08 Jan 2010 What Works and What Doesn’t Work With Microstock Affiliate Programs
I always intended microstock agency affiliate programs to be a primary revenue generating source for this blog. Almost three years since starting, I’m neither delighted nor unhappy with the results, but I’ve got enough data and experience to share some conclusions. Here’s why I want to share:
- Help new microstock agencies design an affiliate program that’s more likely to achieve their objectives
- Help clear some of the spin that some agencies put out about their affiliate programs
- Push existing agencies toward improving their affiliate programs by highlighting which ones aren’t worthwhile
The big caveat here is that my affiliate income comes entirely from this blog which is aimed at microstock contributors, not buyers. Take this into account if you’re using them with an audience of photo buyers because your experience will likely be completely different.
For details on how these programs work and what they pay, see my previous comparison of microstock affiliate programs.
My Affiliate Earnings
My own affiliate income is low. I personally know five people who earn more than me with the same programs and there’s undoubtedly many more. Of the five that I know, each has a website, or multiple websites, with higher traffic rates than myself and many focus on buyers. None just use a single blog like me. They’re either forums, highly optimized information pages or systems which plug into other websites.
Below is my all-time chart of microstock affiliate revenue, April 2007 when I started this blog until end of December 2009.
See, quite low.
Some context for this chart:
- In 2009 there were over 18,000 clicks on my affiliate links (combined, not each)
- Revenue peaked in November 2009 at $772.60
- Total earnings since April 2007 is just under $13,000
- From what I can tell over 90% of this income comes from contributors, not buyers
- The three random spikes form Crestock and the large one from BigStockPhoto were buyer referrals
- If an agency doesn’t appear on the chart it’s because I’ve made less than $10 from their program (I use them all)
Affiliate Program Effectiveness
Excluding iStockphoto as an exceptional case, is it that the top microstock agencies have the best affiliate programs or that the best affiliate programs have driven those agencies to the top? Of course it’s not that simple, but can new and up-and-coming agencies afford to dismiss the effectiveness of an attractive affiliate program?
And what could be a simpler method of attracting buyers and contributors? The affiliate commission is the entire marketing cost for each buyer or contributor. Unlike magazine ads, agencies know the exactly effectiveness and there’s zero cost if it doesn’t work.
Some Programs are Better Than They Need To Be
This is the part where I shoot myself in the foot. Successful microstock agencies attract contributors because of their reputation for selling lots of photos. They don’t need affiliate programs which pay for referred contributors. iStockphoto is the perfect example of this. Their affiliate program only pays for referred buyers. Unless I’m over-simplifying the situation (and I hope I am), Shutterstock don’t need the generous contributor affiliate program that they have.
New agencies don’t have this luxury.
And everyone needs affiliate programs to attract buyers. Everyone!
Limited Time – most agencies pay revenue for affiliates for a limited amount of time. None of the programs with a short period (many are just six months) have been worthwhile for me. Most new contributors take at least six months to get a reasonable portfolio online and start selling. The length of time affiliates stay active has a much bigger impact on the performance of the program than the commission rate. I initially wrote a glowing review of Crestock’s referral program when it launched, but the six-month limit cripples its effectiveness for me. You can see in my chart the effect of the six-month limit of 123rf‘s program too.
Separate Referral Links – the key weakness – and the most cunning strategy – of Shutterstock’s affiliate program is that there are separate addresses for referring contributors and buyers. If a buyer clicks your contributor affiliate link to Shutterstock and buys a subscription, you get nothing. If a contributor clicks your buyer affiliate link to Shutterstock and sells a bjillion photos, you get nothing. As quoted in a recent press release, I find Shutterstock’s program to be the most lucrative because my audience is photographers and not buyers. Shutterstock’s buyer referral program actually compares poorly to other agencies. However, requiring separate referral links is the biggest negative.
Inflexible Links – being able to link to any part of a microstock agency and include the affiliate code is a big advantage. Some agencies have a set referral link or make it difficult to know how to include the referral code. I frequently link to individual photo pages, contributor portfolios, forum threads, information pages and even lightboxes. When I do, I link to the agencies that make it easy. iStockphoto make this easiest by simply appending the referral code to the end of any URL. However, Dreamstime also make it easy for most pages and have a better program, so I usually choose them.
Broken – this is the worst weakness. A few times in the past I’ve cleared the agency cookies from my browser and tested my referral links to make sure they’re working. One agency was never reliable until a “bug” was corrected at the same time as a major policy change. After that it started working reliably and the rate of new affiliate registrations recorded on my account instantly tripled. StockXpert‘s referral program has also been completely broken for over a year now with no intention of bringing it back. It’ll be difficult to win back trust of affiliates if they ever try.
Single Code Only – no microstock agencies only offer a single affiliate code so there’s no way for affiliates to see which of their campaigns or websites is generating revenue without registering multiple accounts.
The Holy Grail of Affiliate Programs
The ultimate strength of a microstock agencies affiliate program is not in the payment schedule. It’s in the technology. Take a look at all the partnership opportunities that iStockphoto, Dreamstime and Fotolia have thanks to their APIs (Application Programming Interface – a way to connect websites). From my observations, Fotolia get many more partnerships and services plugging into their website to sell photos thanks to the open information about their API, flexible API functionality, their readiness to partner, and a solid (ongoing) affiliate payment schedule.
While not needing an API but still an example of technology, most microstock agencies have a simple search form that can be embedded on any website by pasting a few lines of code. This is how easy it is:
That’s just five lines of code, copied and pasted in 5 seconds. Now anyone can search via this page and see results on Dreamstime, complete with my affiliate code attached. Steve Gibson from Microstock Insider pasted one of these forms on a relatively high traffic free photos website and almost instantly started earning an extra $1,000 each month in affiliate revenue. Most established microstock agencies have these search forms but it’s too often overlooked by newer agencies.
Today, any stock photo agency without an API is missing out on a growing chunk of the photo buyer market.
If you’re thinking of starting a microstock blog to earn microstock affiliate income, consider focusing on buyers, not contributors. I’ve been very fortunate with the many great (and some lucrative) opportunities as a result of this blog, so it’s been well worthwhile for me. However, if you look at the quantity of time invested in my blog posts (I’m slow but average over 5 hours per post) compared to the affiliate revenue I’ve generated, it’s not smart business. Extra benefits aside, I would be generating more revenue if I’d invested my time creating photos for microstock. Or blogged for photos buyers instead.