Tagged: stock photography

Oh, What A Difference (Or Not?) 5 Years Makes

Stock image consultancy firm Visual Steam recently published a summary of their 2014 survey of US art buyers in stock image licensing. It outlines some of the major trend lines from the previous year (continued pricing pressure, use migrating to online and away from print), and provides insight into buyer habits across sourcing, pricing models used most, and “top of mind” destinations for sourcing images (it’s still Getty’s game, but Shutterstock continues to nip away).

Comparing trends between this year and last might reveal glacial-type movements among art buyers, who largely have not changed their habits over 12 months. What about 5 years? The publication Graphic Design USA, for many years, has been publishing its own stock visual survey (itself sponsored by a commercial stock licensor). Have 5 years of buyer habits changed all that much, and what do their habits reveal about trend lines and the stock industry’s response? Similarities between GD USA’s 2009 survey and Visual Steam’s 2014 are close enough for comparison.

Motion

The use of motion has increased greatly over 5 years, according to those polled. In 2009 the amount of buyers licensing motion was 35% — today it is 73%. The amount of producers and licensors of motion have not commensurately increased within the stock industry, so where is increased demand met? Is inventory finally being exploited across Getty, Pond5 and others, or has the increase in use been met through assignment?

General Use

41% of buyers polled in 2009 said they use stock more than in the previous year. 60% of buyers polled in 2014 said they expected to increase their use in the coming year. While this comparison is reality vs. forecast, it does not at a general volume increase year over year, which should be aligned with ad growth. However, sales volumes do not equal revenue volumes. To further illustrate the eclipse of digital over print, almost all of those surveyed in 2009 used stock for print campaigns, and today it’s roughly half.

Spending

To which pricing and licensing models does the money go? RF licensing still sees the lions share, which is little surprise. RF saw over half (54%) of what was spent in 2009, while 2014 increased to 59% over RM. What was not tracked in 2009, but relevant today, is Free use – 13% accounted for total licenses acquired in Visual Steam’s survey, making the rise of direct to photographer sourcing by buyers a powerful theme. Certainly, Flickr, Creative Commons, Google Images, and outside distribution and sharing has accelerated this trend. Spending little, if anything, is still a major driver in content sourcing: only 23% said that quality trumps price every time.

Sourcing

Perhaps a trivial difference, while most all sourced their imagery online in 2009 quite a few were reliant upon print catalogs and CDs. While GD USA’s poll doesn’t give us buyer preferences around where they source, Visual Steam’s does, and Getty is still top of mind among stock licensors. Getty and iStock accounted for well over half of those who were asked of an immediate “go-to”, with Shutterstock not far behind. Corbis and Veer are very much considered tier 3. These findings certainly reflect market share capture. A distant, yet powerful, source was Google Images, but what remains opaque is whether this a front door to industry licensors who benefit from tagging and ads or a method for sourcing outside of stock licensing (and what is the differential?).

Buyers seem to have grown accustomed to subscription and trolling micro sites for cheap RF in the past 5 years, since questions in 2009 (“have you used a micropayment site?” and “have you used a subscription service?”) seem as antiquated as print catalogs and CDs. No doubt, with the move by iStock to go up market with its Vetta collection (and with Shutterstock mimicking the same in its recent Offset), buyers are challenged to break old prejudices even if in practice it was a shell game of content by the licensors.

Will we see the same prejudices – this time with user-generated content – be defeated in 5 years time? UGC was raised as a question in 2009, and over 1/3 of respondents said they’d used UGC at some point in a campaign. Oddly, Visual Steam’s survey did not cover UGC. On the tip of the tongue in 2009, today it remains as fragmented and immature a market as ever, with many startups and incumbents seeking traction and market acceptance as iStock did. What most photo tech companies who venture into monetizing UGC for the stock buying community consistently fail to grasp is that quality still is paramount (quality implying provenance – or assurance of rights), and that a simple exercise in aggregation does not account for the convoluted landscape built on the preferences and practices of a fickle market. Is 5 years really that long a time to solve the problem?

Watch This Space For The Next iStock

Change agents often come from the outside. Not mired in the near-sightedness of immediate demands and constraints of status quo, new businesses that bring about a new solution to an old problem have the benefit of pure objectivity and the flexibility to commit resources to solving (seemingly) vexing issues for incumbents – or at least carving (seemingly) obvious shortcuts.

The prior wave of change agents to image licensing, deployed unique aggregation methods (crowd sourcing) with simple low cost access (credit system). iStockphoto, Fotolia and Shutterstock all sprung forth from the graphic design and amateur photographer world, where then-present problems – like the complexity, limited inventory and cost of acquisition – were directly challenged with engaging the network effect of the crowd. As change agents, both the network effect in establishing a community and the use of DSLRs were exploited as the primary means to success. The impact to incumbents was transformative, as it displaced the industry and redefined the marketplace and its rules.

