This week, Adobe Stock announced that it was now offering 70,000 items for free, including photos, videos, and illustrations. While seemingly trivial at the surface, this announcement places all major stock photo agency on an equal footing: They now all offer free image licenses.

Inspired by the tech industry “freemium” model, the stock photo industry is betting on attracting new customers via intentional frustration. In the tech model, basic functionalities are offered for free to lure in subscribers ready to pay for extra, better features. The idea is that they soon feel limited by the few basic features and will not resist pulling out their credit card to get more.

In the stock photo industry, the same process is in play, albeit with a twist. By purposely offering a limited amount of free images, they bet on a user’s rapid frustration of not finding the right images and pulling out their credit card to purchase the right one (which so conveniently appears to be on the same page).

The calculation has been proven to be a successful model. In fact, companies like Shutterstock have longed piggybacked on free image providers like Pexels or Freepik to drive traffic to their site via an affiliate model. Getty Images did the same via Istock, and its free photo website, Freeimages. Adobe Stock might have seen the landscape of popular free image sites saturated by ads from its competitors and decided to bring the whole thing home.

It’s a successful approach because “free stock photo,” “ free photo,” or anything with “free” is a top internet query and have been for a while.  Furthermore, sites like Unsplash and other Pixabay have proven that there is a vast repeated audience for free photo content. With microstock pricing being so low, it is not hard to go from zero to $2.

One year Google trend for "Free Photo"

One year Google trend for “Free Photo”

The bigger gamble is in the retention. Will a free user converted to a paying user become a lifetime paying customer? Can repeated frustration in not finding the right images in the free pool convince users to become paying subscribers? Or will those email addresses harvested before download help increase marketing blasts conversion rates? Doubtful.

What is known is that in the microstock world – the only one really viable these days- the cost of acquisition of new customers is getting freakishly high in proportion to their lifetime value. At least for those capture via SEO and other digital marketing ventures. Thus anything else than paying millions of dollars in endless AdWord bidding competitions is appreciated relief and worth a try.

This also leaves a little cash for those shameful stock photo agencies offering their content for free to buy back some of their contributing photographers’ goodwill via special grants: Getty Images just announced a $20,000 new emerging artist grant while Adobe Stock also announced a $500,000 Artist Development Fund. Amid this onslaught of free content offering and considering their diminishing likelihood of ever seeing any sales commission, those are most certainly a welcome diversion.

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