Stock photography analysts, commercial stock portfolio reviewers, photo biz coaches, bean counters have it all wrong. It is not because a photo sells that it is a good photo. In fact it could be the opposite.
Up to now, the commercial stock photo industry has been relying on only one piece of information to produce and license the next set of images : the popularity of an image. The more an image sells, the more it is considered a good image. In fact, microstockers as well as high end RM shooters, pour over download reports of top sites in order to produce their next batch of images. But are they producing the right images.
Commercial stock images are created to help companies sell product or services. That is their only role. Purchasing stock photography, for a company, is an investment for which they expect the highest return, quantifiable in hard cash sales. They are looking for images that strongly influence purchasing decisions. If an image succeed in achieving this goal, the company has absolutely no reason to return and purchase other images. If it fails, they do return and license more images.
Obviously, they might also need new images for new product or services. But that does not happen daily or even monthly. In fact, at most, once a year. Small businesses almost never introduce new products or services. So why do they come back an purchase more images ? Because the previous ones failed to achieve their purpose.
Therefore, the more a business buys images, the clearer it is that the previous images were not successful. However, those images become part of the highest licensed images pool, the same photographer use to create new images. The failure cycle repeats itself.
The best images, the ones that actually successfully help a business sell a lot of their product might have been downloaded a couple of times at most. Furthermore, that client, satisfied, might have never come back to license any other image. On paper, it would look like a “failed” image licensed to a non repeat – thus fail – client.
Stock photo agencies make the matter worse. By putting a high emphasis on popular image in their search engines, they veer their clients towards the wrong images. No surprise here : they are more interested in licensing an image, any image, than helping their clients find their perfect image. They do not use any tools allowing them to monitor the selling power success rate of their images. Once they leave their website, they hardly know what happens to their photographs although there are tools currently available to help track if an image is a selling powerhouse. But why would they care? In fact, it would be counter productive for them since they make more revenue with failing images than successful ones, since buyers come back over and over. Subscription model rose from this inadequacy. The less satisfied by the image result, the more business need to re purchase images over and over.
Commercial photography is not art and should not be treated as such. It is a tool, a sales tool. It’s only purpose should be to sell product and services. Nothing else. Currently, it seems that most commercial stock photo agencies are only set up to maximize themselves and their content but offer little value to their clients. They also maintain a false production level aimed only at licensing popular images rather than the right ones.
It could very well be that the next big successful stock photography platform ( agency is not longer the right term) will be the one that seeks to track and use image conversion rate as their main search engine algorithm. They could also offer A/B testing solutions : download two images, test each one, keep and pay only for the one that works the best.
Same could be done with editorial images too. After all, the effectiveness of an editorial image can be easier to track since it based on traffic and virality. Either way, the stock photography industry has to step out of its old model of defining image success based on popularity and embrace the new technologies that allow them to asses the real value of their photographs.