If you’ve been on social media for any length of time, you may be well aware that images can help boost your online engagement.

But while it’s true that a picture can add some pizazz to your posts, it’s not always easy to determine the best type of image to publish. They can also take a long time to create, especially when you’re not sure what you’re trying to communicate.

Thankfully, deciding which format best suits your posts can be a straightforward process. In this post, I’ll outline a few simple image variations and show you when it might be best to use them.

Ready to dig in? Let’s go!

pablo social media image options

1. Photos

This is undoubtedly the most popular type of social media image.  It’s relatively easy to take a picture with your smartphone and apps like Instagram and VSCO make editing photos to an almost-professional looking standard easier than ever.

While this approach is quick and simple, it’s sometimes limited in its effectiveness precisely because it’s so fast and simple! Anyone and everyone can attach pictures to their updates so standing out is becoming more difficult.

So when do photos work best? When the image is unique, unusual or powerful (i.e. when the image can tell its own story).

Here are a few examples:

Gary Vaynerchuk

Vaynerchuk has an enormous following on social media because he’s an incredible storyteller. This post is a great example of how simply adding a little extra into an image (his foot) inserts an absorbing layer of story into an ordinary photo.

When it comes to sharing any image on social media, especially photos, the accompanying copy is super important. In less than 140 characters, Vaynerchuk manages to paint a portrait of his journey from Belarus to having courtside season tickets at Madison Square Garden.

Mike Escamilla

Escamilla is a legendary BMX rider and stuntman who spends much of his time travelling the world in search of adventure. He takes some truly epic pictures that grab people’s attention, such as this gem while in Whistler, Canada. 

He’s built a huge following because these images show him performing unusual and thrilling activities.

Mike Escamilla

Escamilla’s photos stand out because he takes his followers on a journey and shows them something they wouldn’t normally see.

You don’t need to be a global adventurer to take your customers and followers on a journey, though. Simply opening up to a side of your business people would never normally see can be extremely engaging.

We try to take this approach at Buffer with our #weekinthelife series on Instagram, where our team invite followers behind the scenes of life as a remote worker.

Here’s an example of Happiness Hero, Ross, sharing his remote work setup:


Fast Company

Plain images work particularly well for news stories. Fast Company used this picture that captured a  memorable moment during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. 

2. Collages

Collages allow you to use a collection of images to tell a story or showcase items. They are no hard and fast rules for creating collages, but they’re particularly useful in situations where:

  • The images can establish a timeline of events.
  • The images show contrasting perspectives.
  • The images can highlight interesting details about a product or story.

John David Glaude

Before/after images like this are powerful because they demonstrate a journey. Glaude has built a massive Youtube and Instagram following by using these types of contrasting images. Even though he posts these types of pictures quite regularly, they remain incredibly inspiring because they capture a phenomenal story. Obese to Beast social image


At first glance, this collage is a little baffling. What’s the connection between Steven’s Universe, Orange is the New Black, Jimmy McNulty and Mad Max? That’s the whole point! For some (like me), this collages will pique their interest enough to click the link and read the story. Presenting contrasting images is a clever way to draw the inquisitive.

Shme Custom Kicks

Collages are fantastic for showcasing products such as apparel and cuisine. This example from Shme displays intricate details from all around the shoe, something that would be impossible with a single shot.  Shme social media image

3. Text over a plain background

If pictures are all about telling a visual story, text-heavy images are focused on quickly communicating a very specific message. Words are less captivating than photos, so the phrasing in plain text images should be carefully crafted if you want it to stand out. Text-heavy variations are especially useful when they feature:

  • Inspirational quotes
  • Attractive headlines
  • Intriguing excerpts (e.g. from a blog article, book)

Marie Forleo

This first example illustrates the power of words and the importance of design.  The quote is short and profound, which makes it more likely to be read. The text also takes up a very small area within the image, a design that places even more emphasis on the quote. 

Amy Porterfield

Porterfield is well-known in the online business world, and this social image is a catchy headline designed to attract her target persona. Once you have the perfect title or sub-headings, these can easily be pulled into a social image to engage your audience. Amy Porterfield social media image

Wall Street Journal

Excerpts are an easy way to pique interest in an article or publication. The WSJ uses this approach for many of its stories, and I often find myself pausing to read these snippets as I scroll through my timeline.  It’s best to select the most appealing snippets for these types of images, such anything that sounds especially contrarian, insightful or funny.

4. Text with a photo

The text-photo combination is my favourite social media image variation. This doesn’t mean that it’s the best approach for every situation, but it often works because it facilitates the fusion of visual storytelling and compelling copy.

