Is There A Better Subscription Strategy?

Posted on 4/19/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Getty Images has been focusing on growing its subscription business. The theory is that subscriptions will make customers more dependent on the company for their future needs.  Currently, subscriptions represent 37% to 38% of Getty’s Creative Revenue and about 50% of Editorial Revenue.

However, subscriptions really don’t work for many customers. They need fewer images overall and their their needs vary greatly week-to-week, month-to-month. For such customers it is more cost effective to pay a higher price for just what they need, when they need it.

A significant portion of the stock photo business will always be for single image use unless it becomes so important to have them registered in the “subscription column” that they are given subscriptions for 2 or 5 images at greatly reduced prices from single image purchases. The same principle is true for individual copies of magazines and newspapers.

Shutterstock started out as 100% subscription, but a few years ago they discovered that there was a limit to the number of customers interested in subscriptions no matter how many images you offered them, or how low the price. The last time Shutterstock provided a detailed enough breakdown of revenue (Feb 2015) to enable us to estimate Subscription revenue it was about 44% of gross revenue. The rest was single image of video downloads. Subscription is very likely under 40% now.

Total downloads have plateaued for Shutterstock in recent quarters, and indication are that there may not be that many more customers interested in subscriptions. Recently, Shutterstock introduced new subscription packages to try to hold off the Getty challenge.

Neither company is likely to change their focus or emphasis on subscription sales. But is there a way they could earn more revenue for themselves and their contributors; provide a better service for the majority of their customers and still license rights to no more images than they are licensing now?

A Better Option

The major problem with the current stock photography subscription strategy is that for the most part, every item is priced exactly the same.

Instead of giving customers a specific number of downloads subscriptions could provide customers with a specific number of credits for a fixed time period. The credits could then be used to buy images at different price points.

Getty already has a credit system for purchasing single images and Shutterstock has its “On Demand” system, but Subscription credits would be different. Currently, with a single iStock credit a customer can purchase one non-exclusive image; 3 credits are required to purchase an exclusive image. Customers can save money by purchasing larger packages of credits and these credits never expire.

On one-off purchases are based on the file size delivered, but when it comes to Premium Access deals which are effectively subscription arrangements it appears that the customer can download any images they want, RM or RF, for a fixed monthly payment negotiated based on the customer’s need.

Instead of prices for 750 of 250 downloads a month allow the customer to purchase 750 or 250 credits. Then the customer must use 1 credit to purchase an Essential image or 3 credits to purchase a Signature image. They could purchase any combination of these images as long as they don’t run out of credits.
Within each of these collections Getty could then designate that a higher number of credits be paid for the more popular images – say 2 credits for an Essentials image that had been downloaded more than once and 4 credits for a Signature image used more than once.

The same credit system could also be easily adapted to the website as part of the whole “Unification” process. For images never downloaded previously they might charge 4 credits for any RF image and 6 credits for an RM image. Higher credits could be specified for more popular images with a download history.

It seems the problem with the Premium Access system is that the Getty sales people are giving customers all the images they want for whatever they say they can afford to pay. The system I propose would eliminate some of the lowest priced sales and put some floor on prices. Customers who truly need more images can focus their searches on the images that have never been used by anyone.

Subscription credits would expire at the end of 30 days and would not roll over locking the customer into buying an additional subscription every 30 days.

Customers with a budget should be able to search for only those images that require a certain number of credits. In this way customers with budget issues could more easily search sections of the collection for images within their budget. This could result, not only in higher prices for some uses, but surface images that have been buried out of customer sight by today’s one-price-fits-all system.


Shutterstock needs such a system because they need some way to raise subscription prices on at least some of their subscription images. Charging more for images that previous customers had shown an interest in by downloading would seem a logical way to solve the problem.

Shutterstock has over 134 million images in its collection. In the last quarter they reported that only 41.1 million images were downloaded. Clearly, a significant percent of the images in the collection are never viewed or considered by any customer. If a higher price is designated for some images there will still be plenty of images available at the lowest price.

Such a system also opens the door to segmenting these large image collections in a number of other ways based on actual customer demand. The segmenting can be done almost entirely through the use of algorithms and does not require costly curation.

Copyright © 2017 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:  


Be the first to comment below.

Post Comment

Please log in or create an account to post comments.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive email notification when new stories are posted.

Follow Us

Free Stuff

Stock Photo Pricing: The Future
In the last two years I have written a lot about stock photo pricing and its downward slide. If you have time over the holidays you may want to review some of these stories as you plan your strategy ...
Read More
Future Of Stock Photography
If you’re a photographer that counts on the licensing of stock images to provide a portion of your annual income the following are a few stories you should read. In the past decade stock photography ...
Read More
Blockchain Stories
The opening session at this year’s CEPIC Congress in Berlin on May 30, 2018 is entitled “Can Blockchain be applied to the Photo Industry?” For those who would like to know more about the existing blo...
Read More
2017 Stories Worth Reviewing
The following are links to some 2017 and early 2018 stories that might be worth reviewing as we move into the new year.
Read More
Stories Related To Stock Photo Pricing
The following are links to stories that deal with stock photo pricing trends. Probably the biggest problem the industry has faced in recent years has been the steady decline in prices for the use of ...
Read More
Stock Photo Prices: The Future
This story is FREE. Feel free to pass it along to anyone interested in licensing their work as stock photography. On October 23rd at the DMLA 2017 Conference in New York there will be a panel discuss...
Read More
Important Stock Photo Industry Issues
Here are links to recent stories that deal with three major issues for the stock photo industry – Revenue Growth Potential, Setting Bottom Line On Pricing and Future Production Sources.
Read More
Recent Stories – Summer 2016
If you’ve been shooting all summer and haven’t had time to keep up with your reading here are links to a few stories you might want to check out as we move into the fall. To begin, be sure to complet...
Read More
Corbis Acquisition by VCG/Getty Images
This story provides links to several stories that relate to the Visual China Group (VCG) acquisition of Corbis and the role Getty Images has been assigned in the transfer of Corbis assets to the Gett...
Read More
Finding The Right Image
Many think search will be solved with better Metadata. While metadata is important, there are limits to how far it can take the customer toward finding the right piece of content. This story provides...
Read More

More from Free Stuff