02 Oct 2015 A Detailed Look at the Market for Mobile Stock

For years now, mobile stock has been predicted as the next technical disruption to the stock photo industry, like Royalty Free and microstock did before it.

Mobile is certainly heating up. There are a lot of players, a lot of experimenting with business models, and a lot of funding entering the space.

But there are also some fundamental problems that will presumably cause significantly more issues as the market scales up, unless they’re fixed. Many pure mobile players think they have the solutions. Maybe they do, but maybe they don’t.

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Copyright: Jack Hollingsworth

Indicators of Growth

First of all, how do we know if the market for mobile-shot stock photos is growing?

One clear indicator is that lots of agencies, new and established, are entering the space. These days, every agency has their own app. However, this factor is better interpreted as a signal that people believe there’s growth in the market rather than proof of actual growth itself.

Most of the existing agencies—microstock and otherwise—are panicked and rushing to get into the mobile market. They see an opportunity, but they don’t know how to get the content nor how to sell it.

Some big microstock agencies like Fotolia who’ve had an app for a while have a healthy collection of mobile stock. Rumors are that some big agencies are selling a lot too, but details are sketchy. Other rumors are that smaller agencies are not getting much content and are selling even less.

Overall, the market is moving, but no one really knows where it is going. The growth of mobile stock is exciting and confusing at the same time.

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Copyright: Jack Hollingsworth

Differentiating Mobile Stock

Mobile-shot stock photos are more intimate and natural looking, less produced and less posed. Natural light is a constant. They’re often described with terms like authentic, natural, visceral, intuitive, real, believable, credible, etc. But it’s hard to not use the same words when looking at a lot of traditional stock and microstock too. Not all of it, but some of it.

But with billions of images already available in stock, why do buyers want mobile-shot images? They’re aware the technical quality is inferior, yet still they continue seeking them out. It’s clear that, in this market, there’s something more to images than quality, and mobile has it.

Many people, including some photo buyers, confuse the emotion in the mobile-shot pictures with the way these pictures look. A lot of people add visual gimmicks to mobile images, such as grunge, light-leaks, textures, heavy filters, etc. These features confuse buyers about the nature of the photos.

The authenticity in mobile photography comes from it being taken by family and/or close friends, and not from poor image quality or cheap effects. The next generation of mobile shooters will be selling to a more discerning audience. For them, a photo is a photo; they don’t attempt to create ‘mobile-looking’ images via effects, but rather via intimacy and realness. In fact, some mobile stock platforms, like EyeEm and Snapwire, don’t discriminate against DSLR shots uploaded alongside mobile-shot images.

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Copyright: Jack Hollingsworth

The Dangers of UGC

User-generated images represent certain risks for photo buyers beyond those of traditional stock and even microstock.

Mobile images from the masses often contain visible brands and lack necessary model & property releases, yet are still offered for commercial use by the agency. It’s quite common for people to share images in social media for which they don’t own the copyrights, and that’s where mobile stock agencies source many of their contributors, especially Olapic.  It’s not a huge leap for people to upload images for sale that they don’t own.

And the client has no way to investigate these issues, nor any kind of guarantee from intermediary agencies to protect them from potential legal issues. This is a very risky space, where big brands need to tread carefully.

For this and other reasons, UGC-based agencies who are not putting necessary emphasis on the security of the images they offer—which describes pretty much all of them—have a big challenge to attract big brands, which make up the bulk of total sales dollars in all stock photo markets. Interestingly, with subscriptions at $100 or $200 as their primary product, this is exactly the market that most mobile-focused agencies are targeting.

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Copyright: Jack Hollingsworth

Camera Agnostic Collections

Although most agencies now have mobile-shot images in their libraries, not all of them break them out into separate collections.

The ones who do differentiate mobile shots often have a specific collection for them. iStock/Getty has Moment, Fotolia has Instant, Depositphotos has Clashot and Alamy has Stockimo. All of these mobile-only collections appear as separate collections on the agencies’ websites.

Agencies that do not distinguish mobile-shot photos from traditional ones in their search results, like Shutterstock, 123Rf, and Dreamstime, work on the premise that “an image is an image,” that the device used to shoot it is not as relevant as the picture itself.

But often a buyer’s audience will identify more with mobile-shot stock. Many seek images that communicate to their audience that the people in the photos “look like us,” pointing out one of the key customer-engaging points of mobile stock: the shooters and subjects of the photo are “normal” people in “normal” situations, not necessarily paid models in a serious photo production (even if a lot of mobile-shot stock is exactly that).

By organizing mobile-shot images separately within a catalog, agencies can manage clients’ expectations about quality. More importantly, they can give photo buyers easier access to a style of images that a lot of them are specifically seeking out. If there are enough buyers who think like this, it makes much more sense to identify mobile content in stock libraries.

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Copyright: Jack Hollingsworth

Market Equilibrium?

The market for mobile is presumably growing, but are demand and supply growing at the same pace?

