Perfect Profile Pictures: 9 tips, plus some research

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Andy Crestodina
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We’ve all seen thousands of profile pictures. On Twitter and Facebook, we scroll through endless lists with faces, dismissing most of them, but stopping on a few. Books are often judged by their covers, and social media accounts are judged by profile pics. Your profile picture matters. Here are 6 tips on how to do it right.

1. Happy profile picture = Happy life

Believe it or not, if you smile in your profile picture, you are more likely to be happy later on. According to two studies of college students, people who smile in their profile picture are happier. Really!

…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.

The bigger the smile, the better.

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

That settles it. The perfect profile picture has a big smile.

2. The open-mouth glamor shot: body language for your face

Body language and non-verbal communication is critical in first impressions. In his book, How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less, author and photographer Nicholas Boothman lists ways in which body language can be open or closed.

When you see someone with crossed legs, folded arms, closed hands and a buttoned jacket, you know what that means: not open. So if you want to show an openness on your face, try opening your mouth.

I know of some extremely successful online networkers with open-mouth profile pics. They all look so friendly!

3. Fake IDs: babies, cartoons and pets

Cartoons? Nothing says “take me seriously” like a Simpsons version of your head. Or South Park, or Mad Men. But at least these are better than the common trend of using a photo of something other than you.

Please, if you’re using social networking for professional reasons, don’t use your baby or your dog as your profile pic. Keep it in your wallet.

Or, go all the way and print a life size version of your baby’s face and tape it to your head. While your at it, put your dog’s face on your driver’s license.

4. No logos, but still a bit of brand

Sorry, but logos are not as compelling as people. People are hard-wired to connect with people and there is just no replacement for a human face. So, use a head shot, not a logo, whenever possible.

But if you want to bring the brand into your photo, here are a few tips:

  • Brand colors: wear a shirt with a splash of the company colors.
  • Brand in the background: Put a tiny bit of your office in the background.
  • Mini-logo in the corner: Daniel Scogin (RedEye)
  • Living the brand: George LeClaire is a photographer, and it’s obvious from his profile picture. He’s holding a camera.

5. Bright backgrounds

Rand Fishkin, founder of SEOmoz and web research mastermind, discussed profile pictures in a Whiteboard Friday videos:

Rand: I have actually done background color testing on photos for my personal account to see whether my Twitter account would get more followers or less with certain ones. Orange works very well for me.

Will: We have people from different Distilled offices have different colored backgrounds.

Rand: Perfect. I love A/B testing everything in marketing, including the background color of your photo.

He suggests bright colored backgrounds and likes orange for himself. Makes sense. You’re trying to stand out from the crowd.

6. Keep it consistent, across sites and over time

An article on the topic from Mashable reminds us to be consistent. “Don’t change it too often.”  Changing it weekly or even monthly may make it harder to become a familiar face.

I would add that it’s good to be consistent across networks. There’s an advantage to using the same photo on different sites: people will recognize you.

That’s a good thing, right?  So use the same photo in all the networks you use professionally.

7. Look at the camera, or look to your left

Eye tracking studies have shown that when a website has a picture of a person, visitors tend to look at the face. It’s natural. Looking at the camera helps make a direct connection with the viewer.

But the same studies show, when the face is looking to the side, visitors look where the person in the picture is looking. That’s right!  If the picture is looking to the side, the visitors will too.

This is why in my own profile, I’m looking to my left, toward the content. Maybe that’s why you decided to read this post.

8. Worst profile pic ever? The QR code

I just can’t understand when I see people using these as profile pictures. A QR code is an offline link. It lets people take a picture rather than type an address.

But why on Earth would you use one on a website? Isn’t is easier to have visitors click using the mouse in their hand? Isn’t that easier than taking the phone out of you pocket, downloading a scanner, then taking a picture of their screen, only to see a much smaller version of your site? I don’t get it.

I bet if you met Mr. QR-Code-Head in real life, he would have his phone number written on his forehead so you can call him if you wanted to talk.

9. Use a Pro Photographer

If you plan to get serious about working within a social network, seriously consider this. The difference in quality between professional and amateur work is huge.

Bonus tip: Ignore all previous tips

This is, in the end, you. And being true to yourself trumps all. So if you want to use your logo, a painting of you or a picture of your car, do it. Remember, this picture will be a split-second first impression for thousands of people, but if you feel strongly about it, go ahead! Use your cat!

UPDATE: I just came across this article, which cites research from dating websites that suggests that the most effective profile pictures for women are those that make eye contact with the camera. Interesting…

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Comments (13)
  • It actually drives me crazy when people change their twitter icon! I follow a lot of Book Bloggers who I really know more by their twitter icon more then name. When they switch it up, they might as well be a new person I’m following.

    On that note, I should probably switch up my icons to match!

  • I agree with Andi’s comment and this article…I am a huge fan of your profile picture staying the same over time…I guess its different if you upgrade it once a year but I cannot stand when people change it every couple weeks.

    This is your online identity – your personal brand image…it says more than you think.

    Great article…I think these points are great….but don’t use your cat! I love my cats (as if they were my children), but nobody is going to recognize them at a networking event. 😉

  • Selecting my profile picture was a lot like dressing for a really important event. I lose my mind, change a million times, and then just go with my original choice.

  • Thanks for including my sexy mug, Andy. Consistency is a BIG thing when it comes to recognition. And, for me, it was a big step forward when I FINALLY stopped cropping myself out of college pictures and got some photos taken. Makes a big, big difference. Cheers!

  • Love this (and not just because you dropped my mug in there 😉
    I like when I get a sense of peoples personality/tastes/quirks when I look at their picture.

  • I would also add that something is better than nothing (unless it’s a terrible image). If a professional shot isn’t an option at least try and get a decent personal shot up on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. Thanks for the post!

  • It’s funny when you change your avatar. People FREAK! I change mine once a year, but I try to keep in the same vein so it’s not a total shock.

    Thanks for including mine here.

  • Don’t ever change, Gini.

    Thanks for all the comments everyone! I’m glad that no one who posted here has a QR code for a profile pic…

    -Andy

  • #1-2: Correlation = causation much?

  • Wonderful read. Gave me lots to think about.
    Thank you for sharing this!

  • Great read!
    #5: background color A/B split testing made me lol. “You know you’re a marketing nerd when… “

  • Thank you. Very good article… And funny too. I liked it 🙂

  • The QR-code can be a cell number. The question: is it easier to type the number in the phone or to use the scanner app? I don’t know yet.

 
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