We live in an undeniably visual world--so a marketing strategy that includes compelling images is crucial to any brand's success.

Whether you're producing content for social media, client-facing sales materials, or for a larger storytelling initiative (the latter of which is a key trend for 2020), those images can make difference between hooking potential customers--or lost opportunities. 

Of course, beautiful visuals don't grow on trees, and they are certainly pretty expensive to produce in-house. So, what do you do instead?

At the content marketing company I co-founded, Masthead Media, we rely heavily on stock images--and we get nearly all of them for free. 

Why It's Essential for Small Businesses

While most stock sites use subscription or pay-per-license models that can quickly eat away at small marketing budgets, my favorite, Unsplash, is completely free. 

The images available on Unsplash--under categories including current events, fashion, travel, people, and more--have all been donated by the photographers who captured them. You can copy, modify, and use the photos as many times as you want for commercial (or non-commercial) purposes.

I certainly have: At Masthead, we've used Unsplash art across almost all of our sales and marketing materials, as well as for many of our clients--and we're clearly not the only ones.

The site recently announced that they're the most popular stock image site, being used more than the rest of the industry (including big names like Getty Images and Shutterstock) combined. 

How Can This Be Free?

Until now, Unsplash has relieved upon photographers donating images in order to gain exposure--but since no one is paying for those images, I wondered how they were making enough money to run. 

My questions were answered when I saw Unsplash's latest product: Unsplash for Brands.

As the name implies, brands can now pay to integrate their products and logos into stock photos in the library.

What does that mean for you? If you're a marketer looking for images, it means that Unsplash will start to monetize (and continue to bring you a wealth of stock for your decks and websites). 

If you're a brand, it means you can make images of your product easily available to the millions of creators who source visuals from Unsplash each month--and in some cases, integrate them directly into editorial content.

While this route would, of course, require an investment (the exact rates for such partnerships aren't public yet); when your budget allows, it could be an interesting way to advertise natively with a large reach--and potentially sidestep the Federal Trade Commission requirements and guidelines on sponsored content (at least for now). 

While the world of native advertising and content marketing is, of course, ever-changing, this seems like a solid opportunity for companies of any size to reach customers and increase brand recognition. 

Unsplash may be the most popular site, but isn't the only place to pull free images. There are at least a dozen companies (or more!) that offer royalty-free pics and video online. Here's a few that I'm just starting to explore--let me know if you've used any of these, or others, in the comments below.