How to increase dwell time

In the whirlwind of modern media consumption, it has never been more important to increase engagement with your publication, be it online or in print. As Martin Stephens, MD of PA Images, tells James Evelegh, pictures are a great way of engaging with your audience.

By James Evelegh

It’s simple really. People like looking at pictures. Publish engaging pictures of people or events that people are interested in, and they will spend more time with you and share you with their friends. Sharing means more eyeballs, higher ad revenue and new audiences.

It was the legendary American editor Arthur Brisbane who said, “a picture is worth a thousand words” and it’s a view with which Martin concurs: “Images draw readers in. A picture is an incredibly powerful tool: it’s universal. Great images make the reader stop and think. And it’s that dwell time which can make all the difference.”

PA Images, formed in 1947, is the photographic arm of the Press Association. Based in Nottingham, the agency employs 25 full time photographers and a large network of freelancers. Through the acquisition of the Central News Collection’s priceless archive (including one of a stern looking Queen Victoria and of George V, blunderbuss in hand, elephant shooting in India), PA Images offers a huge catalogue of images spanning 150 years of UK history. As the UK’s national agency, it also has long standing reciprocal agreements with most other national agencies (such as Associated Press in the US) meaning that it provides unparalleled depth and breadth of overseas news images too.

But, Martin is keen to stress, PA Images is about so much more than just ‘news’. In 2004, it acquired the specialist sports agency EMPICS, and sport photographs now account for a third of revenues. Similarly, PA Images is equally strong in showbiz. Its hard-working photographers regularly come away from red carpet premieres with the best shot (“Ian West has an uncanny ability to get them to look right down the barrel”) and the agency has negotiated exclusive on-set access to TV programmes like the Graham Norton Show and backstage access to big pop concerts like Capital Radio’s Jingle Bell Ball. And, through its tie up with AP, PA Images is able to offer all the pics from the most glam event of them all: Oscar night!

With an imminent major relaunch of its website (, the agency’s pictures will be more accessible than ever before. Apart from a more modern look and feel to the site, there are two main developments planned. Images, previously shown as small thumbnails, will be presented much larger, making it easier to compare different images and pick the best one. Secondly, a new e-commerce facility will be added enabling non-account holders to purchase PA images direct from the website, and Martin expects a steady increase in the use of PA Images by consumers, bloggers and small publishers.

So, given the public’s insatiable demand for pictures and the proven power of imagery to draw readers in, what advice does Martin have for cash-strapped, time-poor editors looking to maximise the effectiveness of pictures, and how can PA Images help? He suggests six ways:

1. Use great pictures

“There is a big difference between a good picture and a great picture, and it’s often in the eyes.” The most engaging pictures are usually where the subject is looking right at the camera, and it will be these images that really delight your audience. The challenge for the picture editor is to avoid picking the first ‘good’ picture they come across which fits the broad requirements (head and shoulders shot of Brad and Angelina at last night’s premiere) and instead delve deeper into their FTP folder to see what else is there. It might take a couple more minutes, but it’ll be worth it. “Try to avoid a tick-box approach to picture selection. Don’t just take the first picture, take the best one, because quality matters. Take a look at what pictures get shared the most by the online crowd. People generally like to look at and share pictures that are actually good. The crowd is an amazing filter and, skateboarding cats aside, quality tends to rise to the top.”

2. Be proactive

Few publishers now have in-house photographers, preferring instead to use occasional freelancers or passively rely on material sent in by picture agencies. Relying on picture agencies is fine, but that relationship should be anything but passive. You don’t need to employ your own photographers to get bespoke pictures. PA Images has a highly experienced account management team who liaise with publishers, large and small, about their picture requirements. As with anything, the trick is to plan ahead – work out who or what you might want pictures of, where those people or things might be and then talk to PA Images to see if they can help. The chances are that one of their photographers will be at the event in question, or in the vicinity, and can get the shot you’re after – you just need to tell them what it is. There is no charge for picture research or consultation; the only charge is for pictures actually used. “Talk to us; we understand publishing and want to hear from you. We like to think of ourselves as an extension of your editorial team.”

3. Use more pictures

People like to browse through pictures, so galleries and picture lists work particularly well in increasing dwell time – just witness the phenomenal pulling power of the photo galleries on MailOnline.

Lists need pictures and a good picture agency with a deep archive can help. Want a list of scorers of World Cup Final winning goals from 1932 to 2014? You may have Germany’s Mario Götze already, but what about pics of Zito (1962), Bertoni (1978) and Zidane (1998)? “Let our picture researchers at PA Images take the strain. If you have an idea for a list, however early stages, then talk to us. By working collaboratively, we can help you flesh out the idea, and then source the best pictures to illustrate it. We spend a lot of time creating and curating content packages for publishers.”

4. Think creatively

Increasingly, images are being used to drive stories, not vice versa. In February, BuzzFeed was inspired by a picture of Ed Miliband surveying flood damage to create a feature, ‘21 Pictures Of Politicians In Wellies Staring At Floods’, a page that has since been viewed over 650,000 times. They then ran the idea further and used that same picture fifteen more times, by dropping it into a series of famous film posters in the feature, ‘15 pictures of Ed Miliband staring at things’.

The trick is to see the editorial potential in a seemingly everyday shot. Take a picture of former PM Tony Blair in suit and red tie. On the face of it, nothing particularly interesting in that, until you recall that Blair practically always wore blue ties. Armed with that knowledge, you suddenly have the potential to turn the picture into something much more interesting. PA Images’ picture researchers and account managers eat, sleep and breathe pictures and can spot these extra layers.

5. Give context

“When things happen, it’s very unusual that something similar hasn’t happened before.” A helicopter crash, a sex scandal, a cabinet reshuffle, a royal birth. Stories can be elevated and brought to life using archive pictures. Archive shots of Princess Diana holding the infant Prince William in 1982 and the Queen holding baby Charles (1948) worked particularly well alongside pictures of Kate and baby George last summer and made the coverage much more engaging. Another way of adding historical context is through the use of timelines, a service PA Images offers in conjunction with the wider Press Association group, where hosted timelines can be deployed quickly to further deepen reader engagement with an article.

6. Innovate

Editors should always be looking for new and engaging ways to present their content and PA Images is at the forefront of developing innovative new ways to present images. One popular recent innovation is the 360, whereby six specially mounted cameras capture a 360 degrees panoramic shot allowing the viewer to see the view in front and behind the photographer, as well as to the sides and on top! PA Images recently uploaded a 360 taken at this year’s Monaco Grand Prix to its own website and saw record levels of traffic to that one page. “It’s just a totally different view of a scene we all know well: we’ve all seen pictures of cars racing round the track, but with the 360 we can see the boats in the harbour and the crowd watching. It’s amazing how much it brings a new vibrancy to a relatively familiar scene.”

“If you want to increase engagement with your content”, says Martin, “then a more creative and proactive use of pictures will help you achieve that. Call us for a chat! We are passionate about pictures and want to help publishers build audience engagement. If you already use us, then find out what more we can do for you. If you’ve never spoken to us before, then tell us what you do and we’ll tell you if we can help. The chances are we can.”


PA Images 2nd & 3rd Floor, Pearl House,

Friar Lane, Nottingham, NG1 6BT

Martin Stephens, Managing Director


Tel: 0115 851 2746


Twitter: @PAImages