Agencies – Buyer and Supplier Relationships

Posted on 9/2/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Yesterday, I talked about why the business of licensing rights to stock photos - as currently structured - is Designed To Fail unless some major changes are made.

Two of the changes needed are: (1) make finding the right image for a project much easier for the buyer, and (2) improving supplier efficiency.

Make Search Easier For Buyers

Many think the search problem will be solved with technology. While there are technological advancements on the horizon that can improve search, I believe in the final analysis a significant amount of human review and judgment will be required to deliver a selection or images targeted to each unique customer need. This will cost money. As things stand now customers are required to spend too much time reviewing images that are irrelevant to their immediate need.

The current strategy says to customers, “Here, we’ve collected everything possible for you to consider. Now it is up to you.” As the time requirement gets worse customers will find other solutions to solve their visual needs.

The customer wants an educated reviewer to narrow the search for her. The customer doesn’t have the time to go through the massive number of images presented. And this number is growing massively every day. Customers seem to be willing to pay something for that service because it frees up their time to do other things, but it is not clear how much more customers will pay, or how sellers and customers can arrive at the best compromise on service vs price.

Buyers need be able to quickly find good images that will work for their projects.

Possible Solution

Here’s a possible strategy that might make it easier for customers to find the images they need. Give customers the option of searching through a collection of images that have been chosen for use by someone else at least once. Charge a slightly higher price for these images. Most buyers don’t care if an image has been used by others as long as it works for their project. I believe customers would flock to such at collection.

If such a plan were implemented by Shutterstock and the “Sold Once” images were limited to only those where the customer paid an Image On Demand price (and subscription downloads were not included) the collection would probably have fewer than 7 million images in it, not 93 million. Since we know that some images are used multiple times, it may be even smaller than 7 million, but it would still be a comprehensive selection covering all possible subjects that customers around the world have ever purchased. (For more about why I would not include subscription downloads see this story.

The first question is what to do about new images. How do any of them ever get into the purchased collection? There would need to be a second collection for new images. An image could stay in that collection for a maximum of 90 days after upload. Then, it would be moved to the subscription collection. If during that 90 days, the image is purchased once for a single IOD license fee, it would be moved immediately to the single-image collection.

The third and largest collection would include all the image that have never sold as single images. (Many of the images in this collection will have been downloaded many times by subscription customers.) This collection would also include all the images in the “New” collection. New images would also be available to subscription customers, but as soon as they sell once at an IOD price they would be moved to the “Sold Once” collection,

It would also be possible for customers who finds an image in the subscription collection to easily do a visual search of the “Sold Once” collection to determine if there is a better, similar image available at a higher price in the “Sold Once” collection.

Improving Supplier Efficiency

If there were a collection of “Sold Once” images image creators could search that collection before going out on a shoot, or even while on a shoot, to determine if the subject matter they planned to shoot had ever been purchased. If the image they plan to produce has already been done, and they can not significantly improve on what is already available, it would probably make sense from a sales point of view to move on and shoot something else rather than recreating something similar.

The availability of such information would undoubtedly improve the efficiency of photographers who were willing to use it. One of the concerns is that some photographers may use such a tool to copy what others have already done. But, if they did so their work would more than likely end up in the Subscription collection and not be seen along side of, or ahead of, an image in the “Sold Once” collection.

If everyone is focused on creating what sells will many of the great images that no one had ever anticipated of planned never be created? Many photographers who are primarily interested in taking pictures for their own personal satisfaction will probably never look at the available data on what has sold. They will shoot pictures that make them happy; submit them and the images will go into the New and Subscription collections. Some of those pictures will be purchased as IOD’s and move to the “Sold Once” collection, but if the original version is popular it will probably always appear ahead of the new version in the search-return-order.

In order to keep the “Sold Once” collection from becoming overloaded with out-of-date pictures. It would probably be advisable to move all images that had not sold in 2 or 3 years back to the Subscription collection.  

One of the biggest problems with the current Subscription strategy, is that for the low subscription price customers can get access to the best and most in-demand images in the collection and they only have to pay a low, rock bottom per-image price to use it. There has to be some way to separate out the most in-demand images and charge somewhat higher prices for their use.

The current strategy is to set up a separate, much higher priced collection such as Offset, AdobeStock Premium or even iStock Signature. However, there are lots of images in those collections that don’t sell at those higher prices. Because these unused images are only available at the high price, they earn nothing. It would make much more sense to, at some point, move the non-sellers to some lower price point so they might earn some revenue from a different set of customers.

In this discussion, I have focused on Shutterstock as an example, mostly because there is more data available. But most agencies could benefit from employing some, if not all of the principles discussed. Every agency has a different set of customers with different needs. Thus, with any particular agency the images used in a particular category may differ greatly.

Image creators could benefit not just by knowing what their agency is selling of a particular subject, but by what other competing agencies are selling. This may help the photographer position his or her work with the agency that has the best track record in selling the kind of images the photographer likes to produce.

We may find that specialist agencies with a better understanding of their particular segment of the market sell a much greater variety of certain types of images than the general agencies. Specialist agencies whose work is marketed through many different distributors, may want to include in their “Sold Once” collection all the images that have ever sold through any of their distributors. This would  help photographers who produce imagery in that specialty be it wildlife, travel, food, energy, agriculture, etc. understand what customers are really looking for and focus future production on the imagery that is needed.

For more background on this strategy check out the following stories: Understanding Which Stock Images Will Sell and Decision Time For RM Photographers.

Copyright © 2016 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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