Integrating Traditional Stock With Microstock

Posted on 6/1/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (2)

It no longer makes sense to keep microstock and traditional stock separate. It’s time to look at integration.

Traditional sellers who think they can entice customers to come to their sites and pay more for the images they need by telling them that, “We have better photographers and better images,” are deluding themselves. In a few cases the best image for a particular use will be a traditionally priced image, but that is certainly not a general rule. And customers know it.

Generally speaking customers have demonstrated they prefer sites that offer a broad cross section of all types of imagery rather than seeking out small specialist collections for something that fits their specific needs. This is not to say that there is no place for specialist collection. Obviously the niche collections are useful to some customers, but because they lack marketing resources they are often hard for many potential users to find. Most niche collections also try to place their images on large, diverse collections and many earn a significant portion of their revenue through those venues.

A big part of why the two pricing philosophies have remained separate is contributor antagonism to other ways of licensing usages. Contributors need to recognize that both systems have pros and cons that should be carefully examined. Distributors should look for ways to adopt the best parts of both systems. Some customers benefit from one pricing strategy and others from a different strategy. In addition, for any given customer, this can change on a project-by-project basis. Failing to recognize and acknowledge these facts is hurting both creators and distributors. In addition it doesn’t provide the best possible service to the customer.

Existing Crossover

Despite some contributors saying “Everything should be RM” and others saying “Everything should be microstock” there is really much more cross over today than there was a few years ago.

RM is generally though of as being high priced and licensed for specific uses. But RM images are often licensed at prices as low, or lower than those charged for microstock images. Microstock is thought of as being low priced, but iStockphotos has 5 different brands, each at a different price level. Fotolia has its Infinite collection. Images in this collection are generally priced 10 times higher than those in the company’s standard collection. Add Extended License fees if a customer wants to print more than 500,000 copies of an image and often the fee to use a microstock image is higher than the fee to use one that is RM.

Creators and suppliers need to recognize how the market has changed and adapt to it.

Too Many Images

One of the arguments for keeping collections separate is that there are already too many images in the big collections. Adding more would bury an even higher percentage of the images. This may be true, but the answer is not to keep collections separate based solely on pricing strategy, or to limit their size, but to improve methods of search thus making it easier for customers to quickly narrow their searches and find the best images for their needs.

Sure there are many customers who say they will never use anything but microstock images because of price. But sometimes when they see a higher priced image on iStockphoto or Fotolia that they really like, they will discover that they can afford to buy it for the particular project they are working on. The revenue growth in microstock is due more to customers buying higher priced images than because they are buying more images.

There are also customers who usually go to RM sites for their images. But more and more frequently they can’t justify RM prices for the projects they are working on. When that happens, they either go to a microstock site, or they try to negotiate microstock rates from the RM distributor. Not infrequently, the RM distributor gives in because it is the only way to hang onto the business. The distributor doesn’t have an option to say, “We’ve got millions of images in a lower priced brand over here. Why don’t you check it out and see if you can find something you can use there.”  

Traditional sites offer their customers price options through brand choices, but these price variations are usually not very transparent. Microstock sites are better in this regard. Customers need to be able to adjust their searches based on the budget for the project. On most traditional sites this is almost impossible. On microstock sites it is easy to search for just the high priced images, but usually it is impossible to limit the search to only the standard or low priced images.

Search By Brand

Within the collections of traditional distributors it is often possible to search by brand. However, customers seldom use this option. Distributors often use this technique to satisfy the egos of supplying agencies not because it benefits the customer. In addition the work of different agencies is often offered at different price points.

The problem here is that pricing all the images at any given level often isn’t an accurate reflection of the value of each particular image. Most brands offer some images that are very unique or costly to produce and others that are more common. All these images should not necessarily be priced at the same level, but they usually are. A better strategy would be to adjust the price based on the demand for a particular image and/or allow the distributor’s editors to slot each image at a pricing level the editor feels is appropriate.   

The key is to find a better way to offer images at a variety of price points, make the costs totally transparent to customers during the first steps of the search process, and make it possible for customers to adjust their search based on their available budget.


Today, the primary way to narrow searches is through keywords or tags. Much is said about “improving keywording.” But words can never accurately define the uniqueness of a visual product. Even if they could, the customer would need to use the exact same words to locate the image that the creator used to describe it.

While there will always be ways to improve on the keywords we attach to our images, given the huge numbers of images we’re currently dealing with rather than a keywording emphasis the focus should be on finding better ways to add effective visual search to the mix.

Consider, if keywording were perfect the best image for any customer’s use would always be the first one shown. But, we know that customers look through hundreds if not thousands of images before they find the right one for their “visual” needs. Usually the customer could not have actually described that image in words until she finally sees it.

Thus, we need to introduce visual search in a much more dynamic way. We must give up the idea of a single method of organizing search returns and a method that begins by showing the customer the images we would most like to sell her rather than image she would like to buy. As much as possible we need to leave the organization of search returns up to each individual customer depending on that customer’s needs at the time. We have to give up the idea of deciding what the customer should buy and delivering those images first in the search returns.

This does not eliminate the need for keywords as an initial step in narrowing the search.
But we must recognize that as the options relative to any particular set of keywords grows all that will do is get the customer into the general ball park. At that point the customer still has to find the right seat, or maybe a better analogy is the right blade of grass.


As I’ve said before, microstock sites allow their customers to organize search returns in a number of ways including: newest, most frequently downloaded, editors pick, lowest priced, high priced collections and random. Once the customer has entered keywords she can toggle back and forth between these options and see a greater variety of images in much less time than is possible on most traditional sites. The microstock strategy in this regard could be a tremendous aid to traditional sellers. Focusing more on a variety of pricing levels and finding a select group of images to offer at the higher price points could grow revenue for microstock sellers.

The number of images on all sites will grow. That should not be discouraged even though it may result in lower prices overall for the images used. The growth of available imagery can’t be stopped so there is no point in wasting time trying to do so. Better to spend the time trying to figure out how to operate in the new environment. The major distributors should also: (1) Offer images at a variety of price points (2) Allow customer to order search returns based on cost as well as other parameters and (3) Introduce visual search as a way of further filtering results.

Copyright © 2012 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:  


  • Bill Bachmann Posted Jun 1, 2012

    if you keep going I see you writing as advise ..."Let's just throw all the images in the world in a site and give them away for FREE! Some of us still do quite well in RM and DO NOT want cheap images. You make it sound like there are none of us --- I know many. Yes, cheap clients deserve cheap sites.... but, believe it or not, some want to pay to know that not everyone & his brother is using the same image., If I were even a Microstock buyer, the LAST thing I would do is search to find the image with the MOST uploads and then USE THAT ONE!! What that cuses is "invisible advertising".... your ad looks like everyone else's. You are a friend of mine, but I wish you were not so dead set on let's give it all away.

  • Doug Segal Posted Jun 7, 2012

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