How Can Small Photo Agencies Compete With The New Web-Based Image Libraries?
The very broad and pervasive emergence of web-based image sharing marketplaces (such as photo sharing sites and online free photo archives) has rapidly revolutionized the traditional photo agency market making it increasingly difficult for the many small picture and photography agencies to compete with the many free image sharing alternatives and powerful web-based stock image services available today out there.
Photo credit: Maxim Kulemza
Finding images with the help of the Internet has become such a different activity from what many advertisers and publishers have known for many years. Instead of having to stand in front of a light table checking out hundreds of 35mm slides to select the few that fit the assignment, today picture editors and independent writers like me go straight to a few selected web image libraries and in a matter of minutes it is possible to find some uniquely powerful pictures at prices that were absolutely heretical only a few years ago.
Witness to this is the ongoing collection of imagery, I and the other editors publish daily here at Master New Media. If we had had to work with a traditional photo agency or professional photographers we would have never gotten such consistent quality images while we would have spent probably 100 to 1000 times more in terms of royalty costs.
These, alongside with the increasing gap existing between the search and review tools provided by new online image libraries and the ones offered by traditional photo agencies are the key reasons these last ones have such a hard time surviving.
So while individual amateur photographers are seeing a renaissance of opportunities generated by the explosion of the first group of internet-based professional photo sharing and image submission sites, traditional photo agencies and professional photographers are meeting their worst crisis ever.
As, for the first time in modern history non-professional image-takers are able to earn real money for their shots, the old guardians to picture and image libraries are loosing the gates they used to safeguard. As the image brokering and selection service these agencies used to provide have vanished in the face of much easier, more rapidly accessible and much broader image collection resources now available online.
In the face of this sweeping image revolution, is there any possibility for traditional photo agencies to remain sustainable?
What would be the best alternative approaches small photo agencies and professional photo reporters could use to counter the devastating effects that universal, free access to billions of images has had on their businesses?
"Professional photojournalists [...] have continued to make good livings at a craft that helps inform the rest of us about the world we live in.
That craft has never been more vibrant, or vital. But the ability to make a living at it will crumble soon. The pros who deal in breaking news have a problem. They can't possibly compete in the media-sphere of the future.
We're entering a world of ubiquitous media creation and access.
When the tools of creation and access are so profoundly democratized, and when updated business models connect the best creators with potential customers, many if not most of the pros will fight a losing battle to save their careers."
(Source: Center of Citizen Media)
What appears to have profoundly changed is not a decreased demand for images, but a revolutionized approach to "how" and from "whom" these images are gotten from. In fact, demand and use of images has probably increased tenfold in the last few years while the online "sources" from which such images could be gotten has exploded from hundreds of physical outlets to tens of thousands of online virtual light tables.
And so, while quality and resolution of traditional photographs could not often be easily matched by these cheap online newcomers, image researchers, small publishers and online media outlets have started to get accustomed to accessing these new resources and searching through them for cost-effective image alternatives.
The weak point through which new image sharing sites and online image libraries have been able to gradually win over the long established status and credibility of traditional photo agencies and photo-professionals has been the very point that traditional stock agencies and photo journalists thought they were leveraging to hold hostage the new emerging media: the web.
Traditional photo agencies long thought that their monopoly on high quality image originals, which could not be easily converted and moved around in the digital and online worlds, was their guarantee of a long, safe and secure business advantage.
But reality turned out to be only half true. So while traditional publishers, especially those in the print media sector continued indeed to source their quality imagery and search consulting needs to traditional photo agencies and photo pros, a flourishing and rapidly expanding online media publishing industry started to look into alternative, faster, and more cost-effective sources of imagery for their web publications.
And as the web takes increasingly the role of the "reference" platform for consuming information and media products of all kinds, the web has been gradually replacing the print media, and its tightly connected needs for high quality photographic originals and physical access to them, a thing of the past.
As chances of finding quality images, specific subjects and low licensing fees gradually increased through these new online channels, traditional pros and photo agencies have started to realize that "available oxygen" has only limited extra supply. Either they are going to soon close their businesses or they need to radically rethink how to survive in this new and highly fluid image marketplace.
In summary, as media publishers and Internet-savvy individuals have discovered how easy it is to look for photos on the Internet across the infinite number of online archives that offer both royalty free and low cost photos for download, the survival of small photo agencies that that have always provided material to media publishers by acting as intermediaries between photojournalists and media publishers is deeply at risk.
If the cost of finding quality images is nearing zero, how can an image agency or a professional stock photographer survive?
The answers lie in understanding the key transformations taking place in this space while rapidly developing new in-demand value-added services and business approaches, that "build" new opportunities on top of this transformed scenario instead of trying to fight it head on.
It is in fact the business model and the value-added services that photo agencies can inject into this new scenario which can turn their hopeless condition to once again one of key stakeholders.
The "new media" competitors of the traditional photo-agency
"Just as traditional journalism has slipped from the hands of an elite few, and into the hands of the many, thanks to the empowering, networked nature of the Internet, now the same is happening in the world of news photography.
