Examining Online Marketing Options

Posted on 10/25/2000 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)



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

the restriction.

Don't assume that you must provide a worldwide exclusive on each image you put on a site in

order to do business.

Automatic Pricing

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.

Negotiated Pricing

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

much work.

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.

Worldwide Reach

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

marketing worldwide.

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

the system.

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.

Copyright © 2000 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


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