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The myth that microstock agencies hurt stock photo pricing
Thursday, March 08, 2007
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I was talking with a photographer friend of mine about why he doesn't sell his own images on his website. His response was, "Who can compete with microstock agencies selling images for $1 each?"
My immediate response was, "I do just fine. In fact, I've raised my
prices at the beginning of the year."
And that got me to thinking, Why is it that I can do that? Why aren't
buyers pressing me to lower my prices? Why aren't competitors stealing
The short answer is counter-intuitive for economists because there's a twist
to this story that is rarely ever seen: it's not the buyer pressing prices
lower, it's the competitors themselves. They're simply acting naturally,
according to the laws of supply and demand: as the supply goes up,
prices drop so competitors can sell their wares. But what's happening
in the photo microstock industry is a bit of twist: buyers aren't putting
pricing pressures lower, but the sellers aren't expecting that.
How can we tell? Well, by the data. The premise begins with the question I
posed at the top: why aren't my sales hurting? The two-part answer begins
with the fact that my site ranks very, very highly. (Or, it did at
the time of this writing back in 2007.) This means that when people
search for images, they get to my site ahead of many others, at least
for certain keywords. (I rank high for a lot of keywords, but I don't
claim to have cornered the market by any means.) The second part of the
answer is that if they find the image they want, they simply buy it.
If price was a concern, they would move on.
One might ask, "How do you know who's moving on and who's staying?"
Again, data. My traffic has gone up and down dramatically since I started
selling images online back in 1998. Since then, there's been a very tight
correlation between the total unique visitors and the number of images I
sell. The only variations to that rule have come when I've adjusted prices,
and even then, the results were counter-intuitive. When I started selling
pictures, my prices were naively low and I got very little buyers. It wasn't
until I raised my prices did I finally get more buyers. (I talk about this
experience in greater detail here.)
Once my pricing stabilized, my ratio of traffic to buyers has remained
constant. Even as microstock came into the picture, and people were dropping
their prices precipitously, I never did. Yet, the ratio of traffic to sales
has remained flat. If pricing were a factor, that ratio would not remain
This then begs the question, why doesn't the buyer care about price?
There are two very likely answers that are both supported by data.
First, most buyers are not aware of other, lower-priced sellers.
Second, despite the possibility of a lower price elsewhere, the differential
is not enough to bother. Let's take each separately.
Public Awareness of Stock Agencies
Regarding the "awareness" of other photo-selling sites (like microstock),
we are still in an era where online licensing of imagery is still unknown
to most photo buyers. Most pro photographers would have a hard time
believing that, but this is explained by their historical roots: most pros
are used to a very narrow group of buyersthe old-style traditional
print/news media companieswho use traditional stock agencies.
There was a time when media companies were the only buyers of images,
and most pros (and agencies) continue to believe this delusion. As long
as this class of buyer continues to buy in large volumes, the delusion
But traditional media agencies are not the only buyers of images
by orders of magnitude. (Editing note: In an article I would write
several months after this onewhich would be titled,
the Photo Licensing Market (Tuesday, July 17, 2007)I cite numerous
data that supports the thesis that most photo buyers are consumers or
non-traditional office workers, designers, stay-home-moms who create
brochures for clients, and so on.)
Those who have not worked in the traditional media industry are
largely unaware of traditional stock photography websites, and this
population numbers in the 10s of millions. And what keeps those buyers
from finding traditional stock photography websites (or microstock sites)
is their poor search engine rankings. The plethora of consumer-generated
photos on the internet dilutes their visibility, and they do nothing to
fix this problem. Their traffic is low, no one links to them (because
there's no reason to), and they have no other content for search engines
to index. Because photos themselves don't index well, this puts them pretty
far down on search results when people do searches.
As for price sensitivity, the reason why buyers don't balk at my prices
is because most buyers aren't spending their own money. Their budgets are
set by others: clients, employers, and so on. Those budgets have to factor
in a large number of expenses, such as equipment, and the general overhead
of running a business. More specifically, the cost associated with whatever
the project happens to be, which includes printing, copy-editing, and of
course image licensing. The most costly element in this equation is labor.
The employee or contractor that's looking for the image costs a lot of money.
So, when you calculate the total cost of the project that requires
that image, the actual license fee is nearly negligible. In fact,
a research study I did for a client in 2005 showed that photo buyers
are encouraged to limit the amount of time spent finding images because
their time is very expensive. Photos aren't.
So, when a photo buyer starts to do a search, and they quickly land on my
site (because of my ranking), the one and only question is: does the photo
work? If so, price is not a factor. A $50 license fee is identical to a $1
license fee for this reason: if they had to spend only a dollar, they would
to spend another $50 in employee time continuing a search that would
yield no appreciable difference in the final image. Spend the money and
(Editing update: Since this article was written, Google has improved its
"importance" of images as content, which has increased the visibility of
stock agency sites, and their associated rankings. While agency websites now
outperform my site, my overall traffic has been cut in half. However,
the ratio of traffic to buyers has remained constant, further supporting
the claim that price is not a factor. I just need to boost my rankings
again. But that's another topic.)
The photo licensing industry has been in a downward spiral for reasons
that have only to do with their own lack of economic analysis and objective
research. It is certainly true that there are price-sensitive buyers, but
the far greater factor in selling images is search engine ranking. If you
solve that problem for yourself, then you needn't worry about pricing.
And this is primarily why I've continually called for stock agencies to
partner (or merge) with consumer-oriented photo sites. Getty should acquire
Flickr from Yahoo. Corbis should acquire Smugmug. You name the photo-friendly
consumer site, and there's a poorly performing stock agency that should either
acquire them, or be acquired by them. Once stock agencies find themselves in
a better-ranked position that yields more traffic and user activity, they will
find that price is not the factor they thought it was.