Why Certain Pictures Make You Click On Awful Content

Why Certain Pictures Make You Click On Awful Content

Time for some tough talk, ok?

Bad content gets way more traffic than you do.

I know you do not want to hear that. I know you care about making good content. I know you are doing everything you can think of to promote that content.

I know you want to get above the noise, and you rack your brain daily to figure out how to do so.

Your hope is that by generating “great content”, it catapults you into the realm of the lifestyles of the rich and shameless.

Hate to break this to you, but, the internet is not a content meritocracy.

Internet readers are sucked into reading about diet scams, silly porn collections, and conspiracies about the food supply, just to name a few. It is snake oil sold by flim-flam artists.

music-man-trouble - pictures make you click

(Robert Preston as “Harold Hill” in Music Man/Credit: Music Man, Warner Brothers © 1962)

I say, friends, you’ve got Trouble… trouble I say… right here in the blogosphere. With a capital T, and that rhymes with P and that stands for…


You’ve got trouble because you spend your time trying to build content that will change people’s lives. Before you know it, your reader is off chasing 22 ways bikinis are clothing optional on Greek islands.

Like the Music Man, they lead you away, and before you know it, you’ve got Trombones in a band or the Monorail in your city.

What do these spinsters know about motivating people to their ideas that you don’t?

The secret is these guys know that if they can flick a few switches they do not need much else to get a click. They know how to hijack people’s brains faster than zombies in the Living Dead.

What then is the salvation my friends? The things that will turn the eyes away from the content that won’t change lives to the content that will?

It comes down to a simple thing – changing the images that sell your content so that you appeal to the part of the brain that makes the “click” happen.

Your brain is a constant battleground of the Odd Couple

Inside every reader’s head there are two key structures that control what we focus our attention and effort upon – the limbic and the cognitive.

They are the Odd Couple. The limbic brain is hedonistic and irrational. The cognitive brain is thoughtful, contemplative, and rational. They could not be more different.

These two structures sometimes work together, but many times they are in conflict.

odd-couple - pictures make you click

(“The Odd Couple”/Jack Lemmon (as Felix) & Walter Matthau (as Oscar). Credit: Paramount Pictures © 1968)

Meet “Oscar” – the limbic brain:

  • A hedonistic center of our brains interested in sex, fear, anger, fighting, and has no yesterday and no tomorrow.
  • It is emotional, reactive, and has the job of basically keeping us fed, happy, procreating, and alive.
  • For most of our lives, Oscar was the only guy in our heads – keeping us alive. Avoiding getting eaten, overrun by invaders, and putting us on the path to finding food, shelter, and mates.

Meet “Felix” – the rational brain:

  • The part of our brain that enjoys thinking, culture, organization, logic, and language.
  • Felix is the guy in charge of strategy, planning, forbearance, and working together.
  • It is Felix that decides if you stay reading something, buying something, or sharing something.

Felix looks at Oscar with a cock-eyed look; unable to understand Oscar’s non-stop appetite for pleasure and seeking food, sex, and that dopamine rush that comes from achievements.

Each is in your head – there is always this fight in every human brain between the hedonism of “Oscar” and the rationality of “Felix”.

The sad truth is Oscar wins nearly every time; in every case.

Ever fly off the handle and don’t know why? That is Oscar.

Ever see that beautiful girl (attractive guy) walk into the room, and you stop mid-sentence? That is Oscar.

Moved to tears and you do not know why? That is Oscar too.

Oscar can make you do the thing that Felix looks at and goes “we are completely crazy!”

madoff - pictures make you click

(Bernie Madoff, at the height of his power and prestige. Credit: New Yorker Magazine, © 2008)

Ever ask yourself how it was that so many people got drawn into Bernie Madoff?

These were smart people. Millionaires and Billionaires.

What about the actual “Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort? Some of the richest and smartest people were taken in.

All of them drawn to a seductive emotion – greed. Guess who controls greed?


So, these spammers can get you to click because they know what makes Oscar drag Felix around.

You are saying, “this doesn’t happen with my content. My content is so good, it overcomes this.”

No, it isn’t. No, it doesn’t.

The secret seduction of imagery


outbrain - pictures make you click

You may not realize it, but this is how your brain reads that advertising set:

Other things to understand about how content is evaluated (this is true for readers who use feed readers like Feedly, in Twitter, Facebook, or elsewhere):

  • You did not read the headlines first – but saw the pictures.
  • The brain prioritizes visual stimulus over all other types of content.
  • Research suggests that your eyes bounced back and forth between the pictures evaluating.
  • Only after processing the images, did your brain begin reading headlines.

Depending on how confusing it all was, your comprehension of the content might be negatively affected.

The next thing you know – you are busy staring at pictures on GQ about Mykonos.

I realize you might say to yourself “no not me.”

Yes you. I can show you why.

Of these three articles, GQ gets most of the traffic from this ad set… followed by Daily Dish.

The Social Savvy Mom article is the most redeeming. Could change people’s lives. Think it wins? Think again.

My research concludes that the total share counts of an article represent as many as 1/3rd of the readers on the high side, to as little as one twentieth of the readers of a general publication.

