The Psychology of Hero Images: How to Hook Shoppers & Tell Your Story in 50 Milliseconds or Less

The Psychology of Hero Images: How to Hook Shoppers & Tell Your Story in 50 Milliseconds or Less

You’ve got 5 flaps of a hummingbird’s wings to communicate to visitors through your hero images, “this is a place you want to shop.” 

No seriously, It only takes 13 milliseconds for your brain to register an image and 50 milliseconds for your brain to form a first impression.

Now, we know, based on eye tracking research that people scan the top of a page, fixate on the top left, and spend 23% of time looking at a website’s navigation, with the next scroll and gaze naturally being on hero imagery and headlines.

Now in my mind, that first scroll is the first signal that the conscious mind is kicking in, and a visitor is ready to really evaluate your offer, but here’s what you’re up against; only 4% of consumers think the marketing industry behaves with integrity - “integrity”, by the way, being defined as “always keeping promises.”

With the brain processing images 60,000x faster than words, you can bet that your hero image selection plays a significant role in that promise you’re making to prospective customers; maybe even more so than any written out guarantees.

So how can ecommerce marketers create more authentic experiences with their products while capturing their audiences’ attention spans, in the moment?

That’s where psychology, branding, and usability intersect, and are the basis for these 4 tips that will transform your approach to choosing hero images, and will help you see the subtleties behind compelling photos.

1. Show Visitors The Future Version of Themselves

We shop to achieve goals.

Jeff Wise of NY Mag points out that “at a subconscious level, the way we form beliefs about ourselves isn’t about what we say or even what we think, but what we see ourselves doing.”

“If we want to change our beliefs, we first have to change the behavior we observe. But that’s paradoxical. In order to change your behavior, [...] you need to trust yourself. But you won’t trust yourself if all you’ve perceived in the past is untrustworthy behavior.”

So what should you do as a retailer?

Choose images that help shoppers envision their lives with your product.

The most straightforward example of this is one you see in the health and fitness industry all the time through before and after photos.

The goal of hero images like this isn’t about showing the efficacy of the fitness product.

Rather, the goal is for the viewer to identify their own body type in the “before” photo so they’ll project the results of the “after” photo onto themselves. It’s implied that buying the product will bring the results.

This idea of projecting results through hero images goes far beyond fitness however, and permeates every level of strategic hero image campaigns. Take Memobottle for instance:.

In a single hero image, Memobottle communicates the benefits of a flat water bottle, and shows, through the styling of their model, the kind of well-dressed, classy consumer they look to reach.

In another image, they show this smart, well-hydrated man easily sliding his flat memobottle into his messenger bag, while I remember how frustrated I was the last time I tried cramming my round monstrosity into my own bag.

Memobottle doesn’t resort to showing infomercial level of clumsiness with a round bottle to sell me their flat one. My brain plays that movie for me while I wish I had a flat water bottle all along.

Some Tips

  • Tie your hero and product images back to a central story about your founding mission and vision
  • Show your product “in action”--, Memobottle shows men and woman holding the water bottle to demonstrate its simplicity and functionality
  • Showcase the lifestyle of people who use your product. Memobottle’s customers are well dressed and stylish and on their way somewhere important.

2. Avoid Making Hero Images That Look Like an Ad

“Users rarely look at display advertisements on websites,” Jakob Nielsen explained in a 2007 report that remains very true today.

You can take a look at heatmaps and human gaze patterns by reading through the report—the pattern that you’ll notice is that there is absolutely zero fixation with advertisements. The reason why is clear: digital audiences want to see an authentic representation of what they’re buying.

Let the quality of your product speak for itself in your hero photos. Consider working with actual customers vs. models to showcase your product.

Brass, a boutique style company for example, showcases its clothing on actual customers in addition to models - of different sizes - to accurately show sizing and body proportions. Rather than looking at an advertisement for a product, potential buyers can accurately “size up” what they’re thinking of buying.

Showing fits on a variety of body types makes it easier for Brass’ prospects to envision the outfit on themselves.

Our research for the Fashion & Apparel industry report found that “fit” was a common reason for returns, sometimes costing retailers $15 to process a $40 order. If integrity is being defined as “always keeping promises,” having authentic models can go a long way in reducing product returns further down the road.

