iStock’s New Referral Program

On Friday, iStockphoto revealed its new referral program (this is a buyer referral program, not a contributor referral program).

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After months of hard work, we’re proud to announce that the beta version of our Referral Program is now live. We rebuilt our existing program from the ground up based on feedback from people like you.

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The details of the program can be found here.  In a nutshell, a participant is provided with a link that contains a unique ID code.  Anyone who clicks that link gets a browser tracking cookie.  If they then sign up from the link, they get 10 free credits, and if, within 30 days, they purchase credits, the referrer gets a bonus.

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The bonus can vary depending on what the referrer has in their preferences, which they can change every 30 days.  The bonus is either $20 cash, 20 iStockphoto credits, or %20 of the purchase price of the buyer’s first credit pack purchase.  The first two only kick in if the buyer buys a credit package greater than 26 credits.  Credit come in packs of 6, 12, 26, 50, 120, 300, 600 or 1,000.  Larger amounts can be purchased directly from support.

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This program is actually pretty much like the old program, where the referrer would get $20 if the buyer bought a 26 credit pack or larger.  This has the addition of the 20 credits and the 20% bonuses.  For a contributor, there’s no need to do the credit option, as contributors can trade their earnings for credits at $1 a credit.  I have to say I can’t imagine the 20% option being worthwhile.  A buyer would have to purchase a 120 credit pack ($175 would give the referrer $34) for their first purchase, and I can’t see many people making a large commitment right off.  Any smaller pack would return less than $20, so, the referrer is really playing the lottery on this one.

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If, instead, the program provided for a percentage of the purchase price for six months or a year, it would definitely be a different story.  As is, I would recommend sticking with the simple $20.  Unfortunately, the “first purchase” limitation doesn’t really make me want to actively market with the program, like I would if I knew I’d get some recurring income from it.

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How Does It Work

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I’m going to switch to the “royal you” here.  Once you sign up for the referral program, accept the terms and choose a bonus method, you will be able to access the page that will create your referral links.  By the way, do not expect that clicking on the links below left will change your method.  You have to go to your preferences page (on the right).  Clicking the links on the left will take you to your preferences page, you just have to then click the referral program tab.

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Now, you can either generate a referral link, send a referral email or create a referral banner.  Let’s look at the first one, since understanding that will allow you to understand the others.

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Referral Link

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What the link generator will give you is some html “code” that you can paste into your basic web page with your unique code in it.  First off, note that I said this is html.  This will not work on sites that use UBB code, without your tweaking of it first.

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When a user clicks on your generated link, it will first take them to a web page that adds the referral cookie and tracks their visit.  They then get redirected somewhere almost instantaneously.  This location is the “link destination”.  You have several choices or you can enter a custom location on the iStock site for them to go to.  The “check link” will open your choice in a new page/tab to show you it is a valid page.  Then you generate the link.  What you get looks like this:

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<a href=””><img src=”” border=”0″/></a>

Let’s decode all that ascii markup so it makes more sense…

<a href=”|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link&url=”><img src=”|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link” border=”0″/></a>

Now, let’s color it up a bit so I can cut it apart.

<a href=”|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link&url=”><img src=”|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link” border=”0″/></a>

The red part above is the opening anchor (a) tag.  It tell the browser that a clickable link to another place is coming up.  The “href=” says that the “hypertext reference”, or the link url, is going to be everything that follows in the double quoted section.  What we can see is that this link will send someone to the website, specifically, to a subdomain: .  There is will kick off a script called “ta.php” (track ad?) which will evaluate the next arguments and then return a web page.  The important part here is that “lc=054934042431004651”, which is my unique referral code.  As far as I can tell, this number is included in any referral method so IS knows who sent the person.  It does not change.

Actually, you can click the generate button all day long, and none of the values in the link will change.  This is somewhat disappointing, because it means that you cannot make links for say, Facebook and your blog, and then later check to see if one outperforms the other.  They all get lumped together.   Onwards.  The “atid” holds the value “675|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link”.  The first 675 just seems to duplicate the value of the BannerID – this is my unique link id and tells the server to add this hit to record number 675 in the tracking database and the method is “Link” in this case.  The last part, “url=” tells where you eventually want to be redirected to after the intial page gets hit.

