345 EXAMINING ONLINE MARKETING OPTIONS
October 25, 2000
There is a sudden explosion of options for photographers to market their images on-line. At
Photo+Expo in New York, in addition to stock agency sites, the following will be offering
photographers on-line options: Workbook.com, Directstock.com, Exactphoto.com, Alamy.com,
Speedpix.com, Stockmedia.net, Mira.com, Thinkstock.com, and Rightspring.com. Several will have
booths on the floor.
Each has a different strategy for marketing. Each is likely to reach a different segment of
the market. Photographers need to examine the options carefully. In most cases it will be to
the photographer's advantage to test several marketing options rather than get locked into only
Just looking at the percentage the photographer will receive, or the cost of putting an image
on-line is not enough. There are several other issues that need to be considered. They
include: Keywording, Scans, How to Leverage Keywording and Scanning, the availability of
Automatic Pricing and Negotiated Pricing, Editing Strategy, Worldwide Reach and most important
of all -- how the site will be Marketed.
The following is a discussion of these issues.
Keywording can be a very difficult and time consuming task. It must be done well or users will
not be able to find your images. There is a learning curve to become skilled at keywording and
it helps if you do it regularly. You may get better results by outsourceing this activity to
someone who keywords on a regular basis rather than trying to save a little money by doing it
Different people given the task of keywording the same images often come up with different
words. The ideal system, from the buyers point of view, allows the buyer to use any word or
phrase that comes to mind and still find all the appropriate images. A system that tries to
lump all images into a relatively few categories can work fine as long as the number of images
in the database is relatively small. But once you get a large database (the kind most buyers
will want to go to because it gives them more choice), the number of images in any category
becomes too large to conveniently search. In this case there must be additional words that
help narrow the search within a category, and this points to the need for extensive and careful
keywording of all images.
It is hard to imagine having too many keywords, so long as each word is truly relevant to the
image. It is important to have a system for including all synonyms that mean "exactly the
same" as the word all the time. Both singular and plural should always be included. If you
hope to sell overseas there must be a system for translating into at least seven languages:
English, German, Spanish, French, Japanese, Portuguese and Italian. Keep in mind that within
some of these languages (English for example) there are different spellings of certain words
used in different countries. "Color" and "Colour" are one example. Both spellings should
appear in your English keyword list.
With the speed of most search engines today the number of keywords is unlikely to significantly
slow the search. Where speed becomes a factor is in the time it takes to write image files to
the desktop, not search the database.
The best way to keyword is to use a basic word list broken down into categories to jog the
memory. Reading the words, determining which ones are appropriate to the particular image and
clicking on those words is much better than having a blank screen where you are required to
think up appropriate words and type them in. Custom keywords can be added when they are not
part of the basic keyword list. In addition it is important to add General Category words,
Orientation of the images and whether it is model or property released.
Multi-word keywords are impossible to avoid, but they can often create problems because search
engines look at them as individual words. Thus "baby boomers" is more likely to give you
pictures of a lot of babies than people of a particular generation.
The size of the full size scan that is immediately available is an important consideration.
Many people will tell you that you must have a 40MB to 60MB drum scan of every image you put
on-line so the buyer will have sufficient data to reproduce the image at any size he or she
wants.. There are a few problems with this strategy.
The first is that such scans cost a lot more than PhotoCD scans, or scans you can create
yourself with a Nikon Coolscan. The cost may limit the number of images you can afford to make
available for client viewing.
Clients will not buy images they can not see. It is important to get a broad selection of your
work in an on-line database where clients can review it, because it is often difficult to
determine exactly what the client will want to use. You don't necessarily need a lot of
variations on a single subject, but it is important to show the full range of subjects you have
to offer, if possible.
Some might say, "I'll go ahead and pay the costs of large scans because I want the clients to
see my work in the best light, and I never want to lose a sale because my scan isn't good
In all cases, even if a 60MB file is available, the size of the file that is being reviewed as
a thumbnail or a preview image is far less than 1MB. The only time the larger file is really
needed is for reproduction, not in the process of making the decision as to whether to use the
Secondly, keep in mind that for most photographers only a small percentage of the images
available in the market ever sell. It is very easy to spend much more on scanning than you
will generate in royalties.
Many people operate on a scan-on-demand principle. They create an inexpensive scan in the
range of 18MB that is used for preview and selection. This file is also perfectly satisfactory
for all digital uses and the majority of print uses that are 1/2 page or smaller. In those
rare cases when the proposed use is larger they re-scan that particular images to the larger
size that the client needs, or supply the client with a piece of film that the client can scan.
Another options that is sometimes used is to interpolate the smaller file using Genuine
Fractals in order to create enough data to meet the clients needs. Stock Connection uses this
technique quite frequently and so far all customers have been satisfied with the results.
Granted, this scan-on-demand strategy may not be the optimum in client service, but for a fixed
amount of dollars you can offer the client a much broader selection than would be possible if
you drum scan every images. Stock Connection uses the scan-on-demand strategy and we have
never lost a sale because we were unable to deliver a scan of sufficient size in time to meet
the clients deadline.
Leverage Keywording and Scanning
Look for ways to get multiple use out of a single scan and set of keywords. Idealy you only
want to scan and keyword once, keeping in mind what I said above about doing a small scan first
and scanning-on-demand when you need larger files. You don't want to have to re-scan and
keyword every time you post images on a new site.
