A Culture of Passivity: Over-Reliance on Third-Party Research

Posted on 11/8/2007 by Julia Dudnik Stern | Printable Version | Comments (2)

Last month's conference of the Picture Archive Council of America highlighted several trends that, while not entirely new, can have more significant effect on stock photographers in an increasingly competitive business climate. In an effort to move beyond the often-repeated cliché of photographers not being good businesspeople, this article series will endeavor to highlight business decisions that are often made by stock shooters and agencies to their detriment.

High on this list is the over-reliance on the opinions of others when deciding on the next stock shoot or the future direction of an entire image collection. One of the first questions posed to panelists at stock-industry gatherings typically focuses on predictions of subject matter and type of imagery that will sell. In a similar vein, it seems that many a stock photographer waits with baited breath for Corbis to release its latest trends report. Getting such information can be very useful when it augments one's own research efforts; however, it should always be examined critically and in context.

To quote Albert Einstein, "If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn't be called research." Third-party predictions tend to be over-generalized, subjective and self-serving. The Corbis research team has manpower and specialized knowledge; speakers at industry conferences have backgrounds of success and experience; but nobody has a crystal ball or an understanding of your particular business, abilities, style or other factors that make you, whether a photographer or an agency, unique.

It is also naïve to think that Corbis or another leading agency would disclose proprietary information. While it is in Corbis' interests to advise its own photographers on what types of images it wants to have submitted, it is unlikely that the company would tell its competition anything truly valuable. The true lesson of Corbis' creative intelligence is in its marketing and public-relations value, but that's a topic for another article.

Consider this: Environmentalism has become the new black, ushered into popular culture by entertainment icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But those who read The New York Times, The Economist and their local media can probably benchmark the beginnings of a global-scale climate-change movement to a decade ago, when the United Nations introduced the Kyoto Protocol. Since then, environmental project funding by governments, organizations and private concerns has been rising steadily, and so has the use of stock imagery depicting such subjects. With few exceptions, the stock industry at large has not capitalized on this trend in any organized fashion until now, when it has entered the mainstream, equaling a missed opportunity and a flood of similar imagery entering the market at the same time.

In contrast, take a look at Jack Hollingsworth's production company. Diversity and multicultural imagery have only recently become mainstream, yet Hollingsworth has specialized in shooting highly conceptual ethnic and exotic content for years. In addition to image quality, this type of foresight is among the reasons why the company keeps upgrading its Austin, Texas-based studio space and generating higher revenues.

Ellen Boughn, a long time stock-photography executive, consultant and director of content for the microstock Dreamstime.com, points out that today, change comes so quickly that it is difficult for detailed research studies to be timely. "The reason that I am not a big believer in formal creative research is it contributes to ‘formula' shooting," she adds.

Boughn recommends that photographers make it a part of their job to be on top of what is going on in the visual world. She says that the best way of doing that is to read the style and arts sections of large papers, go to contemporary art and photography galleries and watch TV: "The guys that make commercials and ‘hip' sitcoms spend more on creative research than any stock agency." In addition to social trends, Boughn suggests keeping an eye on economic and bad news, which influence the public's behavior.

Now what?
"Passive" research into readily available information is where creative research begins; however, there are additional steps that must be taken for this information to become truly valuable. An agency like Corbis would next look to its own database and customer purchasing history. It is surprising how many long-time pro photographers and small stock agencies do not routinely perform this in-house exercise.

However, Lee Torrens, an amateur photographer who contributes to microstock and writes a blog on the subject, can tell you exactly what his top-selling images are, for how long and why he thinks that is. Studying his past performance is Torrens' first step in figuring out what to shoot next. He also compares his portfolio to others who compete in the same space. Though still subjective, such information is much more reliable when formulating future strategies than anything that came from another photographer or agency, because it is based on Torrens' own strengths and supported by concrete sales figures.

Truly successful stock photographers and agencies also take a do-it-yourself approach to creative research. Focusing on trend-spotting, Ron Chapple gave a presentation on his research technique at last month's PhotoPlus Expo, offering very useful guidance on how to brainstorm for stock.

In addition, doing it yourself doesn't necessarily need to be taken literally. There are many consultants and marketing agencies that offer individualized research services of varying scope and price. The London-based PepperStark, for example, specializes in the full range of industry services, including market or creative research, training and recruitment -- and then there are individuals as experienced in the industry as Boughn.

Only after a trend or idea is identified does the art of being a photographer come into play. Boughn considers this concepting step a critically individual part of the entire research process. "There is no boxed set of replacement parts for the second step of creative research, which is coming up with new visuals that utilize the research to create fresh images. That has to come out of the mind of the photographer or a really great art director," she explains.

# # #

To focus on generating sales over artistic merit or quality: The proliferation of microstock has definitively proven that the technical quality of images is not nearly as important as the concept, which includes the idea, message and subject matter. Research is, therefore, a critical -- if not the most important -- step in creating images that sell. Following the guidance of those who do not have your unique skills or experience inevitably means blending into an overabundance of similar images produced by similarly passive competitors.

Copyright © 2007 Julia Dudnik Stern. 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


  • Tim Mcguire Posted Nov 9, 2007
    Great article! Great info! So true!


  • Frank Chmura Posted Nov 12, 2007
    You feel how deeply true this is already in the middle of this article.

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