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:

  1. Help new microstock agencies design an affiliate program that’s more likely to achieve their objectives
  2. Help clear some of the spin that some agencies put out about their affiliate programs
  3. 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.

Chart of microstock affiliate program earnings

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!

Program Weaknesses

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.

Final Point

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.

  • Daniel Korzeniewski
    Posted at 11:22h, 08 January Reply

    Great post Lee, thanks for sharing that information.

  • Luis Santos
    Posted at 12:19h, 08 January Reply

    My opinion maybe diverge from others but I guess you suppose to like a lot what you are doing with this blog and photography in general, I guess a average of 406$/month isn’t low right??… money is never enough right?
    Sorry for this comment but it is my humble opinion!

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 12:44h, 08 January Reply

      You’re spot on Luis. I love the experience of blogging and all the awesome relationships and experiences that have come out of it. That’s why I was careful to specify that it’s only not smart business when looking only at the numbers.

      And yes, money is relative. For people in different situations, this money could be very satisfying.

      Thanks for the honest comment.


  • Pablo Blanes
    Posted at 13:28h, 08 January Reply

    Hello Lee,

    I would like to inform you about our affiliate program in http://www.photaki.com


    Photaki is the international version of http://www.andaluciaimagen.com. A few weeks ago we update our affiliate program and after your post I have decided to write.

    You do a good job with your blog. Congratulations.

  • Amos
    Posted at 14:13h, 08 January Reply

    Great Blog Post, why did you tell everyone those secrets ;-).
    You forgot to mention that there is already the most powerfull affiliate maschine for wordpress bloggers ever – the Microstock Photo Plugin for WordPress!

  • Sascha
    Posted at 14:36h, 08 January Reply

    Very interesting article. Thank you for posting!


  • Steve Gibson
    Posted at 23:11h, 08 January Reply

    So nice how open and community spirited microstock is from a contributors aspect (if you ever start a resource for buyers it will be interesting to see if the same is true)

    Great post: I’d just like to add the importance of trialling and testing different links from different agencies and measuring the results. It might well be the case that some audiences earn more from a referral program with a six month term instead of a 5 year term because they are casual buyers and don’t seem to make repeat purchases. The results often don’t match what you currently ‘think’ about your visitor demographic.

    I also strongly agree with and would like to emphasise your comments about inflexible links. Anyone at an agency reading this: adding an argument to the end of any url might be more challenging than just providing a couple of links to a profile or the home page, but consider all the different places that people might want to link to, light boxes, categories, search results. Flexible linking like that really widens the scope of who is likely to link to your agency – and make it really easy with a little “link to this page” so they can and paste if they have logged in.

    Photographer referrals, well, hmmm, not sure, I think even the biggest agencies need to grow and recruit new photographers from somewhere?

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:36h, 09 January Reply

      Thanks for the comments Steve. It’s great to have another big user of these programs backup my suggestions to the agencies.

      So far I haven’t done any testing like you suggest, instead using the shotgun approach and using them all on one site. However, it’s clearly logical that doing so would help. Testing and measuring is a big part of online marketing which I haven’t done as much as many of the others who do better than me at this.

      I agree the bigger agencies need to grow their contributors, but I suggested in the article that this happens by reputation, without the need for a referral program. Hopefully the referral program still makes a difference for them too. I wonder if they do testing on that too? I know some of them do, not not sure about all of them.


  • LFChavier
    Posted at 23:29h, 08 January Reply

    Hi Lee,

    Thanks for sharing this information. I’ve been disconnected from microstock for a while and I am considering returning to duty 🙂

    I have been thinking these days about creating a contributor-oriented blog in portuguese, and this insight is invaluable. I’ll give some thought on creating something buyer-oriented… Could you give some successful examples, you know, for inspiration? 🙂


    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:53h, 09 January Reply

      Not in terms of blogs, yet. But there’s plenty of tools: comparison searches; plugins; etc.

  • Bravajulia
    Posted at 06:06h, 09 January Reply

    Hi Lee,
    am I wrong or Fotolia has stopped the referral program in the past year?
    Your graph show income until december….

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 09:54h, 09 January Reply

      Yeah, I’m not sure what’s going on there.

      • Holgs
        Posted at 09:02h, 12 January Reply

        I was under the impression that its just the contributor affiliations that Fotolia stopped – chances are that you’re getting a fair few buyers as well as contributors reading your blog – I think that these days there is a significant overlap between the two.