Our present-day change agents in image licensing are once again focusing in on network effects and ignoring incumbent rules, and coming from the outside to do it. Where they are coming from is reflective in their solutions, will inform their market success and adoption, and will ultimately become another leader in transforming an industry.

In a prior post I outlined how the second wave of user generated content platforms are generating significant momentum. Many new businesses that seek change agent status see the path strictly through mobile, while others mobile is secondary to their platform.

Not all mobile aggregators will survive without solving the client side of the business. Foap, a stock photo startup focusing on mobile capture harvesting from the crowd, differentiates itself by its request platform experience. Perhaps similar to what OnRequest Images attempted to spearhead years ago (but prior to the benefit of present market conditions that make aggregation possible), Foap is communicating a personalized and unique source of corporate branding/marketing content (“Missions”). Competitive to Foap in the request platform space is startup Snapwire and ImageBrief. Where Snapwire is more centered on engaging the mobile photographer for their request platform, to ImageBrief mobile capture is an afterthought (perhaps due to their inception prior to a viable commercial mobile capture market).

More unique paths to transforming the industry are being carved by outsiders, all stemming from equally unique places. EyeEm, often referred to as the Instagram of Europe, has been explicit on its interest to enter the image licensing market (as well as monetizing its visual recognition technology), and has both the content and the resources to leverage against its competitors. Mobile-focused, EyeEm will no doubt stake further advantages in its ability to generate a network effect through its community of users – likewise with Scoopshot, who upped the ante on incumbents Demotix (Corbis) by not only committing to the network effect of mobile, but also more importantly of Twitter. The ethereal 500px are photo enthusiasts who have succeeded in aggregating (largely DSLR) along the lines of best of breed, evangelizing curation over all else. While they have outsider status, is their proposition unique enough to be transformative?

Some of the most compelling propositions to the image industry are still from technology, through attempts to monetize things like visual recognition tech (Stipple), but some non-incumbents might have a leg up on the competition purely based on where they’re from. Like iStockphoto, Imgembed comes from the design industry, which is a critical bridge between the needs and requirements of customers – or, more succinctly, the customer is defining the product. Imgembed seeks to solve the current gaps within unauthorized use, attribution and monetization, through an end-to-end system that provides transparency to all parties involved. Their platform could eventually be an immediate answer to not only closing gaps in the industry, but define how licensing is conducted. Given their broad exposure in the design industry, and proven ability to build an effective and influential network, they might be the change agent in a crowded field of aspirants.

Where Have The Customers Gone?

The short – and perhaps pithy – answer to where licensees of stock imagery congregate these days is “Shutterstock”, but the longer answer is more interesting, and reveals client-side fragmentation even with recent supply-side consolidation.

Nearly twenty years ago, the stock agency landscape was fragmented and analog, two of the requirements for Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein’s success. Their biggest achievement – like successors iStockphoto and Shutterstock – was in building a platform that had no peer in delivery to customers, across speed and accuracy of search, ease of use and price. Klein often referred to “the power of the platform”, and certainly today no one can boast platform power better than Shutterstock.

In recent past the value prop post-recession was price. iStockphoto and their peers instigated the balance of market share shift toward inexpensive credit-based prices, but the real battle in the trenches was around ease of use and access – price was important, but given the overall increase in price variance industry-wide it gradually ceded its argument to access. Market education, and the guidance of expectations fostered from mobile apps, informed customers along immediacy and not price.

Content was an afterthought, as oversupply afforded plenty of options in one place. The more customers turned to Google for image searches, and organic means of finding content via social platforms, the more fragmented the market became as did the noise-to-signal ratio. The non-exclusive nature of the industry in some ways worked against itself and siphoned off traffic from iStockphoto and Fotolia, as they all represented the same content, so why not go to Shutterstock’s all you can eat buffet?

So, where are the customers now? There are more of them, yes, and they are licensing more for shorter duration of use, so volume increased. The major problem with identifying where the customers are is tied to their behavior – they’re everywhere, yet nowhere (specific), spread out across the social graph and business landscape. More than ever, they’re finely and narrowly segmented from the personal publisher/passive user to seasoned ad campaigner. Moreover, they’ve moved on from traditional content sources, and often the only and earliest affiliation they have with licensing images is from iStockphoto, who set expectations that few businesses have been successful in emulating years later.

To reach customers with the type of network effect and scale of an iStockphoto or Shutterstock, you need a platform and truly unique proposition. For aggregators, the good news is there’s plenty of content on the market for free; rights grabs by Instagram and other apps, who aren’t even in the business of licensing, show how easy it is to gain broad rights to content. If you’re focused on licensing from the outset, like Foap, it’s a simple and transparent acquisition strategy (and a mobile one). The only real way to capitalize on acquired content, and engage customers, is to continue to shorten the span of the act of licensing, so that it becomes a mist in the background – the deus ex machina that simply grants permissions and exchanges money simply, effectively, and quickly.