Don't try to discover the perfect site. Make your images available through various sites on a
non-exclusive basis and test different marketing strategies. Many sites will allow you to post
images non-exclusively. If you are eventually able to make some type of restricted use sale
for one of the images that image can easily be removed from the other sites for the period of
Don't assume that you must provide a worldwide exclusive on each image you put on a site in
order to do business.
There are advantages to automatic pricing for certain uses. There are also tremendous
advantages to negotiated pricing. I recommend that automatic pricing ought to be reserved for
relatively small uses that would normally command low prices. Any use that might command a fee
over $400 should be negotiated.
Many on-line sites have tried to oversimplify their pricing schedule in an effort to compete
with the RF model on price. This is unnecessary. As long as the system makes it relatively
easy for the customer to find the price for their specific use (type, size, circulation
combination), the price schedule can have a number of variations.
Automatic prices do not have to be low to generate sales. Customers make their decision as to
where to look for images based on a variety of factors including selection, quality of the
imagery, ease of search and price, not just price alone. PictureQuest recently raised the
rates in their pricing schedules for certain electronic uses. In the first month the average
gross sale price for the uses they made for Stock Connection jumped from $125 per image to
$225. Moreover, we had more sales that month for those uses than we had in the previous month.
I believe that the only people who should be allowed to use the automatic pricing schedules are
those who are willing to pay instantly by credit card. If they want to be billed and the
seller has to end up chasing them to collect there are additional costs in the transaction and
the price should be higher. If the customer doesn't want to pay by credit card then the fee
for use should automatically fall into negotiated pricing.
There are also risks that if you sell for low prices and then bill the customer, the customer
may simply refuse to pay. Customers may quickly figure out that it is more trouble than what
its worth for the seller to chase them around the world to collect $100. If that happens
photographers could end up giving a lot of free pictures to low end customers. That's not
something any of us want to do.
Look for a system that supports negotiated pricing. A system that allows for the questioning
of the customer about the specifics of the usage is absolutely essential if you are to get the
best prices for your work. The more the system relies on fixed prices the more likely that the
overall average price for your work will be low.
Look carefully at how editing of the material is handled. In order to be successful the system
needs to make a broad cross section of imagery available to the customer, while at the same
time providing a tight selection that will meet the needs of any particular buyer, anywhere in
the world, at any particular moment.
This is a very easy statement to make, and very difficult to implement. No one has it right
yet -- not Getty, not Corbis, no one. Think for a moment about how images searches used to
work. Agencies would draw together a broad selection of imagery on every conceivable subject
within their specialty. When a customer had a need they called, explained it to a RESEARCHER
and the researcher searched the file and picked out a small targeted selection, not everything
in the file drawers. Customer tended to continue to use those companies who consistently
provided them with well targeted selections.
Now the digital database has become the file drawers. Make your (file drawer) selection to
narrow and the chances of having the right image to fit any particular client need is slim.
Customers may leave because they can never find what they want.
Also keep in mind that tight editing is one of the major reasons photographers are unhappy with
Getty and Corbis. They can't get enough of their production seen.
But, make the selection too broad -- provide too much redundancy --and there will simply be too
much for any customer to search through. They will leave because you require them to do too
There still may be a major role for the researcher in all of this, despite the fact that the
market leaders are pushing systems that would force the customers to bear the load of the
research. Customers are already calling agencies with on-line sites and asking them to put
together a selection of material to fit a particular need and e-mail them the address of the
lightbox that will show only this selection.
Researchers may be an important substitute for tight editing and provide a significant
marketing advantage to those organizations that provide good research. Such a service becomes
particularly important in selling internationally. There may be problems with the meaning of
certain keywords when they are translated from the original language of the keyworder into the
language of the searcher. Also, stylistic difference of various regions may make many images
inappropriate for use in that area and a waste of time for the customers of that area to have
to search through. Local researchers and agents can provide a very important service in these
Given these considerations, a very tightly edited site with only the "best high quality images"
as defined by one, or a few, editors may not be a good thing. Volume with a base quality level
could be a very good thing, provided it also goes along with a system to offer customers a more
targeted selection when they need it. It is important to recognize that while keywording is
important here, keywording alone is not going to do the job.
Only about 45% of worldwide sales are in North America. If the system you are using is only
designed to make sales in North America you could be giving up over half the potential market
for your images.
It is not enough to say, "Because my image is on the Internet it can be accessed anywhere in
the world." There must be systems in various parts of the world to market and promote the use
of the site where your images are located. There must be systems to negotiate, to monitor
usages and to collect. If the proposed site doesn't deal with these issues then they are not
Promotion and Marketing
The toughest part of making any of these sites work is the marketing and promotion plan. Many
promises will be made, and it will be very difficult for any photographer to track much of what
is promised. You may be able to see their ads in major magazines, but their direct mail
campaign will be hard to track. It will be impossible to determine how many personal contacts
they have made by telephone and how many customers they have personally visited to demonstrate
This is one of the other reasons why testing a variety of sites simultaneously is the only way
to make a reasonable determination as to which one will generate results for you.
Agency Exclusive Contracts
Some photographers have exclusive agency contracts which prohibit them from using any other
agency to license rights for them. These contracts are a carry over from a time when agencies
limited the number of photographers they represented, aggressively promoted and worked for
their photographers, and were concerned about trying to further the photographer's career.
This type of relationship for the most part is dead. There is no justification for an
exclusive agency agreement unless you have this type of relationship. If you don't have this
type of relationship then get out of the exclusive agency agreement as fast as you can.
If they won't agree to a non-exclusive agreement, most agencies now will agree to an image
exclusive arrangement. With image exclusive at least you have the option to try to sell the
images your agency refuses to accept.