What can a dating site teach enterprise?

I wrote earlier this month about the importance of faces in profile photos. Today I stumbled across a fascinating post about profile pictures from dating site OKCupid, via Adam Tinworth’s blog.

Christian from OKCupid gathered data from their site, analysing photos and looking at the messages that people received and sent to see if different photo styles affected how successful people were in attracting both incoming messages and replies to their outgoing messages. The results are fascinating, turning upside down some assumptions about what sort of photos would be best. Women, for example, should probably put a ‘flirty face’ on, whereas if you’re a bloke with good abs you should show them off and if your photo doesn’t show your face, make sure that it’s interesting in some other way.

Now, I’m not trying to imply that professional women should put on their flirty face when posing for their business headshot or that men should be getting their abs out for their team photo. (And I’m sure I”m not the only one to heave a sigh of relief about that.) But this study does throw up an interesting question: What do we know about the impact of different types of profile pictures in a professional setting?

I’m sure that some will say that in a professional context, photos shouldn’t matter, that we judge each other based on their abilities and actions, not on what they look like. If that were true, the world would be a much better place, but if we’re honest we’ll admit that how someone looks does affect the way we think of them. Such reactions are hardwired into our brains, and they’re not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you have good instincts.

I’m also sure that we’ve all seen corporate directly photos that are deeply unflattering. Generally speaking, when you get your company photocard done, the person taking the photo probably isn’t thinking very hard about how to make you look your best. And in some cases, the results are worse than a passport photo. Unfortunately, regardless of quality, those photos then get put onto the internal directory, whether we like it or not.

I don’t know of anyone who has studied the responses provoked by different photos in, say, LinkedIn, but I think it would make a fascinating topic of research. Are there particular types of photos – looking the camera or not, smiling or not, naturalistic or posed, for example – that make people more predisposed to think positively of the subject? And how might this affect the way we interact with people professionally?

There is no doubt that very subtle things can affect the way we think of others. In one experiment, subjects were asked to hold either a warm of cold drink for a brief time. They were then asked their opinions about the woman who gave them the drink to hold. Those who held a warm drink thought more kindly of her than those who got the cold drink. (Lesson: Never give your boss anything cold to hold!)

So, are we doing ourselves no favours by allowing poor photos of ourselves to be used in social networks and internal directories? Should businesses pay more attention to the way that they photograph and present photos of staff? Should we be allowed to provide our own? If so, what guidelines should we follow?

I know one things for sure: I need a better avatar photo because apparently “with an animal” scores worse than any other typo of photo if you’re a woman. If you’re a bloke, however, you should go and get yourself a kitten right now, because even getting your abs out is less popular than a guy with an animal. It’s probably more socially acceptable too!

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