Rules of the supermarket
This article is not about supermarkets. It’s about stock photography and how to sell more images. But first, a few words about supermarkets:
A century old business model
The concept of supermarket, in its various forms, appeared about a hundred years ago. It generally consists in a self-service grocery store, where shelves are stocked at night, so the customers can choose the goods by themselves the following day, add them to a cart and pay for them at the exit. Seems familiar?
The supermarket would use its buying power to negotiate best prices for the merchandise, while keeping the suppliers satisfied in order to provide the widest diversity possible, which would make it attractive to both established and new customers.
If everything is clear so far, I’d like you to try and correlate this to the stock photography business, which also appeared about a hundred years ago. Because there are lots of similarities between the two businesses, and I think we should all acknowledge them.
See, a stock photography agency is nothing else but a marketplace, a liaison between supply and demand. The bridge between suppliers and customers.
You are, as a contributor, one of the suppliers. What are the key ingredients for a supplier’s success, when the best prices are already taken care of? In no particular order:
Customers will always search the best quality product they can buy with their money. You know this, because you’re doing the same everyday. If you have a certain budget to spend, you will look for the best possible option within that budget. Don’t tell me that you will buy a 5 days old bread, when it costs the same with the fresh bread next to it.
So, as a stock contributor, make sure you are always submitting the best quality images you can. Look around for the competition and, if you can see better quality, chances are your images will sell slow and their images will sell fast.
And while you’re focusing on quality, you could also focus on innovation. Which brings us to the next key ingredient:
What is better than a good quality product? More good quality products. And preferably a little different.
People get bored fast, especially in the creative world. That’s why they come to a marketplace in the first place, because they have a lot of options to choose from. Yet, if you don’t have enough options, be sure that the competition does, so instead of buying from you, the customers will buy from them. Yes, the supermarket still wins. But if you want more chances to win for yourself, give your customers some options. Constantly diversify your portfolio. The more diversity you have, the more chances the buyers will get to know you.
Which brings us to the next key ingredient for success:
Probably the most important asset of a business, hard to build and hard to maintain, but totally worth it in the long run.
You all know you’re trusting some brands more than the others. But not everyone knows how much work is behind building a brand. It takes quality, diversity, innovation, consistency and... wait for it... a ton of promotion. However, you can’t focus on just one of these. Because if you focus more on promotion than on quality or diversity, you will still get your name known, but not in a good way. So, you will get the opposite effect.
See, not everybody goes to the supermarket to buy whatever they find there. People often go to buy a certain brand of shampoo, a certain brand of toothpaste and so on. And that’s rarely the result of try and error, but mostly because of marketing and advertising. Even if they’re not searching a certain brand, they will still choose the ones well known in the first place.
That’s why hot brands usually get a better placement in the shelves, because they sell and they attract customers. But you don’t get to be hot by just waiting for it to happen. Think about it. The supermarket provides the traffic and the shelves. It’s still up to suppliers to strengthen their brands and increase their sales.
So, if you want to build yourself a brand and take advantage of it, start working. Your images will always have a place in the database, but it also depends on you to get a better placement and sell more.
Considering that the quality and diversity are taken care of, you can promote your Dreamstime portfolio on social media, on your personal website, in some forums, but also directly to partners and clients of your own. The more direct links to your images, the better. Yes, I know it sounds a bit weird, why would you prefer to advertise your Dreamstime images directly to clients, and still pay a commission to the agency? The answer is simple, and it’s right above this paragraph: hot brands get better placement. Hot images get better placement in the search engines, internal or external. Any sale could help you sell more. Any missed sale could make you sell less. It’s all relative, of course, but you get the idea.
And speaking of promotion, it’s very important not to confuse it with spam. Promoting is providing a link to someone who’s actually looking for it. Spam is flooding people with links when they don’t need it at all. Promoting is sharing your photos on your own social media accounts. Spam is posting those photos to other pages or groups when no one was asking for them. Sometimes, it’s a thin line between promotion and spam, but if you can keep in mind that spam is hurting both you and the agency, and promotion is helping, you should be alright.
I’ve found collections and blogs to be great promoting tools, when done right. And, if you’re using them just to promote your own photos, you’re probably not doing it right. I’ve learned that collections attract a lot of exposure, but only if the images included are very good and diverse. Best practice is to create a large collection on a particular subject and include two or three of your best photos on that subject. Creating a collection with 50 of your photos and 5 other users’ images will be obvious self-promotion, so the visitors will leave faster than they came over.
Take my Christmas backgrounds collection as an example: 50 images from 39 users. Only two of those images are mine. You can’t see this info, because you’re not its manager, but it has 2400 views as we speak, so I’m pretty sure it helped selling a few images so far and certainly not only my images. Yes, I know it’s an internal competition, but offering something useful for potential buyers can still help. And, more important, it helps the agency in the external competition.
See, the fewer the people at the table, the larger the slices of the pie.
Yet, if you know there will be more people coming for dinner, and you just can’t refuse them or they won’t take no for an answer, how about baking a bigger pie? It’s not that hard, when you get more help.
Attracting more buyers to the agency will only make you earn more, even if they don’t come for your own images at first. Satisfy them and they will stick around for more, so you’ll get your chance to impress them.
And since we’re all here, I won’t avoid the sensitive subjects. In short, this is a business. Business is tough. It’s a war out there on the market, it always has been and always will be.
If you struggle to sell your images and feel that competition is getting fiercer by the day, remember that the agency has the same struggles. In order to be competitive and stay on the market, the agency has to innovate, build a brand, provide good quality and everything else I just said you should do as well.
Recently, the stock photography market has seen an increasing competition from free photography databases. While Dreamstime added a free section and a public domain collection as well, they are strongly focused on marketing and creating new opportunities for selling the contributors’ stock photos. On the contrary, the free photography databases are focused only on their owners’ profits from advertising, without sharing the pie with photographers.
And on top of that, Google and other search engines are labeling those images as royalty free stock photos, placing them ahead of the real royalty free stock photos, probably for the same reason: to earn more money from advertising paid by the real royalty free agencies. Combine that with Google Images' layout, which encourages direct free download of any photo (free or commercial), and plenty of copyright infringement floating around the web, and you can see that agencies are facing, for a long time now, something that looks like unfair competition.
It’s only natural that agencies will have to develop some rules, follow their own successful practices and adapt to new paradigms just to stay in the game and, hopefully, continue to grow.
Long story short, success doesn’t come easy. And it’s up to you to be successful as much as it is up to the agency.