  • Alex Hinds
    Posted at 23:32h, 10 January Reply

    Great post Lee. You’re spot on with your evaluations in my humble opinion, particularly with the desirability of sending buyers to the sites instead of potential contributors. As it gets harder and harder for new contributors in the microstock sector to get any traction the returns from referring them will probably become harder to sustain.


  • mystockphoto
    Posted at 11:43h, 11 January Reply

    Hi Lee, hi all,
    very well-written post, my congrats.
    With a smaller an shorter story of blogging and affiliation, I can confirm that the best results are coming from Shutterstock and Dreamstime (referring photographers). Also Fotolia at the beginning (when affiliation was for contributors too, now it works only referring buyers) gave me a good result. For our kind of blogs it’s a bit difficult to catch buyers… you can’t be everywhere 😉

    • LFChavier
      Posted at 17:59h, 11 January Reply

      My best results from affiliation are also coming from Shutterstock and Dreamstime, particularly from one big contributor at Shutterstock. I don’t have a blog yet, but I have posted links in forum topics and online communities (in portuguese). I have about 130 affiliated contributors on Shutterstock, Dreamstime and Fotolia.

      Luis Fernando

  • Microstock Photography
    Posted at 18:36h, 11 January Reply

    I read your blog often but do not comment much. Thanks for another great post. I agree that new microstock sites need to figure this out. With the power of the internet you can sell almost anything if you have the right affiliate program (look at all the ebooks on the web that pay 75% affiliate commissions).

    Fotolia was one of my largest affiliates when they had a good program. Sadly when they thought they did not need us anymore they just broke their contract with many affiliates and dropped them. Blaming it on a “bug” just seems to fit their tactics. I was not greatly affected by this (most of mine are still active on my account); but it still ticked me off. I pulled every link I had to them. I think I have a few to them here and there, but my referrals went from many daily to almost nothing (which I am happy about).

    Shutterstock and Dreamstime do the best for me. I focus on both buyers and sellers.

  • john lund
    Posted at 16:11h, 12 January Reply


    Thanks for the post! Can you suggest any good “buyer” oriented blogs?


  • Claudio
    Posted at 14:51h, 13 January Reply

    Lee Torrens says: “Shutterstock don’t need the generous contributor affiliate program that they have.”

    From my experience, out of about 30 affiliates only 2 are actually selling something, and both were already my friends. The other 28 never even passed the test.

    Conclusion: casual newbies are not likely to even bother to try the test seriously, while we are happy to help our affiliates – either by posting on the forums or by telling them directly about issues such as noise, lighting, purple fringe, low commercial value which most newbies ignore.

    I guess some affiliates can be better new photographers for Shutterstock, with a smoother learning curve and quicker returns.

    • LFChavier
      Posted at 21:06h, 13 January Reply

      My experience: I have 40 affiliates on Shutterstock where only 2 are active sellers. As I said above, I got lucky and one of them has 10K+ illustrations, so I can make a significant amount of money from this guy only.

      I think this contributor referral thing depends a lot on this “luck factor”. In my opinion, to overcome this the sample needs to be very big – and I mean A LOT of referred contributors. Maybe the time and effort needed are just too big.

      • David Zydd
        Posted at 09:41h, 18 August Reply

        Originally I thought, that only 5-10% of referred contributor are able to sell regurarly.
        Looks like these numbers are true… 🙂

  • allen
    Posted at 11:43h, 14 January Reply

    Lee some good stuff here! I guess we should all try to promote more especially those sites that have programs.

    Hey I have been looking through the archives and trying to find some info on Crestock. As they still advertise here maybe you can shed some light for many contrib’s that are having issues. Review times of up to 4+ months and several people have waited months on payments. I for one am confused as to why they can have contests, pay for advertising and the blow off the people who provide the content. It would be a nice article and get a lot of traffic if you could get to the bottom of this for all of us! =) Good luck on that because when we (many people) ask for support we get nothing from them. Thanks lee, great stuff as always!

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 13:50h, 14 January Reply

      Thanks for your kind words Allen. It seems to me that Crestock are having some issues with time and/or people – hence the delays on reviews and payments (I have a payment pending a few months too), but I’ll get in touch and see if I can shed some light on the situation. Their advertising here is fully automated so I don’t believe they’re ‘blowing off’ contributors. Anyway, I’ll see what they say.


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