A friend of mine once said, “If less is more then more is really more.”
This is true—no doubt—of chocolate chip cookies and your net income. But when it comes to real estate listing photos, more couldn’t be more wrong.
Curious? Let me explain.
The Purpose of Listing Photos
Smart businesses use professional photography and marketing to entice prospective buyers. Ford and BMW do it, Wal-Mart and IKEA do it, McDonald’s and Olive Garden do it. The photographs, though, don’t make the sale. If executed well and delivered at the right time, those photographs and marketing messages move a prospective buyer to the the next step. The next step is usually following up.
Your listing photos work the same way.
As an agent, you should have three goals with your marketing photographs:
- Attract attention to your seller’s home. Beautiful listing photos help you do that since many online listing photos are pretty average.
- Move your buyer to the next step. What’s the next step? Contacting you, the agent.
- Win the next client. Great listing photos help you build your brand image, and new sellers will be attracted to an agent who features beautiful photography on their clients’ listings.
The purpose of your listing photos, therefore, isn’t to sell the home. The purpose is to get attention, move the buyer to the next step, and to win the next client.
The Conventional Wisdom on Quantity
Now when it comes to those photographs, you might think, “Well, if less is more then more is more—obviously.” So if your local MLS allows 36 or 50 or 100 photos, you’d think you should show 36 or 50 or 100 photos. Ten photos of the master bathroom! Fourteen of the kitchen! Three of every bedroom closet! Because more is more! Makes sense, right?
A local agent recently asked me to shoot 36 photos for a listing. She mentioned two reasons:
- The local MLS allows a maximum of 36 photos
- People at Realtor.com had told her that “number of pictures is the first largest search buyers use”
I've talked with other agents in central Illinois (Bloomington/Normal, Peoria, Springfield) who also want the maximum number of photos their MLS will hold. While this thinking sounds reasonable, it may be mistaken for at least two reasons.
First, “just because you can” is never a good reason to do anything. On a dinner outing to a Chinese restaurant a few years back, my seven-year-old son made multiple return trips to the buffet because he could. It ended up poorly for him on the car ride home but he learned something important that day: just because I can eat as much as I want doesn’t mean I should.
In the same way, just because you can upload 36 or 50 or 100 photos for your listing doesn’t mean that’s a good idea. Do all those images serve the purpose of getting a prospective buyer to contact the agent? Maybe; maybe not. You may end up with multiple redundant images that don’t add anything to your listing’s story and waste your prospective buyers’ time. Or—worse—you might give them so much information that they don’t need to contact you to learn more (hold on to that thought).
I investigated this further by emailing Realtor.com directly. I asked whether they had data that suggested an optimal number of photos for a listing to receive action from a buyer. Here’s the response their customer service team sent:
Did you catch that? We do not have a specific number that is preferred by consumers and the number of photos displayed is based on agent preference.
Interestingly, while the site allows up to 100 photos per listing, they’re not able to say how many photos are actually effective at getting a buyer to act. If you’re an agent and you’re uploading 100 photos because that’s the maximum you can include, you are shooting in the dark—Realtor.com has no evidence that adding 100 photos (or even 36 or 50) gets your listing more views or more leads.
Second, this line of thinking appears to be based in part on a faulty assumption about the search tools available on listing sites.
If you conduct a search on Realtor.com and click the More Filters link, you won’t find a filter for “number of listing photos.” In fact, there are no filters related to photos at all. It’s impossible for a prospective buyer using Realtor.com to search for listings based on the number of photos.
Similarly, Zillow and Trulia—two other popular home listing sites—have no search tools for filtering listings based on the number of photographs.
To be clear, prospective buyers are not searching those sites and filtering listings based on the number of photos. The search tools don’t allow it.
Alright—How Many Photographs Should I Show?
Think about this for a moment: Burger King doesn’t show you 50 pictures of a Whopper to get you into the store to buy a hamburger. They show you one high-quality professional photograph.
You also need to market your home listing like Burger King—entice those prospective buyers. But you don’t need to show every square inch of your home to do that. You only need to show enough information to move your buyer to the next step. So how many pictures should you show?
Real estate industry veteran Larry Lohrman recommends 25-30 images. He and his wife (who’s an agent) have been in real estate in the Seattle, Washington, market since the mid-1980’s. Larry runs the authoritative Photography for Real Estate site, the go-to resource for all things related to real estate photography. If Larry recommends 25-30 photos, that’s probably a good place to start.
Anecdotal evidence, though, is one thing. What about hard data?
Three recent studies also support the theory that fewer photographs lead to more buyer engagement.
One study conducted by a New York brokerage showed that buyers contacted their agents at the highest rate when just 11-14 photos of a property were shown.
In addition, real estate marketing service Point2 analyzed listings to determine an optimal number of photos. Here’s what they found:
While too few photos (<10) will obviously not pique a potential buyers’ interest, we also found that too many photos (>20) could potentially lead to less leads as well. Why? Too many photos may answer a potential buyer’s questions, which means there is less incentive to contact the listing agent. Like any good sales pitch, you want to give enough information to interest people, but not so much that they don’t need to contact you!
… You can save yourself a lot of time and energy by keeping the number of listing photos you use to around 20. We have found that above this level you do not increase your probability of increasing your traffic by posting more photos.
Lastly, a nationwide analysis conducted by Zillow found that listings with 16-21 photos had the highest probability of selling in under 48 days. After that, homes with 22-27 images had the highest probability of selling. With the exception of listings showing few if any pictures (which is pretty silly anyway), homes shown with 28 to 99 photos fared worse at every point.
Although these studies differ on the exact number of photos needed to motivate your buyer, they all agree that fewer images generate better results. The data bears it out: listing your home with 15-25 images will likely bring more leads.
One Last Thought—It's Not About Me
I’m a real estate photographer and the more photos I make, the more money I make. If I were interested in maximizing my revenue per job, I’d tell you, “Sure—we need to shoot 50 photos for every listing!”
But I’m not telling you that.
In my experience, it’s a rare listing that needs 36 photographs. A home that’s less than 2,500 square feet can be adequately shown with 15-20 photos. And, in many cases, a larger home can be shown with no more than 25-30 photos. We’re not trying to show everything—just enough to get that buyer interested in making contact.
I want you to help your clients market and sell their homes effectively. I want you to get more leads and more listings. When it comes to the quantity of your listing photos it turns out that more, in the end, is really less. And less is more.
Both experience and data reveal that a large number of photos don't bring more buyer interest. You can find plenty of listings that show tons of mediocre photos. On the other hand, stunning photographs will get buyers to click on your listing. People can tell the difference. And if the other factors line up (location, price, amenities), buyers will contact the agent.
If I were an agent, I wouldn’t be looking for the cheapest photographer who can give me the MLS’s maximum number of images for the lowest price. I’d be looking for the best photographer who can help me generate leads for my clients and build my brand image with 15-30 outstanding photos for every one of my listings.
Are you in central Illinois (Bloomington/Normal, Peoria, Springfield, Lincoln)? I'd love to create some beautiful listing photos for your sellers. Let me know if you're interested.
Opening graphic credit: questions by Gregor Cresnar from the Noun Project