashboard, full of tabs and streams, messages and avatars. I say all this because, to be frank, our product doesn’t necessarily have mass visual appeal, and even less so in 500 pixels.

Still, when we launch a new feature or a how-to guide for our product, we want the Twitter image to be relevant to the content of the post. What is more relevant to a product launch than an image of the product? So, in the past, we would chose a good screenshot and sent it out with our Tweets. Well, (surprise, surprise) they performed poorly.

Even though our following is full of Hootsuite users who use our product and understand what they’re seeing in a screenshot, the Tweet still didn’t perform. We thought the appeal of the Tweet would overcome the lack of visual appeal of the screenshot, but we were mistaken.

If your product or service isn’t visually appealing, find another way to represent it on Twitter. We were forced to think outside the box, and we’ve found several ways to visually represent our dashboard. One such way is in showing a person or staff member on a device using our product. The addition of a person completely changes the appeal of the image. We’ve also taken to using gifs which illustrate the product in use, and—as addressed above—these visuals have much broader appeal. Find an alternative that works for you, and showcase your product on Twitter in a way that will help your content, not hurt it.

Stock kinda sucks

Money, success, wealth… these seem like themes that would have mass appeal on social media. We probably thought so when we chose this image for a Tweet:

That’s a terrible stock photo. Yes, it’s supporting a niche piece of content, but one that we’ve had success with on multiple occasions since. In this case, we feel very comfortable blaming this generic image for the failure of our Tweet.

People are getting tired of stock photos. Can you blame them? How many times have you seen a few very good looking people in business attire smiling right at the camera? Or a line graph that goes up and to the right but means absolutely nothing. This type of image isn’t powerful, it’s the visual equivalent of vanilla. People scroll right past obvious stock images because they don’t make any type of impression. They blend right in.

Do your best to avoid stock imagery. This isn’t to say it doesn’t have its place, but it should be used rarely and only when there are no real alternatives. You have a very specific social media audience. Your specific audience requires specific images, catered to them and to your brand, not the most widely applicable images out there.

Try to use your own photos as much as possible. Even if you’re not an expert, apps like Instagram and VSCOcam have brought great photography within anyone’s reach. Your original so-so quality photos will probably more well-regarded than a stock photo anyways. If you need to use stock or Creative Commons images, try and find a less literal image to represent your content. A sports team’s huddle is a far more interesting way to represent a post about meetings or strategy than people in suits sitting at a table.

Twitter is busy enough without your busy image

This is a Tweet that we know can perform well with our followers. The subject matter is compelling, the structure of the Tweet has worked for us time and time again, and the picture embodies a lot of what makes for a good social media image. Yet, it had underwhelming engagement numbers.

We were surprised by this one. The image features attractive, smiling people. It’s well-shot and even takes place in a bike store—very relatable for our followers. The more we looked at it, the more we realized that the reason this image failed is that, on first glance, you don’t really know what to look at.

Busy might not be the technical term, but it’s the perfect word for this photo. There are tons of little things littering the background, some in focus and others out of focus. There are a number of different, bright colors all of which are competing for your attention. I had trouble deciding whether to look at the bikes, the computer or the people. This photo is busy.

That isn’t to say this is a bad photo. It’s a photo we shot, and one I believe makes for a great blog header—a format where people are already committing a good amount of time to the content. But it’s not necessarily suited to Twitter, where people have only a few seconds to soak it in. The photo can’t be fully absorbed at a glance, and people clearly didn’t feel the glance they got, wherever it landed, wasn’t compelling enough to keep staring.

The best Twitter images are usually easy on the eyes. They’re clear and interesting at a glance, and don’t make your eyes work to hard to get the gist of the picture. As a rule of thumb, read a colleague your Tweet and then ask them to look at your image for one second and describe it to you. If they don’t really get the context in that time, or don’t seem excited by that ‘mystery,’ you might want to look for another photo.

Is your image actually adding value?

You know when you were in elementary school and you would write an essay about Christopher Columbus and your first line might have looked something like “The following is an essay about Christopher Columbus?” A lot of people approach social media images in the same way: they write a Tweet and find an image that illustrates that Tweet as clearly and directly as possible. We know from experience, people don’t really respond to that.

This is a great Tweet (free money!) that didn’t perform well and a lot of that likely falls on the image. It’s a clear visual. It’s well-designed. It’s even eye-catching. But it also screams “so what!” The image in that Tweet doesn’t add anything to the whole of the Tweet, which strips of its value.

As previously mentioned, Twitter images allow you to add context to your message. They allow you to expand upon or reinforce the idea which an engaging image. A story about a new school might be better grasped with an image of the high-tech classroom. An image of a ruler wouldn’t really add anything to the picture. A story about a new productivity app might be more appealing with an image of someone hard at work, or someone enjoying their free time. A picture of the app logo doesn’t increase the appeal of the Tweet.

Try and find images which add value to your messaging. Think of what someone who reads your Tweet might be asking about the content, and see if you can’t find an image to answer that question. When both the image and the Tweet provide individual but complementary value, you’ve probably found a winning combination.

Again, don’t skimp out on the image

So technically this isn’t a bad social media image, because it isn’t an image at all. I wrote this in the introduction but it really can’t be emphasized enough: Every Tweet that you send without an attached image is a missed opportunity.

It wasn’t all that long ago that we would send out a few posts per day without an attached image. We figured that Twitter had so long been text-focused that people would still engage with the occasional Tweet that didn’t have any visual element. Unfortunately, our followers proved us wrong again.

People have come to expect images on Twitter. If you don’t meet those expectations, you will not get the engagement you’re after. That’s a fact. If there’s one thing you take from this post, it should be that Twitter images are worth your time. Finding the right image will pay off big in engagement and link clicks. The extra work is worth that payoff.