What makes the best corporate profile photo? A data-driven analysis

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A picture is worth a thousand words, as the old proverb in journalism goes. And the saying appears to hold true for online profile pictures as well. Research by LinkedIn shows that a page with a profile picture is seven times as likely to be viewed as a page without one. Given that the average first impression is cemented within 15 seconds of seeing someone, the image that represents you on social media, job networking sites and dating profiles can make a big difference.

But are all profile pictures equally effective? What are the characteristics of the ideal corporate profile photo? And what makes those characteristics so effective? We ran the analysis to find out.

What we did:

We ran a study testing which elements produce the best possible professional photo for websites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter as well as corporate websites.

The study was based on over 1,000 ratings of 45 different, free-to-use profile photos, including some of our own team members. We asked survey respondents to judge the confidence, trustworthiness, likability, and knowledgeability of the person in each picture, as well as whether the person was someone they would consider hiring or doing business with.

We then measured the traits of the photo, such as smiling, eye contact, body framing, clothing, etc. in order to find which traits were most successful.

What we found:

  1. The most important characteristic is smiling – In short, if you’re hoping to be hired, make sure you smile.
  2. If you want to be trusted, make eye contact – Trust is highly correlated with eye contact, so make sure your photo shows your eyes, and make direct virtual eye contact.
  3. Surprisingly, dressing formally in a profile picture doesn’t give you much of an edge in being considered for employment.

While the characteristics that make the biggest difference for a profile picture may not surprise you, the research behind why they are important might:

    1. Smiling. The most important characteristic is smiling, but why?Chart 1 People considered employable
      • 44.3% of people considered employable had a full smile (with teeth showing)
      • 40.1% of people considered employable had a half smile (with no teeth showing)
      • 15.6% of people considered employable had no smile at all

      Research suggests that if you’re smiling in your photo, potential employers (or anyone looking at the photo) will subconsciously smile as well. This will immediately put them in a more pleasant mood, and may influence their impression of you.

      • Swedish researchers have found that it’s difficult to frown when looking at someone who’s smiling. In fact, they found that other people’s smiles suppress the control we usually have over our facial muscles, compelling us to smile.
      • Once you have potential employers smiling, you’ll have them in a better mood. In one study, British researchers found that seeing a smile from a child can feel as rewarding as receiving up to 16,000 Pounds Sterling in cash (that’s almost $25,000).

      However, if you want your smile to be effective, make sure it’s real.

      • The British researchers found that negative effects occurred when the smile was not genuine – “In contrast to [loved ones], the fake smiles of royalty and politicians are detected and have the opposite effect, giving the person an untrustworthy and hypocritical image.”

      How do you know if a smile is real? When we smile in a genuine way, two sets of facial muscles are contracted – one that controls the corners of the mouth, and one that encircles our eye sockets. While we can easily contract the muscle that controls the corners of the mouth, it is much harder to consciously contract the muscles around our eyes. This leads us to our second finding:

    2. Eye Contact – If you want to be considered trustworthy, make sure viewers can see your eyes. And make virtual eye contact. That means looking into the camera and no sunglasses. Chart 2 People considered trustworthy
      • 87.1% of people considered trustworthy were not wearing sunglasses.
      • 12.1% of people considered trustworthy were wearing sunglasses.
      • 78.9% of people considered trustworthy were looking into the camera.
      • 21.1% of people considered trustworthy were looking away from the camera.

      Researchers have found that we are generally good at distinguishing between genuine and fake smiles. We automatically look to the corners of the mouth and the eyes. If someone is hiding their eyes, it becomes harder for us to make an accurate assessment of their nonverbal communication, and we are therefore less likely to trust them.
      Some anthropologists theorize that our eyes have evolved in a way that allows us to easily cooperate with others. They believe that we developed a white backdrop for the iris and pupils of our eyes so that others can easily tell where we are looking. Consequently this feature serves the purpose of cooperation – we are able to cooperate faster and easier with each other through the use of our eyes. When two people feel that they are cooperating towards a common goal, they also feel that they are able to trust one another.

    3. Clothing – dressing formally may not give you that much of an edge in being considered employable.Chart 3 ClothingWe assumed that dressing formally would dramatically influence the probability of being considered for employment. However, this was not the case. 80% of the people formally dressed were considered employable, but so were 70% of the people informally dressed.

      A word of caution. Our findings may be a result of respondents coming from mixed backgrounds and industries. Most people suggest dressing for your industry in your profile picture. If you want a job in finance, consider wearing a suit and tie in your picture. If you’re looking to join a laid-back, tech start-up, you’ll be fine wearing a T-shirt in your photo.

      So which profile pictures did the best?

      Top 5 profile pictures

      Note the cheerful, genuine smiles and confident body language of these pictures, which suggest someone you’d like to work with and someone you’d trust.

      And which ones did not work, at least in a corporate setting?

      Bottom 5 profile pictures

      Appearing too serious, too self-involved or too casual may endear you to friends but turn off potential employers.

      Putting your best face forward is the best way to impress employers. Though you may not have job interviews or promotions in mind when you select your profile picture or cover photo for Facebook, those pictures may be worth more than a thousand words later in a job interview or in job performance ratings if the image you’ve presented is not clear, confident, direct and cheerful.