The GQ article received (according to BuzzSumo) about 5200 shares. If anything, these share counts are now underestimating the share numbers because of Twitter’s decision to stop sharing share aggregate information. Additionally, people are more likely to view sexually erotic images than share.

That means we can safely estimate that as many as 104,000 people saw the article.

The Daily Dish article received (according to BuzzSumo) 1200 shares. Again, I’ll use the same multiplier, and we can safely say 20 thousand people saw the untimely demise of Johnathan Brandis.

That’s a drop of 80%.

glenn-gary - pictures make you click

(Second Prize? Set of Steak Knives. Third Prize is You’re fired. Credit: Glenn Gary/Glen Ross, Lionsgate, © 1992.)

To draw from David Mamet’s famous writing:

I’m here from downtown. I’m here to tell you that I don’t care how good your content is – if your images suck, you lose.

First place is 80% of the traffic. Second place – leftovers of 15% (a drop of 80% from first).

Third place is you’re fired: the Social Savvy article received (according to BuzzSumo) 227 shares (when I drafted this article in mid-October of 2015).

Get the picture?

Have I got your attention now?

The good news is – you’ve all got just one chance to reclaim your readers.

Starting with your next blog post.

SUCCESSful images

While flim-flam artists use sex, shocking images, and other “tricks” to get Oscar to pay attention to them, advertising has long used a structured way of building visuals.

blogimages - pictures make you click

(These are the top images that come up for “how to blog”. Just look at that mess of uninspired typography! How much of this crap do you see in Social Media? On Facebook? Instagram?)

Instead of lame stock art and lofty notions of “be exciting,” I propose you use the  “SUCCESS” model. The acronym has seven elements:

  • Singular
  • Unexpected
  • Compelling
  • Credible
  • Emotional (Empathetic)
  • Societal Hook (Sustainable)
  • Shareable

Appealing to Oscar is how you cut through the clutter and confusion so that your content stands out visually.

Let’s go through each element in detail:


Our brains are skilled at filtering out information. We did not understand how good it is at filtering until we tried to teach it to computers.

The strongest images have a singular idea depicted so that the brain does not have to work hard.

singular-belly - pictures make you click

Simple. Uncomplicated. Singular. A brilliant book how advertising uses the female form is “Cant By My Love” by Jean Kilbourne.

Here’s the same principle applied by one of the most accomplished men in advertising, George Lois.

esq1 - pictures make you click


You know instantly what this is about: domestic violence.

Another example by the agency Herezie (Paris, France) for the campaign “Innocence in Danger”:


innocence - pictures make you click

As your eyes scan, you have time for one idea. Oscar is an impatient guy.


Our brain receives rewards with pleasurable chemicals by finding new things – we look for what’s different, novel, new, or unexpected.

worm - pictures make you click

No doubt, you’ve seen this image.

Why does it work? Because Oscar looks at it and goes “Woah!”

For the record, the organism depicted is a Marine Red Ribbon worm.

Here’s the same idea in print. It is Italian actress Virna Lisi as if she were a man shaving (again designed by George Lois):

esq2 - pictures make you click



What the brain focuses on is what is MOST compelling.

The following things are unavoidably visually compelling to humans:

  • Faces
  • Movement
  • Depictions of Emotion (Fear, Greed, Lust, Anger, and betrayal are the most intense)
  • Sex
  • Confusion (Oscar spends time trying to figure out if you are in danger)
  • Difference (when things change, Oscar gets concerned)

The most compelling images you can use – faces. We respond to faces.

That’s why faces are almost always front and center.

national-geographic - pictures make you click

This image of Sharbat Gula, a young Afghan girl living in a refugee camp along the border of Pakistan, has become the most famous cover in National Geographic’s 125-year history.

“Oscar” is studying faces always for potential threats and mates. We are programmed to evaluate faces.

If you go to IMGUR.com (a website that ranks images by social voting) – look at what are the top images. Faces.


In an age of Photoshop, the image has to fall within the realm of credibility or Oscar will be sent upstairs to Felix for further study, or the image has to be visibility incredulous but purposively so (like the zipped lips visual metaphor).

zip-lips - pictures make you click

A consequence of this fact is that as we get better at manipulation, Oscar can be hyper stimulated. This is done purposively to get you to pay attention. Take a look at a photo I took at Target a few days ago – all of them are faces that are hyper-perfected:

target - pictures make you click

We can argue the impact of these unrealistic images – but we can’t argue that they overstimulate Oscar in everybody. That is why artists do it.


Oscar is all about emotion. He cannot talk because he does not know language – only feelings. It’s why you sometimes feel things so deeply, but cannot express it in words.

The easiest way to have an emotional hook is to show emotion.

v-j-day - pictures make you click

Emotion can trigger sympathetic responses in the brain, even when unconsciously so. For example, acts of kindness, humaneness, and charity, trigger in the brain the same systems as if those witnessing the act did the act themselves.

If your goal is to get people to take an action – there needs to be emotion.