One of the main premises of the mobile photography boom is that since smartphones come with cameras, everybody is a photographer. And so the supply for mobile stock is much higher than market demand.

Right now there are over 7 billion people on the planet. 1 in 5 of them owns a smartphone with a camera. That’s a lot of people carrying cameras in their pockets, ready to snap away. That alone is certainly disruptive.

As in all parts of this industry, the key to making money is owning the demand side. Big agencies like Shutterstock, Getty, and others hold those keys. And this is why it’s hard for other players to break into the business. EyeEm realized this and outsourced their buyer side to Getty through a distribution partnership.

With the exception of this once-in-a-lifetime case from 2012, I haven’t been able to find any photographers making a living shooting mobile, and I’ve looked hard.

Of course, the same thing must have been said about microstock contributors 10 years ago. But microstock agencies eventually held up photographers who were making great money to encourage more contributors to join and add interest to their marketing stories. I haven’t seen any mobile agencies do that yet, and when asked, they all shy away from the question.

This is possibly because sales are spread too thin among so many contributors, so any agency that’s making money is not sending any significant amount to any individual contributor.

I would love to hear from mobile agencies who can cite individual contributors earning more than $1000 a month.  Or even a year!

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Copyright: Jack Hollingsworth

Counter Strategies for Photographers

With the rise of mobile, presuming it will eventually take meaningful market share from the rest of the market, microstock and traditional stock shooters have to define their counter strategy.

Trying to compete in content and style is not a good idea. Mobile can and will provide content much faster than professional photographers could. The supply is much too big and grows at such a frenetic pace that no professional stock shooters will ever be able to compete.

Instead of competing with mobile, traditional stock shooters can counter by doing what they do best: to set themselves apart from mobile by focusing in what smartphone shooters would never shoot. In other words, no more landscapes or intimate portraits.

Another option is to re-train themselves into shooting mobile. If that has any appeal for anyone other than Jack Hollingsworth, it’ll be a tough road, given the massive competition and leaving behind all their competitive advantages like equipment, experience, teams, etc. Of course, this is a familiar story, and many traditional photographers lived this same situation when microstock was getting established.

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Copyright: Jack Hollingsworth

Selling via Apps

There’s another aspect of the market to think about: whether serious photo buyers would really use mobile apps to source the images they need.

Baby boomers and Gen-X buyers are unlikely to buy much from apps. Mobile agencies, and microstock agencies too, already know this and focus on the desktop website as the primary point of purchase.

Millenials have a maverick attitude that we’ve come to love, are often notoriously cheap, and are fierce do-it-yourselfers. They are looking for a better way to buy photos. For this audience, many agencies have apps for selling photos. Shutterstock and Dreamstime enable purchases in their apps, and Adobe will soon be integrating Adobe Stock sales into their mobile apps as they’ve done with their desktop suite.

Sale at the point of use will make it easier for photo buyers of all generations to make purchases via apps. Adobe and Canva are the only two real contenders with this strategy, which is something pure-play mobile stock agencies may need to think about.

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Copyright: Jack Hollingsworth

Dealing with High Volume

The large quantity of bad, limited-commercial-value images in this market is another issue that agencies need to address.

Some agencies have reviewers curating all images, which is an expensive and slow choice. It works at the microstock level, when an agency receives fewer than a million images per week (that’s where Shutterstock is at now) and the quality is mostly high (Shutterstock approves around 70%).  If mobile stock photo agencies start getting numbers closer to the range of social photo sites, manual reviewing would get very expensive.

Other agencies qualify their contributors via an application process. This keeps quality consistent but excludes amateurs and enthusiasts, which severely limits the community—and community is a key element of most mobile agency business models.

There’s also the peer-rating option, which some agencies are using. While there are tactics that can appropriately incentivize giving good ratings, and double-checking, the lean-back-on-the-community solution is extremely difficult to get working well. iStockphoto famously got it working, but they paid reviewers well and invested a lot of resources in training and quality control. Again, this would be too expensive with a higher volume of images coming in.

What would be interesting to see in this field is an automated image curation process. A system that involves less human touch and yet delivers fast and accurate image reviews. This is the future. EyeEm’s recently announced EyeVision technology is a step in this exact direction.

Where do you think mobile is going?

3 Comments
  • Sami Hurmerinta
    Posted at 05:25h, 06 October Reply

    Hi! I loved the article (I’m a regular reader), but I’d like to point out that Getty’s Moment is not a mobile-only collection. They also except photos taken with other cameras. They have a mobile app, but they haven’t restricted submission to phone photos only.

    • Lee Torrens
      Posted at 11:59h, 06 October Reply

      Thanks Sami. To my knowledge they’re actually all like that – all mobile apps allow submission of non-mobile-shot images through the app.

      • Sami Hurmerinta
        Posted at 02:56h, 07 October Reply

        Thanks for the clarification, Lee! I thought Getty’s policy of accepting content from all kinds of cameras was an exception and the other apps were strictly for images from mobile devices.

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