The green section is a web bug – an invisible 1×1 pixel image that allows the IS site to record a “view”.  When an image is loaded from another site (in this case, the traffic_record.php script is sending back the image data), the site can track the load, and here, the link for the image contains all the data to track who gets the credit for it.  Remember, if you are concerned with views, this “img” tag has to be here, because, otherwise, the iStock site doesn’t know if someone has viewed your link.  The “src” tells your browser to hit the image server to load the image, which is trackable.  If you are not interested in views, this part is unnecessary.  The “border=0” attribute keeps the browser from displaying a border around the image.  See the banner section below for more details on how it knows what image to send back (a 1×1 pixel image for links).

The blue part is what your browser will show you as clickable, like this: .  This can be any text you want it to be: “Click here!” or “Make me some cash by joining iStockphoto” or “Get 10 free credits”.  It can also be an image – replace “” with ‘<img src=”” />’ for example to show the google image as your link.

The orange bit is the closing anchor tag. “</a>” says “this is the end of the link.  You definitely don’t want to forget this part.

Change It To UBB

Now, if you want to put a referral link in your blog on iStock, you’re going to run into problems, since, as I mentioned, this is html, and not UBB code, which is what iStock runs things like forum posts, image descriptions and blog posts on.  You will need to either use a HTML2UBB converter like this one or do it yourself to make sure it is done correctly.  You can also use a Greasemonkey script to be able do it right there on the iStock site page, thanks to iStock user anchev.

The first step, is to clean up what the generator gives you, like I did above, using a page like this, and choosing “html entities decode” as your option.

<a href=”|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link&url=”><img src=”|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link” border=”0″/></a>

Step 1: Anchor tags (a) become [url] tags in UBB.  So, we start by taking the whole anchor link and putting it after an opening UBB url tag in double quotes (don’t forget the brackets around the whole thing [ and ] ):


Step 2: Next, we need to accommodate the tracking image.  This takes an opening [img] UBB tag, following by the image location and a closing [/img] tag (you can’t specify things like the border attribute in UBB, but most browsers show images without a border by default):


Step 3: Here’s where you put whatever you want to display as clickable, like we discussed above.  It can be a lightbox or search banner, it can be text, whatever.

Click to see my portfolio



Step 4: We need to close the UBB url tag from Step 1, so the browser doesn’t make everything clickable on the page.


Put it all together:

[url=|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link&url=][img]|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link[/img]Click to see my portfolio[/url]

That is what you can put on your iStock blog or wherever UBB is needed.  Once you put it out there, you can see the tracking data for your link here:

Linking to a Lightbox

This is easy, since we know how the bits and pieces work above.  All you need to do is to substitute in the address of your lightbox into the destination url (the red part way above), like this, and then use your banner as the clickable part (in blue way up above):

<a href=”|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link&url=″>

or for UBB:


Then, for the “Click to see my portfolio” part (in blue above), you put in the code to display your image, like I mentioned above.  This will result in something that looks like this:

Being Sneaky

What’s that you say?  That link (the <a href= … >part) is too long?  Well guess what?  It’s just a link.  Like any other link.  In fact, like any other link you can plug into a link shortener, like .  So, what you can do is go to, and enter your link, and then replace it in the anchor tag.  Like this:

<a href=”|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link&url=″>


<a href=””>

and ends up like this:

<a href=””><img src=”|BannerID=675|ReferralMethod=Link” border=”0″/><img src=””></a>

Keep in mind, however, that this link will always direct people to the same place, in this case, my “Anonymous Laptops” lightbox.  You will have to make a new link for each lightbox or end destination.  Don’t forget, if you want the whole thing even shorter, cut out the tracking image tag, which will give you this, instead:

<a href=””><img src=””></a>


<a href=””>Click for my Anonymous Laptops Lightbox</a>


The “banner” option is a somewhat different beast, in that it asks you to both name your banner link, and to choose a banner image.  By naming your banner link, it says it will show you in your referral dashboard, separate results for each new banner.  This would appear to hold water, as I did two banners, exactly the same except for a new banner tracking name, and the returned codes were slightly different:

