08 May 2007 Microstock Moonlighting with Referral Programs

Most of the top microstock agencies have referral programs which can be a great way to earn a little extra money on the side. Referral programs, also known as affiliate programs, are a very common marketing tool on the Internet. Executed well by the company, they can be extremely effective at generating business. Used well by the affiliate, they can generate substantial ongoing income.

How do they Work?

Simplistically, a referral program encourages people to refer new customers by offering remuneration. They vary in details such as the remuneration amount and the type of customer you refer, as you can see in the table below. However, they will each give you a specific web address which contains your referral ID which you can include on your blog or in your email signature, or any other place you feel it will get exposure. When someone clicks your referral link, the referral ID notifies the website that you referred this person, and if they sign up you get the credit.

There are limitations on how you can use a referral program which are detailed in each organization’s referral program terms and conditions. They usually prohibit sending email spam with your referral link or spamming forums. Most also outline deceptive practices which are not allowed including opening a referral link in a hidden frame or an automatic popup.

What Support do You Receive?

Most of the microstock websites’ referral programs provide you with media to help you entice people to click on your links. These are banner ads of various sizes that seek to promote the website’s photo selling or earning capabilities. I have placed a collection of these at the bottom of this post – complete with my referral links, of course – so you can compare.

How Much do they Pay?

Not all of the referral programs remunerate you for referring both buyers and contributors. Those that do have different remuneration for each group. The people you refer must also qualify. There’s no point them paying you if someone signs up but never contributes or buys anything. Most referral programs require that your referred buyers actually buy images and that your photographers contribute images that are accepted and sell.

Let’s take a look at all the details of the referral programs of the top microstock websites:

Agency Duration
Buyers Contributors Statistics
iStockPhoto One time $10 Some
Shutterstock Mixed 20% up to $50 one time $0.03 indefinite Full
Dreamstime 3 years 10% 10% Some
Fotolia 1 year 15% 10% Full
BigStockPhoto One time 35% first purchase $5 once off Some
CanStockPhoto 6 months 10% up to $50 $5 per 50 sales Some
123rf 6 months 15% for 1 year $0.03 for 6 months Full
StockXpert Indefinite 10% Full
LuckyOliver One time $5 once off $1 once off None

These referral programs are intended to be a significant part of the Microstock Diaries monetization strategy. I say ‘intended’ because at the time of writing, this blog is still in its infancy and I haven’t seen much in the way of revenue from these programs yet. Here’s some details for each program:


iStockphoto have the simplest and most technically advanced program. Simply adding the text “refnum=username” on the end of any address at their website will credit you with the referral. This enables you to link to the home page, your own portfolio, a specific image, or any other page while keeping your ID in the link.

Unfortunately for me, iStockphoto don’t remunerate for referring contributors, who are the target market of this blog. They only remunerate for referring buyers who make purchases. This makes one wonder if iStockphoto are interested in obtaining new contributors or are solely focused on building buyer numbers.

Your profile page publicly lists the accounts of the people you’ve referred. No statistics beyond this are required given the simplicity of iStockphoto’s referral program.


Shutterstock provide two separate referral links for referring buyers and contributors. This is consistent with their separation of contributors and buyers who use different subdomains (buyers use www.shutterstock.com and contributors use submit.shutterstock.com). I’m not sure whether the referral cookie will function for both parts of their websites or not, that is, whether you’re credited for someone who eventually signs up as a buyer but followed your contributor referral link.

Shutterstock tell you which buyers you’ve referred, and show you your referral revenue alongside your revenue for selling photos per day.

There is no time limit on the referral payments for contributors’ sales. This makes the Shutterstock program one of the most powerful, especially given their all-you-can-eat (almost) sales model encourages lots of downloads. Cumulative earnings from referring high selling contributors can quickly add up, even at 3cents each.

Shutterstock also reward you 10% of the sale price for video footage sold by contributors you referred.


Dreamstime will pay you a $5 instant bonus if you place one of their banners on your website. You submit the address, they review it, and then credit your account with $5. It doesn’t say that they’ll take the money back if you remove the banner!

I haven’t been able to find where the referral statistics are in Dreamstime. I watched someone register using my referral link but no new buttons or statistics have appeared in my Management Area. Two emails to their support haven’t helped either.

Dreamstime’s referral payments are generous. You receive 10% of contributor sales and 10% of buyer purchases for three years from their registration date. This has the potential to generate significant earnings for a long period of time.

Update: (2007-05-16) Dreamstime have just launched their new Management Area which includes a Referral Earning button. This tells you how many people have registered after following your referral link and whether they’re buyers or contributors. It also shows a list of your referral earnings by date.


Fotolia pay a simple and clean “10 % commission on sales and 15 % on purchases”. There’s no length of time specified, so one would assume this is an indefinite arrangement.

You can access full statistics on the activities of your referred buyers and contributors and even a summary page of your referral earnings. Fotolia are even kind enough to send you an email message when a new referred member registers.

I watched someone register using my referral link but they were diverted to one of the foreign ‘zones’ that Fotolia use to separate different languages and geographical regions. I haven’t seen them come up in my stats, though others from the same zone as me exist. I’m curious as to whether the referral link functioned correctly (it did for other websites) or whether it works across different zones.

Update October 2008: Fotolia updated their referral program and no longer pay for referred contributors, only referred buyers, and only for 1 year.


BigStockPhoto provide the highest percentage referral payment at 35%, but it’s limited to the first purchase of each referral. With packages up to $300 this means you can earn one payment of up to $105 per referred buyer.

They also remunerate for referred contributors paying $5 once the contributor has 75 approved photos in their portfolio.

BigStockPhoto provide a tally of the number of registrations through your referral link. They also show you the number of times someone has come to their website via your referral link, which is good to know that the link is functioning correctly.


