Customer Service

Posted on 7/1/2002 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



July 1, 2002

Is the stock industry giving customers what they want?

The day is not that far off when the only images available for licensing will be those that
can be searched and delivered online.

Getty says that "virtually all their revenue" (over 90% of non-footage sales, or sales where
CD-ROM discs are delivered) come from images that can be found and delivered online. Corbis
hasn't announced a percentage, but given how focused their strategy has always been toward
online it seems logical that nearly all their sales come from images that are online.
Masterfile says that 89% of their North American revenue comes from images found online.

Increasingly, if an image is going to sell it must be available for search and delivery
online. But, there are at least two factors that greatly limit the number and variety of
images that will be made available online.

1 - The first is the up front cost of scanning and keywording. This places a severe limit on
the number of new images any agency, even the largest, can afford to show.

If you go to and search in the creative section for the four orientations
vertical, horizontal, panoramic and square you get a total of about 450,000 images. That is
just a little over 1/2 of 1% of the 70 million images Getty says were in the files of the
brands they acquired. Getty has scanned most of the older images they intend to scan. If a
file image is not online now it's unlikely to be added to the database. They are aggressively
returning all unscanned images to their photographers and in 2000 returned over 10 million
images. By now total returns probably number close to 15 million. According to photographers a
very small percentage of the new images submitted are being added to Getty's database.

In the early 90's Corbis scanned large numbers of the images from the photographers they chose
to represent. Editorial photographers indicate they still get a good acceptance ratio,
although not as good as a few years ago. On the other hand, Advertising shooters, particularly
those with The Stock Market, say the editing is so tight that very little of what they produce
is being accepted for scanning.

Masterfile and Zefa say they are scanning some of their file images, but their emphasis is on
the recently created images their photographers supply. By the end of 2003 they expect to have
returned all their unscanned images to their photographers.

Other smaller agencies are caught in the dilemma of how to cover the costs of scanning their
file images, and how much of their analog file to scan if there is going to be a significant
reduction in requests to research the analog file.

Clearly, only a very small percentage of the images currently in stock photo files will ever
be placed online.

2 - There is also a movement to keep image databases relatively small and tightly edited. It
is generally believed this is what customers want. Customer have complained that with large
databases they must look through too many inappropriate images to find what they need.
Suppliers haven't figured out an effective way to have a large database of digital images, and
still make it easy for customers to focus their searches in such a way that they can find what
they need by only having to look through a relatively small selection of images.

It should be remembered that in the old system all those inappropriate images were in the
files and available, but there was an in house editor pre-selecting what the customer would
see. This pre-selection is based on a very specific set of criteria supplied by the customer.
If the editor simply dumped everything from a general category on the customer there would be
loud screams - the same kind of complaints agents are hearing from customers today when they
are required to search through large databases. In the past good editors would search through
hundreds of transparencies to find the 20 or 30 that were most appropriate to the customer's
needs. This happened out of sight of the buyer, but was a very valuable customer service.
Increasingly, this service is being lost in the digital environment.

The elimination of second-stage editing also has a major impact on how images are chosen for a
primary database. If the file must be edited so tightly that no customer will ever be
disturbed by the number of images they have to look through, then it places great restrictions
on what can be added to the file.

In the past, the initial editing decision as to what should go into the file could be much
broader because second level editing existed. The first level of editing was based on image
quality, and whether there was a chance -- not a high probability or a certainty -- that some
future buyer might want to use the image.

Often it turns out that images that the editor was not very enthusiastic about, or thought had
a very remote chance of ever being used, are the ones some customers want to buy. As the level
of editing is raised to a higher and higher standard more and more of the images customers
would like to use are lost because they are not put in a place where the customers can find

Predominant Strategy

In an effort to "satisfy the customer" most online operators employ an editing strategy that
selects only those images they believe have a very high probability of selling quickly and
frequently. They focus on current trends. They try to eliminate as much redundancy as possible
in every subject category (although competing agencies may offer very similar material). Their
goal is to give the customer a limited number of choices in any search. To be successful using
this strategy an editor must:

  • have an intimate understanding of what ALL buyers will want in the future,

  • believe that, "All buyers WILL LIKE exactly what I like!", or

  • be willing to lose a significant percentage of sales because they don't have what the
    customer needs.

An Alternative

I believe a looser edit that produces a much larger database with a more eclectic offering is
a better solution. This database would provide a broad depth of coverage in all subject areas,
or if it is a specialist agency database, a depth of coverage in the specialty.

Such an edit will probably produce a high number of hits on most searches, particularly if the
images are not well keyworded, or if the customer is not skilled in using keywords to narrow a

To aid the customers, I would recommend instituting two additional editing strategies.