<a href=”|BannerID=14575|ReferralMethod=Banner&url=”><img src=”|BannerID=14575|ReferralMethod=Banner” border=”0″/></a>

<a href=”|BannerID=14708|ReferralMethod=Banner&url=”><img src=”|BannerID=14708|ReferralMethod=Banner” border=”0″/></a>

You can see the “BannerID” is different in each.  This says there is a database tracking that attribute, and from 14575, it knows both the name of the banner tracking link as well as which banner I chose.  Interesting they do this for banners, and not for the regular referral links.   Here, the “img” tag does not return a 1×1 invisible image, but the banner that I chose.  So, you can’t really muck around with this and try to just do a regular link.  You can see the information for your banner tracking data here:

Great.  Now I’m stuck forever with a banner called “test”.   This is what the result for BlogPostTestBanner looks like:


Of course, you’re interested in results, right?  Well, once they start rolling in, you can find your results here:

Don’t plan on taking any of that cash out until you reach $100.  I’m thinking this is an outsourced program, so the money sits separate from your regular iStock member account, so they have to do extra work to get it to you.


So, now that you know how the pieces work, you can take the generated html and tweak it to your hearts content.  Make your own banner, direct it to lightboxes, or your blog or wherever.  By the way, if you want to join iStockphoto and get 10 free credits, click here, and I thank you! 😉

14 thoughts on iStock’s New Referral Program

  1. “By the way, do not expect that clicking on the links below left will change your method. You have to go to your preferences page (on the right). Clicking the links on the left will take you to your preferences page, you just have to then click the referral program tab.”

    Thanks for this, Sean. I clicked the link yesterday and assumed it was changed so I didn’t edit my preferences.

  2. Thank you, Sean. I really appreciate you taking the time and effort to help the more intellectually challenged of us out there.

    I tried following your steps exactly, but I keep getting an annoying “traffic_record” text / link in the http code generated from the UBB when linking to a lightbox. Any idea what I might be doing wrong?

  3. I’m not sure the $100 is external. If you click the link in the referral program to get your payout it just goes to the normal request for payout page for iStock. They may add something in their later though.

    As for the $20 vs 20%, the 20% applies to all purchases so if a buyer only buys 6 or 12 credits you’ll get 20% of the (admittedly small) amount they spend. The cut over point is as you say the 120 credit pack, but if lots of buyers only buy small credit packs as their initial purchase (don’t forget they’ll already have 10 free credits) if might add up. Who knows? I have only ever had 2 referrals. You’d have a better set of stats than me. How much did your referrals drop down when they went from 10 credits to 26 credits for a referral?

    • You’re right. Their initial wording was very confusing on the payout.

      My referrals dropped from 20 a month or so, to 2-3 initially, although I was up to 5-6 in October.

  4. Not to mention if they went mad and bought 300 credits or more then you would be missing out a lot, however unlikely that would be. I wonder what happens if they buy a subscription pack? Do you get any of it?

  5. “The important part here is that lc=054934042431004651?, which is my unique referral code. ”

    The code may change if you generate different banners, at least it changes in my account.

  6. Thanks Sean. I’m still undecided on whether the 20% is worthwhile, based on the fact that iStock admins probably did the math and I’m guessing it will work out to roughly the same. They implemented it so contrib’s have an incentive to push potential buyers into getting bigger credit packages. Nothing a few 30 day periods won’t reveal. 😉

  7. As far as I can tell, this number is included in any referral method so IS knows who sent the person. It does not change.

    Actually, you can click the generate button all day long, and none of the values in the link will change.

    I haven’t tried it but I think if you add a custome link instead of just the lightbox yo ucan add a non-sense parameter to the querystring to generate an unique id for the same destination.


    Should be different from

    and istock just ignores the parameter.

  8. Sean, thank you for making this clear. I am just redoing my website and this has made it so much easier for me to set up my stock page with referals.

  9. Thank you so much for this, Sean. Really, I don’t know what we contributors would do without your ability to make things so much clearer that iStock seems able to achieve!

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