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Buying an audience

Ever so often, the topic of the value of a photograph emerges from the bowels of online conversations. Very quickly, the conversation ends with the undisputed point that a photo should at least cover its cost. In other words, the more it costs to take a picture, the higher its value. Photographers, like any small business, would like to see a fair return on investment for each picture taken.

However, the cost to produce an image is of no interest to an image buyer. Wether it took 3 flights, 5 camera bodies, twenty-two lenses, five models and a crew of fifteen to produce one shot or the image was shot in a backyard with an iPhone is of no influence to the image buyers perception of the value of the image. What they care about is audience.

What an image buyer truly wants when it licenses an image is the audience that it will bring. They pay a photographer ( or a photo agency representing the photographer) for the right to transfer the audience a photograph to their own properties. They want the audience that a photograph captures to associate the image to its product or services. This is true for both editorial as well as advertising.

When image buyers shop for photographs, they look for images that will attract as many viewers as possible. They “purchase” that audience so they can get more attention to what they are selling, be it a product or news article. The higher the potential audience, the more value that image has to them. It can be an image that cost $10,000 to produce or $1, it doesn’t matter.

Some photographers are gifted at producing images that capture large audiences, like Annie Leibovitz or Terry Richardson, and, in return, are paid large fees. Others, less gifted, have to produce lots of images to create a somewhat decent audience, and they shoot stock, which they place in large photo warehouses. Some of their images work and produce, over time and numerous buyers, a decent return. Others never leave the warehouse. Those images that create a decent return were not the ones that cost the most to produce but rather those that buyers believed, rightfully or not, would capture the most audience.

Market forces of supply and demand are still at work here, as a buyers with a budget ( every buyer has a budget) will try to maximize their dollars for the largest audience available at that price. Why subscription works is that instead of paying a lot for one image that will capture a large audience once, buyers prefer to pay for a repeat lesser audience that will keep on coming back every time a new image is used. The audience is spread over time, which is, for much of the online world, more important than a large audience once, which is perfect for a print publication.

Companies like Instagram or Pinterest have capture this market reality extremely well. Instead of licensing images so that image buyers can create more audience on their own support, they aggregate the audience of millions of images on their site and sell that audience to advertisers. If each image has one hundred viewers, multiplied by millions, the result is hundreds of millions of viewers. Something one image, alone, could never achieve. Something that every business in the world would like to have. Instagram is predicted to bring in $2 billion in revenue next year, just with photos, something no photo agency has even remotely achieved.

Getty Images also understand this market reality. By switching from licensing to free embeds, they are looking to capitalize on the exploding value of audience revenue. What they will be selling soon is no longer single images but large audiences that their images have managed to capture via millions of embeds. A sort of Instagram, but spread out via the internet.

While the market for single images will continue to exist – after all, everyone prefers to own their audience -the opportunity for massive revenue lies in photography’s ability to seize large amount of viewers. What professionals need to understand is the value of a photograph lies not on how much it has cost to produce but on how many viewers it will attract. What they should be selling is not their ability to create expensive content but their talent in making images that people want to see and share. Images that contain their own audience expansion. What the photo industry should understand is that in order to remain relevant, they have to let go of their manufacturers frame of mind and clearly understand the market forces that define their business today.

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