453 STONE'S THOUGHTS - ANOTHER PERSPECTIVE
January 7, 2001
Given Tony Stone's experience and success in selling stock photography to commercial buyers,
everyone in this industry needs to pay careful attention to his assessment of current market
conditions and proposals for the future.
However, there have been huge changes in the business since the 80's and early 90's when he was
so successful. Strategies that worked then, may not work as well now. Based on the information
in Sarah Saunders story, I have a few observations related to some of the points Tony made in
Customer Friendliness . Certainly a key ingredient in selling to the creative
community is finding a way to supply customers with what they need as quickly and painlessly as
possible. However, the best way to accomplish that goal is very open to debate. Most online
search operations have been designed to let the customer do the searching. That may have its
benefits in some cases, but for many customers time is their most valuable commodity.
An important issue is not how quickly they can start a research process, but how long it takes
to complete it. The more time they spend on the search process the more painful it becomes.
This would seem to favor a tightly edited selection that limits choice. But many customers
don't want their choices limited until they have had time to clearly define their parameters.
Thus, the dilemma -- a tightly edited file, or one with lots of choice.
Research . Tony said, "...present search systems ensure that they (the multitude
of images) get in each others' way." Yes, but that doesn't necessarily mean that fewer images
should be made available. It simply means we need to find ways to make it easier for the
customer to find what he or she needs.
Such refinements don't have to be technological. A proper mix of custom human research by
experienced researchers who really know the file and how to use the technology, combined with a
deep collection of material may give the customer the best of both worlds -- spending little of
their time in research while still having access to a depth of material in all subject areas,
particularly those areas where there never will be high demand.
Tony's system is based on "anticipating" the needs of the customers. From the shooters point of
view that is desirable. But, the customers prefer to be able to first define their specific
needs before eliminating too many options. One solution, once the customer's needs are defined,
is to have a researcher go through the depth of material and creates a narrow custom selection
to fit the customer's specific needs.
We need to take another look at how the old systems worked. There were millions of images in
file drawers. No one was sure which images would sell, but in order for an image to get into
the files some editor had made a decision that they thought it might be of interest to someone.
In some cases other editors would go through the files and pick Selects which were marketed
heavily. It turned out that a large percentage of the uses resulted from these Select images.
When a customer called to request images an editor would first go through the Selects, but if
what the customer wanted wasn't available in Selects she would search through the rest of the
file for images that fit the customer's need. At its best, this system enabled the customer to
only have to review a small selection of images finely tuned to his or her specific needs while
still having access to the broad base of imagery.
The major problem with much of the current online search is that the researcher has, for the
most part, been taken out of the loop -- eliminated. What needs to happen is not reduce the
number of images online, but offer more effective research services. The researcher still needs
access to a vast collection of images. Effective keywording assists the researcher in these
searches, particularly if the researcher does not happen to be an employee of the company
posting the images.
The researcher builds a rapport with the customer and supplies a lightbox with a tightly edited
selection of images for the customer's consideration.
I find it interesting from analyzing my own sales that the small agencies that have good
long-term customer relationships, and who continue to research analog files in the old
fashioned way, have had less fall off in sales than the catalog agencies. Customers want
personal service and they are willing to pay for it.
Price . It is also important to keep in mind that when people make buying decisions
image price isn't necessarily the primary issue. A case can be made that the most important
issue for most buyers is their personal time, and how they can get the "right image" for the
least amount of effort expended. Often they don't have time to do research. They will gladly
pay a little more to someone who is willing to assist them in that effort, or assist them with
Volume Sales . Tony said, "By the end of the eighties we could make more than a
hundred non-conflicting sales around the world in a year..."
The question is how many of those sales were for small uses, and how many were for major high
dollar uses. My belief is that when a single image was used many time the vast majority of the
sales were for small rights and small uses. This all happened before Royalty Free. Now, no
matter how great -- how on target -- a Rights Protected image is, a large number of the users
will pick a RF image instead.
RF has focused on producing image on those high demand subjects that Tony and his team first
identified. Now RF gets the volume because of their very low price and pervasive marketing.
What RF can't offer is unique, or subjects that will not sell in high volume. These are the
opportunity areas for Rights Protected in the future. No matter how good the research and how
good the editing it is questionable whether someone using the Tony Stone's shooting and editing
strategy can ever again produce the kind of volume sales of Rights Protected images that Stone
generated from the Master Dupe collection at the end of the '80s.