Jay Baer

Adding text on top of a picture is particularly useful when using stock photography. Many publicly-available images are repeatedly used, so posting the photo by itself is often not catchy enough. This example from Jay Baer shows how easy it is to make a generic photo stand out by adding a headline and splash of colour.

Molly Galbraith

This image from Galbraith is a perfect example of how a compelling photo and gripping text can work extremely well together. The quote could be great on its own, but the combination with the picture makes it stand out. Molly G social media image

Shriya Nevatia

Calls-to-action also work particularly well in this format, such as this great example from Shriya Nevatia. 

5. Icons and illustrations

Icons and illustrations are great tools for drawing people into your content. They’re great to use as an alternative to photos because they’re a visual form of communication, and they can easily be added into images. Often less is more when it comes to these elements. The goal is to clearly communicate with your audience, not to make an image look fancy. 

Help Scout

The content team at Help Scout has fully embraced the power and simplicity of icons. From blog images to social media posts, their frequently use of this feature has become somewhat….iconic! 😉

General Assembly

Adding icons to a photo is a simple way to make it unique and noteworthy. This post from General Assembly shows the Denver skyline, which isn’t particularly interesting without the icons. 

6. Screenshots

This final variation is, without doubt, also the easiest one. Screenshots can be taken in seconds and are really useful when calling attention to a section of text or imagery.

Chris Dixon

Chris Dixon is an uber-smart venture capitalist who shares a lot of great snippets. His Twitter timeline is full of interesting quotes and images pulled from a variety of online articles.

Jay Yarow

This example from Jay Yarow shows the versatility of screenshots. The highlighted area is particularly intriguing, but he’s not limited to sharing only that section of text. 

What’s your favourite type of image?

Most of these images can be created within a few minutes using tools such as Pablo, Canva and PicMonkey. Of course, there’s lots of room for creativity and I’d love to hear about what’s worked for you!

What types of images do you use on social media and which have been the most successful? 

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Written by Roy Olende

Product Researcher at Buffer. Master negotiator (convinced the most incredible woman in the world to marry me). Prototypical Kenyan dad. Arsenal fan since ’89.

  • Great post! I love photos. I’ve been taking photos as a hobby for years, so it makes social media marketing that much more fun for me. I’m in the process of creating new branded photos for my blog and it’s so fun! Time consuming, but fun.

  • Daniel Zaltsman

    Illustrations have worked very well for us at /digitalocean. Now onto more testing with the other 5. Thanks for breaking this down into a digestible take-away.

  • Angi Cividino

    Was REALLY enjoying this post…until I saw the Whistler dog sledding photo. I’m from Vancouver and seeing that photo reminded me of the investigation into the cull of 56 Whistler sled dogs (http://bit.ly/1lxp281) following the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. (I realize this has nothing to do with Mike Escamilla’s dogs/sled.)

  • Jean-Marc Eskenazi

    Great post indeed. Exhaustive and very useful ! Obviously needs to be part of a wider content strategy to better anticipate the creation process. I will definitely give Pablo a try. Thank you.

  • Joe Lean

    Link to https://vsco.co/store/vscocam in first para is a 404.

  • Great post Roy! I am a fan of text on an image and Collages myself. I want to work in more quotes, behind the scenes pics, and screen shots into my and my clients mixes. Cheers and sharing with my network! 🙂

  • felicia.cristofaro


    Great insight on non-verbal communications for social media! I enjoy how you pointed out that businesses can gain followers just by opening up side people wouldn’t normally be at privilege to see. Transparency makes people feel entitled, “in the know”, it’s such an easy way to reach out and expand your social media presence. Great job going over different image applications. Thanks for sharing!

  • John Chapman

    You missed humor, Cartoon images along with text can be highly effective as in this Twitter post from last Christmas pic.twitter.com/H3Tum0S8VV

  • Olivier Hamphrey

    I often use gif images, when writing how to posts, for example. It is very convenient.

  • Hi, some great advice here. I was experimenting with images on my Instagram and found that the same image of a tshirt just slightly rotated and zoomed in got more likes. So my advice would also be to try and make little edits to what you already have and trial and error. After all digital media is so versatile what have you got to lose

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  • And there i was thinking images were just images. Followed this with interest. Thanks Roy

  • Tara-Tamiko

    Gifs, as Olivier mentioned. I have started to experiment with taking a section of someone’s YouTube video, creating a 6 second gif from it and sharing the Gif along with the original link to the video. Love Gifs!

  • shannon scheidell

    This is pretty awesome. Look at all the diverse kinds of social media images, here. It’s inspiring. Thanks for sharing (and resharing), Roy!