Changing Business Strategies at Stock Image Sites

In a Second Wind Forums post, a member asked if anyone else had been notified by stock imagery house Shutterstock about increased fees for image subscription plans.  We investigated what may be driving price/subscription changes, and found some alternatives ad agencies may like to investigate.

Alternatives to Old-Fashioned Stock Images

The average internet user has a propensity to see images on the web as “free” to be used without citing copyright or even crediting the creator. Thank Google Images for the widespread ignorance of copyright abuse. As a result of the “freemium” economy, royalty-free image access is expanding. Mobile phone cameras have become so very good, there are now multitudes of amateur-but-high-quality images available. Instagram is driving a new nail into stock imagery’s coffin. Consider this list of free image websites. And free sites aren’t the only new wrinkle in stock images.

Olapic offers user generated content (UGC) instead of tired, inauthentic, emotionless stock images from the old stock giants, Getty, Shutterstock and Adobe/Fotalia. The big three are suffering the same problem—no growth, and draining cash due to ongoing price wars. Olapic argues that the old form of stock imagery is dead. It certainly shows signs of dying, as more people create their own imagery with now-ubiquitous, high-quality smartphone cameras. In a world driven by all things visual, the authenticity of user-generated photos raises consumer trust, claims Olapic. And they suggest that as the big stock houses try to imitate UGC, at best their images only manage to look like they’re imitating UGC.

Snapwire, another UGC-style stock operation, invites customers to describe the photo they need, set a price range, and then look at submitted results. Professional photographers generate many of the images, either as a side gig to their regular client assignments, or as skill-testing creative challenges. The site is set up to let photographers work directly with image buyers. The site also lets their “pro” image creators share searchable portfolios. Image creators get to keep a substantial percentage of image sales profits, compared to microstock sites that often pay creators little more than 20%, and may take away creator copyright to boot. Buyers can also license exclusive use for a set period.

Something for Nothing

Today’s image buyers see photography as a commodity, and are tired of the middlemen dipping hands into buyers’ wallets in exchange for the use of notoriously mediocre images. This buyer mindset is forcing the older image giants to find new strategies to attract customers. Too often, they raise fees to ever more vertigo-inducing heights, or default to worst practices by accusing customers of copyright or licensing violations.

Getty just won a court case compelling Google to remove its “view image” button from Google Image Search results. Viewers could click the button to open a window displaying only the image, and thus conveniently ignore the image’s source… and copyright information. While there are some workarounds, most users will have to click “visit” to view the image on the source website.

This is part and parcel of the legal stance Getty and the other image giants have had to pursue to protect a decade or more of acquisitions and library building. But while they gathered content, they neglected customer experience and pushed out many professional photographers who once fed new images into the bigger stock collections. As it has become easier to market one’s own images directly to buyers, the big stock houses have tried to regain control by more stringently managing pricing and licensing. That has driven away buyers annoyed at having to pay inflated prices for images often available on other microstock sites or straight from the photographer without a middleman’s fee.

Recently, Getty promoted Ultrapacks of licensed images at sizeable discounts (8% to 31%) in a move some see as desperate. They also made email offers to individual users of substantially lower rates for royalty-free images. The promotions angered professional photographers, who justifiably complained that their professional quality images are being devalued. One photographer suggested that a return to pricing images in tiers, based on quality, would make more sense for everyone. But can that be done in the era of free imagery and images-on-demand? Client expectations are seen as a big problem: they demand custom images, but at lowest-tier pricing.

Arguably, Getty chased customers away from iStock after acquiring it by harassing users over inaccurate or false copyright claims. Shutterstock is currently still free of Getty’s acquisitive grasp, but with royalty-free sites proliferating, and more photographers offering their images directly to licensees, Getty could start sniffing around their next acquisition target.

In the meantime Getty flipped the UGC strategy by offering Embed, a library of images for non-commercial online use, appealing to bloggers and individual consumers. (Getty gets to collect data about the use of their Embedded Viewer, and may also serve ads through that tool.) The company also began offering a curated version of its enormous image library via its Foto page, featuring collections of images around topical themes. Those images are licensable. The strategies are aimed at attracting individual users to their paid image library.

Different Strategy

While Shutterstock risks loss of subscribers through escalating fees, they also are testing more user tools to balance fee increases. Shutterstock just launched a Chrome-store app, Reveal, that lets people “match” images seen on the web with similar, royalty-free images in Shutterstock’s collection—encouraging businesses to respect copyright as well as protect themselves with license agreements. In addition to Reveal, the stock company also released a Copy Space app (to hunt for images with “open” space for text in specific zones of an image); and Refine (allowing users to click on an image to find similar images). The firm also offers email templates and other marketing tools to appeal to small business marketers looking to simplify marketing, and hopefully, improve their marketing impact with well-designed layouts and strong visuals.

Stock image licensing for business and commercial use continues to be the easiest way to find good images for promotional work. But users must stay alert to alterations in how images are licensed and manage the cost of subscription services by mixing in alternatives to licensed images. Keep Second Wind informed as you encounter new wrinkles in stock image use. The view keeps changing…

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