28 May 2009 PhotoXpress and Free Photo Strategies

PhotoXpress logoPhotoXpress is a new free photo website launched by Fotolia earlier this month (May 21). It offers 350,000 images sourced from the Fotolia Free Section with thousands more added daily. Depending on their level of registration, members can download between 1 and 10 photos per day.

Contributors have had the option to donate rejected photos to the Fotolia Free Section for years. Over the past two months, Fotolia has boosted the quantity of images in the free section by offering contributors $0.50 to donate images which haven’t sold in the past two years.

Like the free photo initiatives of all microstock agencies, PhotoXpress is designed to attract people seeking free photos and then upsell Fotolia photos.

The initial reaction from both microstock and traditional stock photographers has been predictably critical. However, providing free photos is a successful strategy used by all top microstock agencies. Let’s take a closer look at the details and the strategy.

The Strategy of Free Photos

Most microstock agencies use free images to attract people to their sites and then promote the photos for purchase. The best example is StockXpert which is tightly integrated into the super-popular free photo website Stock.XCHNG. Dreamstime also stands out with a searchable database of free images on the Dreamstime website itself. Other agencies offer a daily or weekly selection.

The marketing and upselling takes various forms. Branding is the most basic. Downloading usually requires registration, which enables email promotion. Fee-based images are shown alongside the free search results at Stock.XCHNG and Dreamstime. With PhotoXpress, Fotolia has been creative and used a few new techniques.

Registration profile at PhotoXpressAfter registering and verifying their email address, members can download one photo per day. If they become a Facebook Fan of PhotoXpress they get an extra four. Completing the personal information profile (seen at right) provides the last five of maximum ten. However, the registration code is delivered by SMS, requiring a mobile phone.   A separate email-a-friend form can earn a higher quota, but the maximum is still 10.

This incentivized promotion is the real innovation of PhotoXpress. If it works and the underlying service delivers on its promises, these tactics will provide rapid and self-sustaining growth.

The more traditional methods of branding and integrated search results are conspicuously absent from PhotoXpress, for now. Keen to avoid mistakes they’ve observed in other industries, they’re holding back the hard sell while they grow the service.

The Cost of Free Photos

Growing the market with free photos isn’t without its costs.

First, obtaining a large collection of photos which can be legally and freely licensed Royalty Free is not easy. Microstock agencies have a unique opportunity to do this and only Fotolia has been collecting.

Second, there’s the hazard of association these images, which are by necessity low in commercial value, with a brand built around an offer of quality photos.

Creating a distinct brand is one solution, as Fotolia have done with PhotoXpress. An alternative used by iStockphoto is not keeping the rejects at all. They give away great images, but just one per week. This keeps the brand associated with great photos, but lacks the drawing power of a searchable database of free photos.

Fotolia are delaying this negative brand association issue by keeping the brands totally separate. The Fotolia brand does not appear anywhere on the PhotoXpress website, nor is PhotoXpress mentioned on Fotolia. The PhotoXpress press release only mentions Fotolia in the title.

Promoting the two separate brands is proving tricky. The press release included the line:

Small businesses, home businesses, consultants and students […] struggle to find high-quality, affordable images…

Promoting PhotoXpress too heavily can insult Fotolia.

Contributor Concerns

Perhaps the only valid concern is the absence of photographer attribution on PhotoXpress. Until now contributors expected portfolio exposure in return for their donated photos. While the agreement under which contributors donated their photos didn’t make that promise, it’s an expectation that has gone unfulfilled.

Launching without photographer attribution may be part of holding back the “hard sell” while PhotoXpress grows. It wouldn’t be difficult to include the photographers name without a link (each photos description and keywords come across already) though it wouldn’t provide the same portfolio exposure photographers expected.

Additionally, point 3 of the RF License requires that editorial use include a citation with the photographer’s name. This is not possible when the photographer’s name isn’t provided.

Another concern is that more free images will accelerate cannibalization of microstock. The massive quality gap will keep that to a minimum. The net impact is more likely to be positive as free photo seekers are converted to photo buyers (at least microstock buyers) while serious buyers find the quality insufficient.

Growing the Market and Market Share

Given the persistence of all top agencies with the free images strategy, there’s little doubt it works. Fotolia are simply investing more heavily by creating PhotoXpress as a separate strategy. It also creates greater growth potential as we’ve seen with Stock.XCHNG.

The lack of attribution has lead some contributors to suspect Fotolia is more interested in growing market share than the market size, but logically, free photos do both.

PhotoXpress is the first project to make use of Fotolia’s Free Photos API which is still in active development. They’re receiving a lot of feedback and making constant changes. If PhotoXpress proves successful, we can expect to see Fotolia’s free photos becoming available at a variety of sources.

Update 2009-05-29: Fotolia have added the contributors name to each photo page. It is linked to an image search for other PhotoXpress photos by the same contributor.

  • mystockphoto
    Posted at 07:37h, 29 May Reply

    Hi Lee,
    very complete information as usual. I hope they can/want resolve the absence of photographer attribution.

  • Taylor Davidson
    Posted at 12:06h, 29 May Reply

    Lee, great look at the issues with “free” photos.

    But what about a significant cost of “free” photos: bandwidth and storage costs of the “free” photos? Someone has to pay to store and deliver photos, pay for the site, etc. Obviously Fotolia will be subsidizing those costs (as well as the costs for paying for “free” photos); wouldn’t it be easier for Fotolia to upsell potential customers from free to paid licensed photos if the branding and sites (especially search) were more tied together?

    Fact is, free photos are happening and will continue to happen; fighting the trend is a losing strategy, better to launch it yourself to take advantage of the trend rather than be killed by it.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 14:37h, 29 May Reply

      Taylor, the technology costs – development, bandwidth and storage – are the only real up-front risk for Fotolia with this project and they’re already buyers of these services. So I don’t think it’s as much of a major undertaking for them as it would be for others. Plus, they’ll be able to ascertain their ROI relatively easily once they get the upsell going.

      Keeping the branding a search together is the strategy that Dreamstime are using. I expect an independent brand is free to grow larger and quicker thanks to a more narrow focus, but a lot depends on execution. Fotolia clearly think that is the winning strategy too. Additionally, with this model Fotolia have more flexibility in how they connect the branding and search back to Fotolia. The marketing tactics they’ve used (with registration) are one example of what’s possible with the separate brand strategy.

      Thanks for your thoughts.


      • pdtnc
        Posted at 10:12h, 05 June Reply

        “The marketing tactics they’ve used (with registration) are one example of what’s possible with the separate brand strategy. ”

        Thats just data-mining, giving gifts for user details to be analysed for user patterns to further progress their strategy.
        My opinion at least!! 😉

  • pdtnc
    Posted at 01:27h, 05 June Reply

    I’m a bit upset to find this out here rather than from Fotolia, especially as I have asked the question before.
    Its nice to finally see where I’m putting my work!

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