  • I would encourage customers who don't have time to search through many inappropriate
    images, to call and let our editors produce a custom sort for them based on their specific

  • Secondly, I would institute a strategy of "Collections" similar to that being
    implemented by Alamy and SuperStock. This makes it possible for customers to see a small
    sample of what the agency's editors believe are the best images in large frequently requested
    categories. These "Collections" are pre-selected by the agency's editors and only a click away
    for the customer.

    The editors produce custom lightboxes of the 50 to 100 of the best images in a category.
    Ideally, whenever someone does a search using one of the selected keywords a message comes up
    saying, "Do you want to see the Editor's Choice or All Images In The Database." This reminds
    the customer that they can get a custom selection if they like, but most importantly the depth
    of coverage is available if they can't find what they need in the "Editor's Choice." The
    agency would determine the subjects for "Editor's Choice" by looking at the most frequently
    requested keywords.

In order to get a larger selection of images into the database, some sellers are scanning
large quantities of images at low resolution and doing minimal keywording. They scan-on-demand
whenever an image is actually requested.

So far, few organizations have adopted this strategy. Nearly everyone has gone toward tighter
editing and taking a huge portion of the existing imagery out of the market.

What Do The Buyers Want?

Will the prevailing and predominant strategy really benefit the buyers in the long term? Will
customers buy what an editor has decided the majority should want? Will customers insist on
establishing their own criteria for their image needs?

If the customers can't find stock images that fulfill their needs will they:

  • settle for the next best image just because it is easily available and less
    expensive, (Getty hopes that's what most customers will do.)

  • seek out other harder to find sources that offer a greater depth and variety of

  • return to those sources that continue to maintain analog files and provide research
    services of these files, as well as offering some selection online,

  • hire a photographer to do an assignment so they can get specifically what they need, or

  • do without images.

I believe many customers will seek other sources because they will need an image that fits
their specific requirements. The first place they will go is to the agencies that still
maintain analog files and provide good file research. But many of the agencies who used to do
file research have eliminated that service. Many of the agencies that are trying to maintain
these files are struggling because they don't receive enough request.

Then the only way to find images that were formerly in agency files will be to go directly to
photographers. This will be a very difficult process for most buyers because there is no
convenient way to find most of these photographers.

Some, who can afford it, will hire photographers to do assignments and produce exactly what
they need.

Unfortunately, in the not too distant future, some customers are likely to find it more
difficult to get the images they really need than it was before we had digital databases. When
they can find the right image the price may be higher, and in many cases they won't be able to
find the image in stock (even when they know it previously existed) at any price.

Now when a customer calls Getty Images and wants to use an image that was previously in the
files but has not been digitized, Getty will often tell them that they "no longer represent
the image." Sometimes they provide the photographer's contact information so the customer can
go to the photographer directly. However, one photographer reported recently that when a
customer finally found him the only information that Getty had provided was, "He lives
somewhere in the Southwest." This was all Getty could offer even though the photographer in
question is still on contract to Getty Images.

Customers want variety. They would like to use images that are no longer available. The fact
that the image was created three, five or even more years ago is not a problem depending on
the subject matter, but some of the database operators are instituting policies that they
won't scan any image that was shot more than a year ago.

Unfortunately, much of the historical material will simply disappear. It may still exist, but
it won't be where it can be found.

In summary, I believe the industry is moving away from being able to give many customers what
they want.

Decision Time For Photographers

Tight editing presents a major problem for photographers who are trying to make a living
producing stock images. Much of their past work that was generating revenue has either been
pulled from the files or is no longer being actively marketed.

Getting these images returned and then getting them working again can be very difficult. In
most cases the images have been filed by category and everything needs to be sorted by
photographer before it can be returned. This can take months for a small file and years for a
large one. It is a very labor intensive process. Funding the sorting is often a real strain
for an agent that is trying to spend every spare dollar to build up an online presence.

When the photographer gets his or her images back, it will be hard to find a new agent who
will actively market them. Most agencies are focused on adding recently created work, not
material that was created a few years or more ago.

Some photographers will be tempted to put their images with an agency that just has an analog
file, but doesn't have a good online offering. But, if customers are no longer asking for file
searches will anyone look at these images that are in an analog file?

I believe it is critical to get as many images as possible on a searchable web site. Try to
deal with companies that will back up their web offering with analog searches when what the
customer needs is not on the web.

But keep in mind that for the agency getting the right balance between a web offering and
analog search, and still remaining profitable, will be very tricky balancing act.

Photographers with deep files may need to think a lot harder about developing their own
searchable web sites and promoting their brand rather than relying on an agency to handle all
the marketing of their images. Several companies offer relatively inexpensive options for
setting up and hosting a searchable web site, Services like the Veer Directory
will make it easier to promote a site once it is functioning.

Copyright © 2002 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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