What Profile Photo Works Best on LinkedIn: A Real-Life Experiment

August 20, 2013

A few years back, I was looking at my own LinkedIn profile, and an odd thought hit me: I really didn’t know what people expected from me on LinkedIn. This was a professional page, yes, but it was also mine (as opposed to my company’s), so it was also, by definition, personal. How was I supposed to balance all that?

I was puzzled.

That’s when I decided to start running experiments. I wanted to know what worked on LinkedIn and why. As luck would have it, 2009 is when I started training people on using LinkedIn, so I found myself with classrooms of people from whom I could get data. Between the classroom experiments and real-world results driven by my profile, I was able to piece together some fairly interesting insights.

My first experiment was with the profile photo – what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a quick take on what I learned:

jason1The headshot

In the classroom, this was far and away the photo people expected to be the best performer. I expected the same. Two things: first, when I asked people what they meant by “best performing,” I was almost always met by silence. ~75% of people thought this photo would outperform the others, but less than 10% could tell me what that meant.

Second, this was not my best performer. Not. At. All. Looking back, the reason is obvious: there’s no personality to this photo. The color is washed from my face, the background is black, my eyes look tired, the smile is strained. A few people thought the head-on shot was aggressive. None of this was consciously apparent to me when I took the photo, but there you go.

The take-away

Feeling full of yourself? Share a headshot with a thousand people and ask for their honest opinions. Oy. The headshot is a fine option, but far from optimized.

jason2 The silhouette

Without a doubt, my worst performing photo. I’m not sure what I expected when I posted this, but traffic to my page dropped, connection requests dropped… everything dropped. In classrooms, no one was surprised: people showed no love for this photo, and told me I looked like a criminal on a news program. Ouch.

The take-away

No, no, no, no… no! I don’t care if you’re Quasimodo; show your face.

jason3 The extreme close-up

You’ll occasionally find people who prefer the extreme close up. In my classes, people assumed the close-up was being employed to hide something just out of frame, such as casual clothes, another person, or some physical attribute I didn’t like about myself. Few people recognized this as a close up from the headshot. More than a few people found the pic arrogant. So did I. I abandoned this particular experiment before I could determine the impact; the photo was too much “me” for me.

The take-away

I didn’t have this photo in place long enough to see meaningful results.

jason4 Mr. Nice Guy

Remember 2009, when 10% of the workforce was out of work? At the time, I was devoting several hours each month to a networking group in Chicago, helping people get back on their feet. When this photo was put into place, connection requests exploded relative to the number of requests I got while I had the headshot in place. I also became overwhelmed with email messages from people looking for free advice. We’re talking about an inbox with 100’s of messages a week, and all I had changed was the photo on my profile.

The take-away

Make sure your photo sets an expectation that your time is valuable. There are only so many hours in the day.

jason5 Fireball guy

My first book was a career guide called How to Self-Destruct: Making the Least of What’s Left of Your Career. It has a cartoon worker exploding on the cover. See the connection? Traffic to my profile and website spiked briefly after I posted this photo, then flat-lined. I also struggled to close business at the time. A few people in classes really resonated with this photo, but most found it cute…  and then ignored it. A colleague in HR explained it this way: with a book called How to Self-Destruct, a motto of “Fail Spectatularly,” and a photo with a fireball, I could be the best speaker and consultant ever, but no one would hire me, because I was making everyone think that I was going to make the next mistake.

The take-away

Online, avoid kitsch and irony. Speak plain.

jason6 The screen grab

Within 3 weeks of posting this photo, I closed six new opportunities. Which means those opportunities had been lurking around. What about this photo attracted them? For one thing, it contains social proof of my skills: anyone in my programs from HR or marketing who dealt with conferences knew immediately from that blue background that I’d been a main stage speaker. Secondly, people found it disarming that I was looking off to the side rather than straight on. Third, the clothes and haircut are sharp yet approachable. Finally, people found something intriguing about my expression. Groups couldn’t decide if I was about to burst out laughing or tear a heckler apart, but the one thing they agreed on was, they wanted to find out what I was about to say.

The take-away

If you can show yourself in action, do it. A photo can go a long way to convey passion, energy, charisma, empathy, and other soft skills that are hard to write about.

So what’s it all mean?

In the end, I found I could explain the differences in how various photos performed based on three criteria: how many people visited my profile, how many of those reached out to connect, and how many asked me to do work with them in some capacity. But, my ability to predict which photo would move the needle was way off. My recommendation is to run an experiment for yourself with several photos over 3-6 months. Because in the end, it’s not what you think of your photo, it’s how much your photo helps attract the right opportunities!

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