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User Generated Content vs Stock Photos

This article is available also in German  (Kampf der Conversion Rates)

The concept of user-generated content, or UGC for short, isn’t new in the world of e-Commerce. It’s one of the biggest trends in recent years, but is it actually worth the hype? Should e-Commerce businesses invest and support the trend? Let me share some research that I’ve done in recent months on the topic.

Today, we’ll talk about user-generated fashion & apparel images. In other words, real people uploading pictures of themselves wearing products. An image like this usually shows the product being worn by an ordinary person in a real-life setting, instead of the professional model that a company chose to portray it’s “brand image”.

User Generated Content vs Professional Images

What are we testing today?

Let’s compare how well users engage with each type of image. Are people more likely to purchase something they see it on a stock photo of a model or a real-life image from social media? Can using these types of images actually move the needle in terms of “conversion rate”?

Test #1 — Nike Sports Bra

Let’s take a look at one of the classic, bread-and-butter Nike products:

Nike Website
Product Page on

This is the product page as it appears today on (US website). The main image is clean, a model, and looks probably touched up. This is what’s being used to sell today, meaning it has passed all Nike’s brand-image qualifications. Can we do better? We’ll test this image against a user-generated image of the same product.

After some scouring on Instagram, I found this image that will be our use-case for comparison:

Instagram Image of the Nike Product

It’s now time to start the fun part. We’ll do a classic A/B test here, insert both images into a small campaign on Facebook and see which image results in more clicks to the destination URL (we’ll use CTR and conversion rate interchangeably) 

UGC vs Stock

Here we go! We let the Facebook campaign run for several hours, with each image getting a few tens of thousands of impressions, here are the results.

Nike Test Results

Interesting results. Both images were placed in the same campaign, with the same exact target audience and placements. Both images were seen by a large amount of users, to remove statistical “favoritism”. The user-generated content image got a conversion rate of 0.90% against a 0.31% for our model. Three times better. Our Instagram image hit the branded Nike image out of the park.

Test #2 — Colored Zara Skirt

So maybe the previous success was a fluke. Let’s try another one, this time with a different type of product, a rainbow-colored skirt from Zara. I took the stock photo from the official website and the UGC image from Instagram.

Second Test / UGC vs Stock on Zara

We did the same kind of test here: Facebook campaign with both images on A/B testing and let it run for a few hours. Let’s see the results:

UGC vs Stock / Zara Test Results

Again we hit a winner. The user generated content image from Instagram got a conversion rate (CTR) of 0.62% compared to the 0.24% that the stock photo got. That’s 2.6x better. Not too shabby at all.

Test #3 — Nike Running Shoes

Maybe it’s just clothes that do better? Let’s try to throw in some shoes in the mix. Here is the next pair of contestants:

Third Test / Nike Shoes

Stock vs UGC / Nike Shoe Test Results

Finally. On our third test, we found a pair that the user-generated image wasn’t better than the stock photo. We got a 0.38% conversion rate against a 0.42%, pretty similar results. Maybe using a different image we would’ve seen different results? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Test #4 (the last one!) — Red Zara High Heels

Let’s do one more test on shoes. But this time let’s try something different. Instead of showing different images, let’s mix it up. We created a landing page and designed it as an e-Commerce product page. 50% of the users saw the version on the left, a product page with the single stock image. The other 50% saw the same page, but with three user generated images below it, showing the same product. Here are screenshots of the web pages:

Fourth Test / Zara High Heels

Here we used Google AdWords to drive traffic to the landing page, using generic keywords like “red high heels”. Once the users reach the page, the A/B testing started. Here are the results.

UGC vs Stock Zara High Heels Results

Here, the CTR is measured by the amount of people who clicked the “Add to Cart” button on the page. With the three images, we had a click-through rate of 5.31%. The standard image got 1.40%. That’s almost x4 more effective! 

The Bottom Line

So there you have it: four different tests using user-generated content. Three successful. One not. This was a great personal lesson in A/B testing. The main takeaways are that you can never know if something is going to be a hit-or-miss in terms of user conversion. Testing is the key. We could just as easily find that it reduces conversion rate on some products. Doing as many tests as possible and keeping the winners is the key to success here.

Now you try, but keep in mind…

A few things to remember when trying your own tests.

  • Try different images. All the tests I did were of the same image in terms of stock photo and UGC photo. The ideal implementation of this would be to do an internal A/B test within the user-generated image area. So within the 50% of users shown a UGC photo, they would see a random photo every time. The random factor would stop when the system gathered enough data to determine which images are the absolute superior ones.
  • Isolate tests. Pretty standard principle in A/B, but every test should compare one element of the page. Run an A/B test of just switching the image or adding a number of images, and don’t add this on to an existing test of anything else (like button color for example).
  • Test size. Depending on your traffic, you might need to wait a different amount of time until you can safely decide on a winner. There’s no exact figure, but it’s a good practice to keep testing until the results are stable and converge into a specific value. If the conversion rate is jumping around, give it more time. A good rule of thumb: you can stop testing when there is no single event/sale that changes the needle too much (~3%)
  • Permission/Copyright. Using random images on Instagram for commercial purposes is a big No-No and a copyright violation. Only use images that you have permission to use.

What’s been your experiences with using user generated images within eCommerce websites?

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