Choosing High Demand . "The amazing thing is that even in the 30,000 (images in the
Master Dupe collection) there were a load of images that hardly sold, so we didn't get it quite
right.... my aim is to get it right next time around by demonstrating a method for acquiring on
the images which customers buy."
Is it really possible to do a better job of tight editing that Tony and his team did ten years
ago? Today, at the height of the success of the agency Stone founded, less than 10% of the
gross spent on stock photography is for Stone images. That means that 90% of the buyers want
something other than what Stone has to offer. If we look only at the commercial market
(non-editorial) and assume that Stone makes no editorial sales, Stone's share of the market
might be as high as 20%. A 10% or 20% share of the market is nothing to complain about,
particularly when no other seller has a share that even approaches this. However, it also
clearly indicates that there is a need for images that are not included in this highly edited
Keywording . Tony points out that in a market of, say, $400 million, universally
poor editing and search systems might not be reducing the numbers of pictures sold -- all they
do is make image searching a long and inefficient process.
Yes, it is inefficient in its present form. But despite its inefficiencies almost $250 million
in sales in the U.S. in 2001 resulted from finding images online. I estimate this to be about
37% of total U.S. sales. Buyers would love to have a more efficient system, but in the meantime
they are willing to put up with its inefficiencies because it is the best option available to
Tony said, "You couldn't design anything more effectively to be so inefficient. Almost
invariably keywords call up a huge number of irrelevant images."
Talk about inefficient. Think about the manual system of searching for images in file drawers
that is still widely used by some agencies. In such systems each image has one physical
location. If you want to be able to search for that image in several different categories you
needed to put a dupe in each category. When there's a request someone has to go through
hundreds of images in a category to find those that are appropriate to the customer's needs.
Back when I started in this business almost 40 years ago Black Star Publishing Co. had a card
file system which told the researcher where to find various subjects like "celebrations" if
they were just looking for a generic celebration image. The images were not normally filed in
Keywording provides great improvements over the previous system. The images still has one
physical location. But it can be discovered and viewed by using a variety of words, or
combinations of words. In some senses it replaces the card file, but much more effectively.
Keywording provides an important improvement over the previous system. However, it may be of
greater benefit to the experienced editor/researcher who uses the tool daily, than to the
Custom selections of images in subject areas that are in regular demand can also be developed
and made instantly available for customer viewing by using keywords and online viewing.
Don't look for an alternative to keywording. Look for procedures to use in conjunction with it.
And recognize that effective keywording will remain an important building block in any future
Print Catalogs . Tony said, "A catalogue offers lots of opportunities for serendipity.
It's a better experience. I don't think anybody has thought out how to do it online, but I
believe it can be done."
Print catalogs have their place, but given the cost of producing and distributing then, how
long will we be able to justify producing such catalogs for the added sales they generate. If
60% or 70% of the sales come from customers (or researchers) finding images online, is it worth
the cost of producing and distributing print catalogs for the added increase in sales.
Not many people are doing it, but there is noting to prevent images from being shown online in
a print catalog display format. Then the only problem is to get the customer to look at the
online site. If that is the goal, print marketing campaigns that are much less expensive than
print catalogs can be devised to draw users to the web site.
No one knows what percentage of the sales from print catalogs come from people using those
catalogs to find something specific (which they can do just as well with an online keyword
search or by using a researcher), and what percentage result from using the catalog in a
Branding . Tony said, "On the one hand you have to brand your site and let your
audience know you understand the way they work, and that can make for a pleasurable and bonding
experience. But the guy looking for pictures doesn't want the distraction of branding devices.
He just wants to move through screens to find images. It the process works well, it's all he
needs to make him happy."
Maybe the "brand" isn't Getty Images, Stone, Corbis, Stock Market or whatever. May it is
researcher Sarah Jones who understands the customer's needs and is always available with a
quick friendly response and who is a problem solver for the customer. Something to think about.
In this world where technology only works half-way, part-time, and leads to lots of
frustration, it is a real joy to stumble onto dependable human assistance. If that is what it
is going to take to win new customers then photographers will need to find new ways to get more
researchers looking at their images.