Wednesday, November 18, 2009

50 x $200 = 200 x $50

This rather obvious formula is indicative of the reason behind the plight facing contributors to stock photo industry today as it transitions from a high-priced print usage system to a high-volume digital system of economics. Stated simply, it means that a stock photographer today needs to adapt image output to mass marketing at lower prices – something easier said than done. A stock shooter makes the same amount of return from making 50 sales at $200 apiece as making 200 sales at $50 apiece. This begs the question: Is this equation in marketing transition actually occurring?

Although the transition to digital marketing began over ten years ago in the stock industry, it is only recently that its full impact has produced a turmoil of new pricing models. While we have been focused on obvious culprits, such as the proliferation of image glut bought on by easier entry to the market for first timers due to the simplicity of digital cameras along with the appearance of cheap marketing through microstock agencies, the real culprit is the switch in image usage from print to digital output.

Newspapers and magazines are dying at a rapid rate, and along with them the high image pricing that was commensurate with this medium. While we would expect the image usage in outlet to make its appearance someplace else in the digital media, the full transfer has not taken place and therein rests the conundrum. It means that the income the photographer is losing in print, is not fully being made up through current internet sources. The internet, as a commercial media outlet, has not evolved to a point where its revenue stream is fully developed. It is important for a stock photographer today to realize that this is occurring and to begin taking tactical steps to make a smooth transition.

Bucking the inevitable trend indicated by the formula above by seeking only large individual image sales will only result in frustration through failure for stock shooters. The trend is inevitable. Photographers will have to adapt or die. Already Getty, the largest stock agency in the world, is adapting to the re-pricing structure by tiering its prices and including a full range of lower price ranges. The problem is that the market for the lower priced imagery has not fully matured to where its volume is profitable enough to completely supplant the former print market so we are left hanging onto an archaic business model that is rapidly moving to oblivion.

A positive result of the transfer to internet usage of images is the mammoth global market it opens up. This is much larger than the reach of the former print outlet. The question is when will this new market reach critical mass so that it not only replaces but ultimately supplants image usage in print. Another positive aspect is that spreading marketing over a larger customer base results in a more stable income stream. This is because it is easier to absorb a few sales dropouts from 200 potential sales than from 50.

The stock photographer today needs to adapt to the shift that is taking place. The new marketing form requires a new business model. There are several possible steps to take. One is to diversify the stock subject range covered particularly into more specialized areas where you have an edge over other photographers. I know of one photographer who derives considerable income from photographs of butterflies because it is a subject he knows well and excels at producing superb images. The market for butterfly images might not have been extensive during the print era, but the internet era opens up far more potential outlets for this material.

Another way to adapt is to find ways of widening the exposure for your stock images. The past few years has seen the advent of a new type of agency model called “stock networks”. These are aggregators of images. They serve as a conduit for stock photographers into the widest possible global network for stock sales. Companies like Tetra Images, and Blend Images submit images to a vast stock agency network throughout the world. It would be virtually impossible for the individual shooter to attain this range of exposure. The stock networks add value to the images by having them pre-edited, pre-keyworded, and run through quality control so they are market-ready when they are released into the agency network. This is a huge saving for the agencies and results in higher return rates to the stock networks. These higher rates are passed along to the contributors in the form of higher royalty rates.

Stock photographers also need to explore image uses that did not exist before or were not previously lucrative. Print sales is one such outlet. This is an emerging market as cultural acceptance of photography as a decorator art form expands. When you go to a hotel today you are more likely to see photographs appearing on the walls than in prior times. Photography usage is also proliferating on things we use in daily life – mugs, tee-shirts, calendars, cell-phones, wall paper, etc.

The successful stock photographer of the future will bear little resemblance to a stock shooter of ten years ago. It is time to re-examine the stock business model and, without prejudice of relying on archaic marketing concepts, to understand and align ourselves with the new, emerging market. To be sure, this will be a bumpy road until dedicated highways are paved into it. Waiting it out will not ease the process. Seeking the means to adapt now will serve to make the transition smoother as the shift inevitably occurs.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, what do you think of the go it alone appraoch and setting up one's own site for direct sales?