Try It Yourself

  • Just as Brass has done, choose models who are representative of your customer base
  • Add as many contextual details as possible--in this case, Brass mentions Amanda’s proportions
  • Aim to be helpful in your images--instead of giving an advertising-like pitch, envision that you’re guiding your customers through a decision

3. Use Tactile Images That Illuminate Textures and Colors

Researchers have found that touching an object results in an increase in perceived ownership. “For nonowners, or buyers, perceived ownership can be increased with either mere touch or with imagery encouraging touch,” explain Joann Peck and Suzanne B. Shu  in the Journal of Consumer Research.

So what should you do?

Choose photos in which real-life details are present. Imagine that you’re aiming to reach your most detail-oriented customer who will scour YouTube for videos, read through product reviews, and even take a look at your product in stores, if possible.

Take a look at Dockatot, “a multi-functional lounging, playing, resting, and snuggling dock mothers can can take anywhere to feed, soothe, and bond with their babies.” Understandably, the company showcases its products textures and softness: the goal is to help new parents--mothers and fathers alike--purchase a comfortable, safe product that delivers on its promise.

On the other end of the spectrum, Nike’s hero images show, in great detail, the texture of the sole, giving you a very strong sense of the grip necessary to send you soaring down the track.

While this photo shows, in very high resolution, a texture on the upper that you can almost feel.

This picture of a pocket found on Best Made Co’s website, is another simple but great demonstration of providing texture through photography.

You can almost feel the softness through the screen right?

Turns out, this is extremely important not just in the visceral sense, but as an older study by UPS and Forrester, found that the number 3 reason people are opposed to online shopping in general, is that they prefer to touch the items they’re considering buying.

Try It on Your SIte

  • Imagine that you’re reaching an audience that will scrutinize every detail about your product
  • Use extremely high resolution photography in addition with dynamic lighting to stimulate the senses relevant to the purchase.
  • Use additional visual cues to provide a sense of weight, feel, and the emotional reaction you’ll receive from using the product.

4. Use Storytelling to Commit Your Product to Your Shopper’s Memory

As a literary and anthropological experiment, two researchers wanted to see if they could resell cheap knicknacks on eBay and turn a profit. The hypothesis was that emotionally charged stories would increase the perceived value of each object. To run the experiment, the two researchers purchased a handful of thrift store items and hired a handful of researchers to contribute rich, creative stories to attach “sentimental value to what were otherwise mundane items,” according to a write-up in ConversionXL. The researchers found that compelling stories were, in fact, persuasive.

So what should you do?

Choose hero imagery that communicates a clear story about your product, or invites you to create your own given the context clues in the environment.

For inspiration, take a look at another image from Best Made Co’s site shows the product in use.

You can’t help but wonder, “Who is this man? What has he seen? What journeys has he been on, and what is he thinking?” And that’s the point, by looking at this photo, you’re invited to the peaceful contemplation that comes with spending time in nature.

Whereas this photo on Kenneth Cole’s website gives you just a glimpse at what it feels like to be a model. takes a less subtle approach than the previous two, and instead, shows very explicitly different scenarios where their products are being used, and if you’re a customer, you can’t help but superimpose your own stories of how you felt when you were in similar situations.

Story driven hero images also set the stage for motivating the visitor if they are not currently living the lifestyle your brand is trying to embody.

Looking at the above photo, without your own stories, these four images together tell one of being determined, strong, flexible, in control, and ultimately, free, which is completely on brand for a company called Free People.

Try It Yourself:

  • Connect your products to an on brand emotion
  • Be creative with your compositional style
  • Test out interesting environments, situations, and personality types so your visitors tell themselves a story in their own mind.

Final Thoughts

Focus on telling a visual narrative, using psychology and neuroscience as a guidepost to help visitors feel both viscerally and emotionally what it means to be a part of your brand.

This is where it starts to go way beyond selling products, but instead, improving people’s lives, because if your hero images can encourage someone to get outside more, or eat healthier, or have more fun, isn’t that kind of impact more rewarding than selling a shirt?

About the author

Ritika Puri

Ritika Puri is a marketing consultant, business sociologist, and entrepreneur who runs Storyhackers. She enjoys helping companies reach and engage with audiences who love to learn. As a Shopify contributor, she enjoys writing about data, technology, marketing, and emerging opportunities.