The news industry has an insatiable appetite for fresh material, and if you happen to snap an exclusive image using your mobile phone's camera, it could well earn you a tidy profit.
News agencies, publishers and broadcasters are all tapping into the power the millions of people out there on the scene, armed with their ultra-mobile camera-phones.
Their pictures are often rare gems which no amount of pro-photographers or press crews could have gotten by being sent on the news spot after the fact."
Sites dedicated to the sharing and aggregation of photographic material created by citizen photojournalists keep on blossoming like mushrooms. Most of them let users post their images for free, while there are some sites that let citizen photojournalists sell their photos without needing to reach out and contact major media outlets.
Among the big names, Yahoo! recently unleashed a site named YouWitness, which lets citizen journalists upload photos and videos to have them considered for use in articles and features on Yahoo! News. Sometimes YouWitness aggregates pictures taken from Flickr and creates slideshows that are then exposed on the site.
Also worth mentioning is NowPublic, an awarded participatory news network which features reportages made by people all over the world.
But there are many others indeed. Just look at the commercial opportunities that have emerged for amateur photo journalists, or at the huge list of alternative image libraries which have recently sprung up online.
Alternative business models for traditional photo agencies
If traditional photo agencies and professional photographers want to be able to survive the new media revolution taking place under their feet they need to deeply reconsider their business approach while identifying new opportunities for providing true value services to their customers.
Here some specific ideas:
1) Thematic aggregators, image curators
Traditional photo agencies could transform themselves into thematic image aggregators leveraging the vast ocean of new content being published online and identifying, selecting and showcasing in aggregated fashion commercially valuable images on one or more specific themes. Taken to the nth level this approach would also mean building small but highly accessible online thematic photo libraries that do nothing but aggregate the very best content on a specific theme coming from the most disparate online sources as well as from direct authors submissions.
We see this happening already with video sites, and there is no reason why image sites could not leverage the same free approach while monetizing it via contextual advertising, direct sponsorships and premium services which may include access to higher resolution images, history of searches and images viewed, etc.
2) Niche providers
Some small photo agencies could very well take advantage of the power of the long tail and turn drastically their efforts by specializing in very focused niche markets by providing only highly-thematic content to media publishers. Since this is a trend such small photo agencies have already been developing for several years in the face of the increased competition from large international stock agencies, what they can consider doing now is to extend their value on this front by networking and delivering an aggregated image catalog in synergy with other similar agencies specializing on the same themes.
3) Access and search facilitators
Another potentially sustainable alternative would be for some of these traditional photo providers to develop or customize web-based services that significantly facilitate users ability to find for specific images and photos. While it is in fact true, that traditional small image suppliers are seeing their market being eroded by the huge number of new online image libraries accessible by anyone, it is also true that the more images are exposed the more difficult it becomes finding them across the vast number of online services through which they are published.
Photo agencies, instead of computer science engineers could put their brains to develop innovative image search systems that identify and retrieve images based on traits and criteria that go beyond the traditional and highly ineffective keyword approach. Pictures can be found according to their texture, color, subject and to many other characteristics.
4) Networked producers
One great opportunity available to small photo agencies and individual professional photographers is one of networking with similar, like-minded pros around the globe to form powerful and highly dynamic networks of professionals who can act within the shortest notice and flexibility but with quality standards typical of traditional media.
5) Value-added providers
Some of the old guard players may also find themselves in much greater demand if they consider providing unique added value services and tools to those using images for one reason or another. This may include titling, editing and special effects image services, burning to CD-DVD and on-demand distribution among many others.
6) New talent clearinghouses
As the Internet is full of sites devoted facilitate photo sharing a great opportunity awaiting those that have good eyes to identify, contact and enlist talented amateur photographers only to intermediate and propose them at competitive prices to larger agencies and media publishers.
Business model: From free to paid
In all cases, small image providers including photo agencies and pro photographers must understand that to effectively engage online audiences to create a sustainable business, trust and a direct relationship are of the essence. In this view, small online photo agencies should compete head to head with large established services and free photo sharing sites by providing free or "near free" access to their basic content while monetizing access to print-quality hi-res images, providing access to premium collections, selling sponsorships and contextual advertising among other possible monetization approaches.
The Internet is becoming the real intermediary between content producers and publishers.
Moving from being direct image producers to become image curators and aggregators of the huge amounts of new images being posted online daily may allow traditional photo agencies to supersede their outdated role while re-inventing a new, more useful intermediary role for themselves.
The threat seen is in fact a giant opportunity. What's the use of being able to access billions of free images if you can't find what you need?
This is where the real opportunity lies.
Traditional photo agencies and photo professionals need to look forward to adopting a different business model if they want to avoid rapidly succumbing to the new media wave, and this may well lie in looking with completely different eyes at their market space while trying to supersede, complement or augment the vast array of free or low-cost image source available online.
Robin Good -
Originally written by Robin Good for Master New Media as: How Can Small Photo Agencies Compete With The New Web-Based Image Libraries?
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