CanStockPhoto have one of the more complicated programs. They pay 10% of buyer purchases in the first six months up to a maximum of $50. They pay $5 for every 50 photos sold by referred contributors in the first six months up to $50.

There are no statistics of the referral program at CanStockPhoto. At least I couldn’t find them after an extended and concerted effort.


123rf’s referral program is actually quite complex as it pays a different referral commission depending on whether the sale occured via subscription or via credits. Subscription sales pay 3cents and credit sales are on a sliding scale from 10 – 30 cents, or $2 for extended licenses.

Referred buyers generate 15% referral commission for 1 year after their registration.

123rf have a functional and comprehensive referral reporting system allowing you to see all relevant details of your referral program performance.

They also offer a “Referral Program #2” which is a search widget you can install on your website. You are paid 15% of each purchase made via the search results of your widget and 5% of their renewals.


Update 2009-04: StockXpert’s program has not been functional since being broken during a site upgrade late in 2008. There has been no update or indication of it being brought back online.

StockXpert’s program is distinct from all the others in that they review your website prior to admitting you to the program. Once your application has been reviewed and your website approved, they require that you insert the banners on your website and again submit your website for review. It’s a long and complicated process relative to the competition, especially when there are 7 day delays in reviewing your website. It’s also a lot more formal that others and doesn’t allow for putting posts in email signatures if you don’t have a website.

StockXpert’s referral program is also buyer only. They provide full statistics showing the number of visits, registrations and sales through your referral link.


LuckyOliver’s referral program is another one time payment model. They pay $5 for each referred buyer who makes a purchase and $1 for each referred contributor who has three photos accepted.

There are no apparent stats on referral program performance in the LuckyOliver system.

My Experience

These programs form part of the monetization of Microstock Diaries, so I have some experience with them. The standout program for me is Shutterstock for the following reasons:

  • the remuneration is worthwhile at 3 cents for referred contributor photo sold
  • there is no time limit on the referral payments – you receive the referral earnings indefinitely
  • the remuneration is ongoing rather than a one time payment
  • the statistics are real-time and include all relevant information
  • it is the highest earning referral program for me so far

It’s interesting to observe the strategy variation between the various microstock websites, especially in light of who’s doing well and who isn’t. The referral programs that don’t reward the referral of contributors are iStockphoto and StockXpert. Do iStockphoto really have enough contributors that they don’t need to pay referral fees? Or perhaps they find that any serious contributor will do their own research and register with them anyway. And what about StockXpert? Do they have sufficient stock from owner Jupiter Images? Is their background in pre-microstock stock photography creating an attitude towards microstock contributors?

Another interesting insight is looking at the referral programs with limits. Shutterstock pay a per-image referral payment on every sale for the life of the contributor’s account. Yet all the others have either a one time payment or a time-limited payment program. Have Shutterstock built a superior financial model such that the 3cent referral is covered indefinitely? They are one of, if not the, fastest growing microstock websites. Is this generous referral program contributing to their success, or is it the result of success that exists for other reasons?

I’m not sure why newer microstock agencies don’t leverage referral programs as much as established agencies. To compete, or even survive, agencies need buyers, who won’t buy without seeing a large quantity of images in the agency portfolio. Referral programs are an easy way to get contributors – you’re incentivising the entire market to refer them. While referral programs are expensive, they’re a great facilitator to getting lots of photos quickly.

While I use all these referral programs here on Microstock Diaries, I find only Shutterstock and Dreamstime’s programs are worthwhile when writing for contributors. If my audience were microstock buyers I would definately have a different experience.

As promised, here are a taste of the referral banners.










  • john
    Posted at 14:11h, 03 October Reply

    wow great comparison chart and data on all the programs out there. i’ve collected a ton of data on this as well for our site if you need anymore notes but it’s definitely going to help us in choosing the right path for our affiliate program. i always thought a referral program was a nice way to get traffic for a site while at the same time rewarding people for spreading the word and putting their reputation on the line. do you think it is necessary for a site to reward a referrer for both buyers and sellers they send to a site?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 16:31h, 03 October Reply

      Rewarding for referring both buyers and contributors certainly affects the way I promote different agencies, so from my perspective, yes.

      It all depends on what you need. For example, iStockphoto’s strategy seems to reflect a need for more buyers but no need for more contributors, in many ways other than their referral program. So I imagine they save a lot of money. Other agencies with smaller portfolios desperately need contributors, so they pay for them.

  • victoo
    Posted at 09:05h, 01 December Reply

    There is length of time specified in Fotolia referral program. Only one year…

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 10:28h, 14 January Reply

      My affiliates at Fotolia show an expiry date of five years after they registered. I can’t find anywhere on the site where it states the limit is only one year.


      • victoo
        Posted at 06:22h, 21 January Reply

        my affiliates at Fotolia show an expiry date of ONE YEAR after they registered.

        • MajusC00L
          Posted at 19:25h, 08 April Reply

          Actually, until the infamous V2 of last June, referral period was of 5 years. With V2, they reduced it to 1 year but for all the affiliates that you had prior to V2, you will keep the 5 year period. All the new affiliates will be yours for 1 year only.

          Also, before V2, it was possible to have affiliates who were more ancient members than you. Any non affiliated members clicking on one of your banner link somewhere would instantly become your affiliate. I had 5 or 6 affiliates like this and they were members of Fotolia a year or more before me.

          Last August, Fotolia apparently cleaned the whole thing and these affiliation were stopped (showing a red button in the affiliates list). You can now only affiliate new members.

          Hope this answered some questions.


  • Matt Antonino
    Posted at 01:36h, 18 March Reply


    Says one year in the FAQ – maybe they recently updated it.

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