Shareable is where the spammers fail. However, memes, viral photographs, and illustration, excel the most at being shared.

meme1 - pictures make you click
(This photograph got well over 4 million shares – making it in the top 5 on Facebook for 2014.)

While there is lots of research on what’s shareable (and here’s this blog’s own research), the key element is emotional fulfillment through rationalizing action.

In other words, Oscar says to Felix “hey, this is too good to be left to us.”

Felix goes, “Yeah! You’re right! Let’s share it and make other people feel awesome too, while we will look like geniuses.”

Oscar goes “Cool!” and click – shared.

Societal hook

The degree to which the image will have an impact – compelling, credible, emotional, and shareable, is a function of the triggered hook.

Memes are exceptional at this – but they have a half life that is very short. The hooks come and go quickly.

meme2 - pictures make you click

This is why spammer content excels only in a few areas – sex, fear, greed, and curiosity. Regardless of what’s going on in society, those concerns remain clear hooks. Entire publications, such as Cosmo and Men’s Health, are built on those insecurities.

mh - pictures make you click

Knocking an elephant over with a feather

I am hoping you see by now that so much of imagery used by bloggers measured against the SUCCESS model are just awful.

They tell Oscar “nothing to see here, move along.”

marketing - pictures make you click

(These are the top images in Google for the term “Marketing”. They are all awful.)

Boring and irrelevant images distract from learning and cognition. (Research).

Great (SUCCESSful) imagery sells your idea (and grabs Oscar’s attention) nearly effortlessly.

eco - pictures make you click

(Credit: Ecovia/Adsoftheworld.com)

The above picture is shocking, compelling, singular, emotional, credible, shareable, and has quite the hook. It is about as close to a perfect 10 that I’ve found in hitting all the requirements.

The photo was for an advertising print campaign of several photos for Ecovia called “Stop the Violence.” (You can look at others in the campaign at Adsoftheworld.com).

That image knocks you over, doesn’t it?

Here’s another, from Photographer Tom Hussey on Behance.

reflect - pictures make you click

(Credit: Reflections by Tom Hussey © 2015, Behance.com (Full details of the campaign and the photography behind it from the Daily Mail.)

The challenge for content creators is to find that imagery that stimulates Oscar effectively. Either they have to find it – or make it.

The pictures that you select, or create, to describe your idea in your blog post is the single most important thing for getting a click.

  • Before the headline is read – the picture is seen.
  • Before the content is read –  the picture is seen.

The picture is the first thing seen and may account for as much as 90% of whether any action is taken.

Depending on how you do – Oscar has one of two reactions:

homer - pictures make you click

There is no middle ground. Period. Either Oscar pays attention – or he moves on.

Do not expect your content is going to “carry the day” all by itself. The evidence does not support that belief.

If you do not put as much thought into your images as everything else you create it is like pinstriping a Ferarri with a four-inch brush and can of latex paint.

magnum - pictures make you click
(Have no fear Magnum, I am off to Home Depot to pick up some white paint and we’ll pimp that ride.)

Now you can drive traffic like Obi-Wan Kenobi out on a force bender

obi-wan - pictures make you click

If you want to stand out and get noticed, changing how you package your ideas visually could be one of the single greatest improvements.

There are any number of ways to make “Oscar” take notice. As readers migrate to smaller screens, and read in places other than at their desk, you have no choice but to focus more on graphics.

You can use these strategies – the “SUCCESS” image model:

  • Singular
  • Unexpected
  • Compelling
  • Credible
  • Emotional (Empathetic)
  • Societal Hook (Sustainable)
  • Shareable

To create or select images that are going to be lightyears ahead of the competition. You will attract Oscar and get more traffic.

Your content will be what stands out on social media.

Your content is what will be shared more intensely, commented on more frequently, and engaged more robustly.

I would rather see you get the traffic.

I have shown you the path; the rest is up to you.

Guest Author: Bryan Del Monte is a results-obsessed business leader teaching entrepreneurs how to get their ideas recognized and make their businesses thrive. Sign up for his free insider’s course in creating a Blog That Sells.


  • http://nickburman.uk/ Nick Burman

    Great post, Jeff. Fantastic, practical ideas. And to test your point, there are some sponsored images at the end of the post. Well played!

    • http://www.blogthatsells.com Bryan Christopher Del Monte

      Thanks! (I wrote the post not Jeff). As for Doubleclick ads being at the end of the post… which ones did you click? 😀 I’ve snagged so many of them… I’ve seen them all… there are about 2000 some ads that repeat by about 100 main publishers of content… on most websites. That’s the bulk of what is the Taboola/Outbrain/Doubleclick universe… that’s why some of those ads are so familiar – you’ve easily seen them 100 times in a week.

      • http://nickburman.uk/ Nick Burman

        Hi Bryan, I’ve since installed an adblocker, but didn’t actually click any of them – I’ve learned! There was probably one that went something like ‘You won’t believe what happened in [insert your hometown here] !!’
        Sorry, Bryan, I should have noticed that you were the author. Love the post!

  • http://www.blogthatsells.com Bryan Christopher Del Monte

    Thanks a lot. :) Appreciate it. 😀