04 Jan 2011 Stock Photo Distribution Getting Funky

Multiple handshakes stock photoDistribution of stock photos was previously much cleaner than it is now. Microstock photos were licensed at microstock agencies. Traditional Royalty Free & Rights Managed photos were licensed at traditional agencies. There was lots of cross-distribution within the traditional market, but it didn’t extend into microstock. And there was no cross-distribution within the microstock market itself.

And then things started getting a little funky. Agencies started to shift content between markets and open up the distribution channels. The simplicity faded.

Some of the new complexities are well known within the stock photo industry. Others might come as a surprise to many.

Higher Priced Microstock Collections Containing Traditional Agency Content

Fotolia were the first to introduce a collection at a microstock agency. The Infinite Colllection sold images from traditional agencies alongside regular microstock, but at higher prices. Fotolia’s elite contributors – Emerald level and above – were also invited to participate. Some reported that the sales were outstanding compared to regular non-exclusive microstock distribution.

Then iStockphoto introduced collections, initially just for their exclusive contributors. But their latest, The Agency Collection, was (at least initially) primarily aimed at traditional agencies outside their parent agency Getty Images. Despite the stated rules of the collection, most agencies contributed existing content rather than creating new content, and much of it was simultaneously available at the original agencies.

Both of these collections opened the channel for stock photos from traditional agencies to flow through into the microstock market. Unfortunately for the customers, it wasn’t ideal content, but an open channel none-the-less.

Traditional Agencies Selling Microstock

Many traditional stock photo agencies have started licensing microstock content. Rather than go through the massive undertaking of actually crowdsourcing the content directly, almost all have approached microstock agencies to gain access to existing portfolios. This is easy enough to do.   Most serious microstock agencies offer simple partner programs which can be integrated into an existing agency website with relative ease. Then the agencies have just added a “microstock” or “budget” tab to their website and/or added the same labels as a search option.

The margins in microstock reselling are slim, particularly compared to what traditional agencies are accustomed to seeing cross their books. Still, reselling is a relatively easy way to add an extra revenue line and leverage an existing customer base.

This trend has opened up the reverse channel: microstock content flowing into traditional agencies.

Veer Sourced Both Markets Directly

An interesting twist on traditional agencies selling microstock content is the recent integration of collections at Veer. The historically traditional agency had the microstock content that was ported over from the SnapVillage closure and what they had ingested directly since the creation of Veer Marketplace. Veer moved all the Rights Managed content up to parent company, Corbis, and mixed the traditional Royalty Free and microstock together in one simple and clear search function. Naturally a handy slider was provided to filter searches by price.

What results is a single, large, one-stop-shop for all content sourced from both markets.

And Then There’s Pixmac

Pixmac created the first microstock agency that was a reseller of the content from other microstock agencies in addition to ingesting content directly from contributors. But they didn’t stop there. Not long after launching they added select images from Corbis and soon after ImageSource. They’ve since added a variety of other agencies’ content at various price points.

Pixmac are doing what a lot of traditional stock photo agencies are doing, just starting at the other end of the pricing scale.

Microstock Content with Midstock Prices at Traditional Agencies

PantherMedia has always been an open, crowdsourced, stock photo agency, but only switched to the microstock pricing model in 2009. During that time they’ve been distributing the microstock images that they’ve accepted at their own agency to other agencies in the traditional stock photo market. They have a long list of distributors, and distributor sales account for a significant portion of total sales.

Now there are two other businesses getting into the same business; recruiting top-level microstock contributors and distributing their content in the traditional channel. I’ll be writing more about both these business in detail later this month. Suffice to say it’s an exciting and lucrative little business model that further extends the reach of microstock content into the traditional stock photo market.

Flexibility of Microstock Contributor Rules

Microstock agencies are opening up to a broader flow of content and photographer participation by relaxing the rigid requirement that only one photographer can contribute to each account.

There have been a few examples of microstock agencies accepting company owned accounts where multiple photographers shoot for the company, but this is the exception rather than the rule. When making such exceptions, agencies need to be clear they’re dealing with serious business people and not amateurs, hobbyists, or “kids” as we’re referred to (affectionately) by some senior microstock agency executives.

And of course there’s the many accounts owned by traditional agencies who place “strategic” content into the microstock market.

This further opens up the opportunities for traditional stock photographers to participate in microstock without the usual learning hurdle and administrative overhead. Of course some people have been doing this for years, but it’s now being done with full knowledge and approval of the agency management.

I’ll talk more about these accounts later this month too.

Getting Closer to One Big Market

Crossed Handshakes stock photoAs prices come up from the bottom and drop down from the top we’re seeing them merge into the middle ground, or lower-middle ground. Now as these trends create a free-flow of content between markets, we’re seeing the same merging with distribution as with pricing. Perhaps we’re moving closer to a single stock photography market where the distinctions between microstock and traditional stock don’t apply.

How do you think this will impact the revenue prospects for stock photographers?

  • CandyBox Photography
    Posted at 17:01h, 04 January Reply

    Lee! Great post…I fully agree with the notion of “moving closer to a single stock photography market”… The shifting (RF at least) took place and will continue. This will finally result in unique opportunities and therefore generate revenue grow for all stock photographer/producers seriously (read full time) involved in the stock industry. Now still looking forward to see what will happen with the (huge) price differences between agencies (similar collections). Anyhow great and positive developments.

    Cheers, JM

  • Tyler Olson
    Posted at 17:56h, 04 January Reply

    Nice review of the current state of things Lee. I’m looking forward to hearing what you write about the new distribution deals and group accounts.

    I feel increased distribution has both a negative a positive side. The positive being greater reach with the same images already created and hopefully more income because of it. The negative being countless middle men. After site A distributes to site B who distributes to site C (and who knows how many more levels) how much is really left for the photographer and how often is the photographer credits left out in the last few distribution legs?

  • Cory
    Posted at 14:07h, 17 January Reply

    Interesting article. It does seem like it is merging in a way. Other times, it feels like it is staying the same too. Subscriptions and stock images for a buck still seem to be a very prevalent part of the micro model. Personally, I’d love to see the sites move away from those two things, but they still seem to be part of their bread and butter.

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