Trends of the Moment

Posted on 7/8/2010 by Julia Dudnik Stern | Printable Version | Comments (0)

The stock-licensing industry remains in the midst of a profound change affecting image production, quality, pricing, distribution and use. Some trends, such as the downward slide of average image prices, have held for years, but there are also newer, paradigm-shifting developments. These include a middle market finally taking shape, the long-predicted microstock shakeout, the fascination with touch computing and all things Apple, a change in the overall content mix and, perhaps most importantly, an evolution of the traditional stock business model from client service-driven boutique to online content-delivery platform.

Race to the middle

Though many traditionals are fond of describing today’s business environment as a race to the bottom, race to the middle would be more accurate—in price, image quality and image size. Traditional agencies are lowering prices and launching budget offerings. At the same time, microstocks are raising prices and launching upmarket collections. Someone once predicted that midstock is where the industry is going to end up—though that someone has not managed to make his own not-so-Lucky company succeed, his vision may have been right on the money.

While midstock typically refers to pricing, the same middle-of-the-road mentality appears to also apply to image size popularity and even the more elusive concept of quality. Whereas double-page high-res advertising files used to command the highest premiums, mid-size imagery that has cross-platform applications and is licensed multiple times is doing better than the truly high-end—at least in the creative stock arena.

As to quality, it has become a casualty of pricing. Not that we do not see breathtaking images, but there is no question that production budgets are shrinking alongside commissions, consequently bringing down styling, lighting, and other shoot-related extravagance. Nobody wants to follow Ms. Leibovitz into critically acclaimed bankruptcy (albeit some have not be able to avoid it, minus the acclaim).

Microstock dominates, matures

Traditional models continue losing ground to microstock. Some analysts see microstock sales flattened out—or, at the very least, growing much slower than their once-explosive pace. But if one were to believe statements from Fotolia, iStockphoto and Shutterstock, things couldn’t be better, tough economy notwithstanding. And the degree of growth may be immaterial; there is no question that microstock remains the fastest-growing segment of the still-image industry segment.

The industry has also reached the long-predicted shakeout. The whales are feasting on smaller fish, and moneyed traditional competitors have invested in up-and-coming micro players. 

Even micro-pricing models are evolving. The free image segment has been “professionalized” by microstock leaders—and it is a smart move. It has given users previously frustrated by not finding what they need in Morgue a much better alternative, while site operators offer paid content alongside free. And the free-to-paid upsell has gotten more sophisticated, too, with offerings considerably below $1 per image sold via subscription in enormous volumes.

Tablets, touch phones and the iCraze

Will it be Apple that wins the smartphone and tablet wars? It certainly looks that way. Though some PC users still complain about the processor speed and steep costs of Apple computers, many have begrudgingly bought iPhones and iPads. Image producers and makers should hope Apple retains its market share, because the company’s longtime focus on product design, breathtaking visuals and highly graphical interfaces are expected to fuel digital image uses across the mobile computing segment.

Future growth in uses of digital imagery is as unquantifiable as the growth of microstock. Everyone generally agrees that current market conditions are fueling growth in online and mobile image uses as print uses decline. Yet no reliable sales or use statistics are available in an industry that is fragmented, private and increasingly secretive.

Multi-, cross-, and more bang for your buck

In this digital world, video remains all the rage, yet it is cross-platform, multi-purpose content that is becoming increasingly popular as digital storytelling develops into a discipline that has to function on its own while relating to the offline world of posters, billboards and remaining print products.

The multimedia immersion has reached every industry, and not for purely budgetary reasons. Advertisers want to reach consumers with identical messages online and off. Publishers must consider digital editions of their products. And smart content suppliers are responding with cross-media offerings that redistribute the old mix of stills, video and sound.

It’s not the image, it’s the delivery

For content producers, these are challenging times. Some, particularly those that specialized in general stock, are finding themselves unable to maintain anything even near previous revenue levels. Others have discovered unique talents that have helped them adapt or had groundbreaking distribution or product ideas—in some cases, both. While many are moving away from stills licensing or even away from stock and toward assignment, editorial or even completely unrelated work, others are redefining photography and paid content to find that concepts of quality matter less than of being at the right place, at the right time, with a product that will do at a manageable price.

Among key trends is an evolving distribution model—from agencies seeking broader international representation to entirely new online platforms that make use of metadata, image recognition technologies and image indexing to gain access to an enormous pool of potential customers. Hand in hand with this new distribution venue, the search engine, comes a new promise of greater control over intellectual property.

Another trend evident among both solo producers and agencies is increasingly specialized content. While the top agencies continue to cast a wide net in terms of mixing editorial and creative, archival and current, still and motion, traditional and micro-payment content, smaller players are seeking smaller niches that can maximize the value of specialized material. This niche orientation is, in turn, birthing new products—not just images but delivery systems—designed with a given buyer industry in mind.

• • •

Is there a recent trend we missed? Disagree with something? Leave us a comment or drop us a note. In the coming weeks, we’ll explore these trends in more detail.

Copyright © 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


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