9 Tips to Nail Your Social Media Profile Picture (plus, research and examples)

By Andy Crestodina

You’ve seen thousands of social media profile pictures. You see dozens every day. And every time you see someone’s profile picture, you form an impression of that person. In a split second, you decide if they are likable, trustworthy, smart …or not. You judge them.

Everyone judges your profile picture in the same way.

On Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and everywhere else, they are swiping right or left in their mind, connecting or dismissing, engaging with your content or ignoring your connection request.

So your profile picture is key to your personal brand and online networking. It has an impact on your job opportunities and ultimately, your career.

Note! I’m skipping the online dating impact, but this post could help with that too…

And fixing your picture is a one-time action that gives you lasting benefits. So invest some time in the most important aspect of your online presence. Here are nine ways to nail your social media profile picture.

1. Show your face

This should be obvious, but if they can’t see your face, you’ve got a problem.

Faces are a uniquely powerful type of imagery. Studies about the psychology of images show that faces leverage a cognitive bias built into our brains.

Of course, you have passions. You love dogs or helicopters or skiing. But your profile picture isn’t the place to make this point.

Are you an avid mountain climber? Great! Put your face in the profile picture and your passion in the background image.

The world’s most popular website is called FACEbook, not SILHOUETTE-ON-A-MOUNTAIN-book.

I also recommend against cartoon heads, dogs and babies. Show. Your. Face.

2. Frame yourself

Some headshots are too close to the camera. Others are too far away. Making sure you are properly framed within the shot so people can see you and a bit of background. Your face should fill most of the image.

Not too far, not too close. Let them see your face but don’t crowd the camera.

If your face is too small, they won’t be able to see your smile when the picture appears in smaller sizes. Remember, in the social stream, this image may be as small as 50 x 50 pixels. That’s the size of your fingertip.

3. Turn up your smile setting

Body language is either open or closed. Arms, legs and hands can either express an openness to connect or a closed-for-business message. Faces are the same.

There are levels to the open expression on a face, from the scowling mugshot (“don’t you dare look at me”) to the high-beam open-mouth grin (“I love the world and everyone in it”).

Here is Jimmy Klatt demonstrating five examples of openness in smiles.

Notice the openness in four and five. If you want to show an openness on your face, try opening your mouth!

You can imagine which of these would trigger more engagement in social media. Which would you connect with? Follow? Share?

Big smiles in profile pictures correlate with good social relationships

According to two studies of college students, people who smile in their social media profile pictures are actually more likely to be happy later in life.

“Smile intensity coded from a single Facebook profile photograph from male and female participants’ first semester at college was a robust predictor of self-reported life satisfaction 3.5 years later.”

Those same studies found that bigger smiles correlate with better social relationships.

“Participants who exhibited a more intense smile in their Facebook photo had better social relationships during their first semester at college.”

So what’s the smile setting of your profile picture? I recommend a three or four at least. Number two might be good for attorneys. Social media marketers often turn it up to a five.

4. Use contrasting colors

Social streams move fast. Color is a great way to stand out. When colors contrast with the colors around them, they stand out. This is simple and obvious when you think about it.

  • What color are most social media websites? Blue (a cool color)
  • What color is the complement of blue? Orange (a warm color)

Since LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter use a lot of blue, putting on an orange shirt (or any top with warm colors) will make you immediately more visible. These are also less common colors for clothing.

Just look at this grid of profile pictures. Which of these stands out?

5. Use a simple background

The focus of the image should be your face. Busy backgrounds can take the focus off of you, which isn’t ideal. Best practices are to use a simple or flat colored background.

The background is also an opportunity to use contrasting colors without changing clothes. Just use a different background. Cyrus Shepard once tested the effect of background color on click through rates and found a warm color got the best results.

The winner was the image in the top left.

6. Test your profile picture with a focus group

Get some data from a focus group by uploading some options to PhotoFeeler. For less than $20, you can get 100 people to vote on your photo on three criteria. You can also earn credits by voting on other people’s photos.

Upload several pictures to see how they do against each other. You’ll have your results in just a few hours. Here are the results of my tests…

Apparently, the speaking picture on the left just isn’t very likable. And the jacket/sweater combo makes me look competent.

Big thanks to Vanessa Van Edwards for finding this! Vanessa has a great list of LinkedIn profile tips here.

7. Get a bit of your brand into your photo

Here are five ways to sneak elements of your brand into your profile pic.

  • Wear your brand colors: wear a shirt with a splash of the company colors.
  • Put the brand color in the background: Put a tiny bit of your office in the background.
  • Add a mini-logo: It’s hard to make it fit, but if there’s room.
  • Add a big logo to your background image: Much easier to make it fit in there.
  • Live the brand: George LeClaire is a photographer, and it’s obvious from his profile picture. He’s holding a camera.

Here are examples of how brand elements can fit into a profile picture:

Warning! Avoid the logo profile pic. 

As we said in tip #1, faces are powerful imagery. Using a logo as a profile picture is a missed opportunity to be human and personable.

If you’re a mega-brand, of course, you’ll use your logo in your social accounts. But for most companies, avoid posting from behind a logo if at all possible. It just isn’t as social. Use the face of someone on the social media team.

mark-shaefer Your company is not just choosing a picture. You’re choosing a voice for the account, a personality, a strategy! If you’re like me, it’s extremely difficult to connect to a logo. I think it puts a company at an immediate disadvantage.” – Mark Schaefer, Personal Branding Expert and Author of Known.

8. Use the same headshot on all your professional profiles

This is especially important for people with common names. If someone sees you in one place and wants to connect in another, make it easy for them by using the same picture on all of your professional social media profiles.

For example, I was emailing with someone named Brian and decided to reach out on LinkedIn. But there are 430 Brians with his last name. And his profile picture wasn’t helpful.

I haven’t given up. I’ll find you someday, Brian!

ProTip! It’s easier to become recognizable if you don’t change it too often. Be consistent and keep the same profile picture for a year or two at least. These pictures are identifiable because they were used for years.

9. Use a pro photographer

If you’re serious about social media marketing, seriously consider this. The difference in quality between professional and amateur work is huge.

“You are the face of your brand and your profile photo is the first impression a potential lead will see. Make it uniquely YOU. I suggest shooting in a variety of environments that you feel comfortable in. You can use these assets at various times across all platforms while remaining true to your brand’s message.” – Zack Smith – New Orleans headshot photographer

Social media vs. social media marketing

Right now, as you read this, someone you’d like to meet is scrolling through a social stream, filled with faces. You are in that stream. Did they slow down? Stop? These tips and ideas will give you an edge in the ultra-competitive context of social media.

But …there’s more to life than marketing.

Your social media profile may have nothing to do with marketing. Sometimes, social media is just social. So if you want to use a picture of your car or your cat. Go for it!

Your turn!

Everyone has an opinion. What do you think of these three profile pictures? Let us know in the comments below!

There is more where this came from…

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