iStockphoto has recently been dealing with several issues that have impacted both the buyer and contributor side of things. I guess I can consider myself lucky that I don’t have to deal with these things, since they terminated my agreement back in April for no particularly good reason. However, these issues are causing contributors and buyers consternation, so today we take a look at the recent collection changes, and “exclusive, not exclusive”.
A Look Back
Some history on the iStockphoto pricing tier/collection system. Back in 2004, when I joined iStockphoto, there was one collection that all imagery was put into – the main collection. At the time, this was sold in “web, medium and print” resolutions. Pricing based on size, which is how royalty free licensing generally works. At the beginning of 2005, artist exclusivity was introduced. This did not change the pricing of images. Just the royalty paid to the artist.
In June 2006, iStockphoto introduced the Dollar Bin where all images in that collection could be had for a dollar, at all sizes (or at least 1 credit, since cash purchases weren’t an option).
Our developers have designed a state-of-the-art custom search tool to allow our team of full-time Photography Editors to find specific images, then re-review them at 100%. (No, you can’t find out who the Photography Editors are. But they’re really, really good at their job.) They have the discretion to move images into the Dollar Bin, where everything sells for (wait for it) 1 Credit at all sizes. If they go for a month without a download, then they will be deactivated. That’s one month from the last sale, so if an image takes on new life in the Bin, it can stay there as long as it keeps selling.
In June, 2009, iStockphoto introduced the high concept, higher priced Vetta collection. The Vetta collection was meant to be a place where exclusives could place low sales potential, but high cost or high concept images. The higher price would offset the possibility that the image would only sell occasionally. It was a benefit of the exclusive program.
It’s not enough to want success. You have to take risks, develop ruthless standards and never, ever settle. Images in the Vetta Collection, Italian for peak, seized their own artistic destiny and created a whole new calibre of art. Vetta images are hand-picked by a team of high-performance iStockphoto editors for their exquisite art direction and intelligently executed concepts.
In late 2009, the Dollar Bin was changed from one-price to based-on-size, like the rest of the collection:
The ‘Dollar Bin’ is getting remodeled (and probably a new name). First of all, there are going to be a lot more files in there: we’re envisioning 200,000 to start (up from about 5,000 right now). The images in this new value collection will now be priced by size, like everything else, but at much lower rates: 1 credit for an extra-small and topping out at 7 credits for a XXXL. These files will no longer be automatically deactivated after 30 days. The new Dollar Bin should be ready in early spring.
At the beginning of 2010, iStockphoto began to split the collection apart a bit more. The main collection was now split into Main (independent artists) and Exclusive. As well, Exclusive+ was introduced. This was another benefit of being an exclusive artist. Contributors could self nominate images into this higher priced collection. Images that were perhaps shot with Vetta in mind, but weren’t accepted. Or images the contributor felt had a certain value. Being able to self-curate like that was a nice addition to the contributor side of things.
Files from iStock’s Exclusive photographers and illustrators will now all have a higher price level. While other stock companies focus on quantity, iStock will continue to focus on what matters – quality and exceptionality. iStock’s Exclusive collection is built on rich, unique imagery unlike anything else out there. We will be increasing the prices of our Exclusive files in order to further curate our collection and to reward and motivate our most loyal artists. We’re also hoping to encourage the strongest talents in stock today to consider bringing their best work to iStock exclusively.
In September 2010, the Agency collection was created. Agency was meant to be a really high quality lifestyle collection. Initially it was stocked with work from Getty Images and ported down to iStockphoto. These images were tagged as “exclusive” images due to site deficiencies, though they were still available, for example, at the Getty contributor companies’ own sites for sale. Soon after, iStockphoto contributors could find their images added to the Agency collection if the editors deemed fit. I had quite a few in there, and was very happy I was able to make the standard. These images were then ported back up to Getty Images for sale as well at similar premium pricing.
Later this month we will introduce a new collection here at iStock–it will be the first time we’ve allowed outside agencies on the site. The Agency Collection will feature some of the world’s best photographers and agencies, selected by Content teams at Getty Images and iStock. Later in the month, we’ll be inviting select iStock photographers to submit to the collection as well. The Agency Collection will be priced at a premium to Vetta and will be available on iStock, Getty Images, Jupiter and PunchStock.
In May 2011, Photo+ was introduced, similar to Exclusive+. A self-curated collection for independent contributors at a higher price than the main collection.
So, now buyers have 7 pricing levels to choose from, even though the interface didn’t really accommodate being able to filter based on price until 2011.
Pricing/Collection Tiers Today
In 2013, iStockphoto finally realized things were out of hand. In May, changes to collection structuring were posted:
Over the last several months we have been gathering feedback from both customers and our exclusive contributors to get a better understanding of what we can do to improve the iStock experience. Our buyers want simplicity and quality—but over time we’ve accumulated 7 collections at iStock. At this point, the differences and advantages between them are murky at best, especially from the customer’s vantage point. Bottom line – to be successful we need to help different customers with different needs find the content they are looking for at the price that reflects the quality of the image…
The solution was as follows:
- Merge the Agency collection into the Vetta collection
- Remove the self-curated E+ and P+ collections
- Remove any distinction between exclusive artist and independent artist pricing
- Keep the Main collections and create “Signature” and “Signature+” collections
- Some of the Value collection (Dollar Bin) gets put into Main, but the Dollar Bin goes away
So now, there are 4 pricing tiers, down from 7 tiers. The short list of “why” for buyers was topped with “It’s not always easy for customers to see why one file is priced differently from another.” For contributors, it was to:
move some files up and some down between collections based on quality and demonstrated performance history. If, after a reasonable amount of time a file is not selling at a given price, we’ll lower the price and see if that increases downloads. If a file is selling like crazy a given price, we’ll carefully move it up in price and see if it can perform even better there. All file moves will be made with care – no one wants to price a file out of the sweet spot – finding the sweet spot where a file performs best will always be the goal.
Why Are Contributors Angry?
- the automated process that shifted all of their images into these new collections based mostly on what appears to be past performance, without real regard to image “quality” or “uniqueness” or any other aesthetic factor. Repeatedly, they have been told that there is no way for content to have its classification be reconsidered. Posting obvious flaws in the forum thread seem to get results, but those posts are discouraged.
- the import process from Getty Images that brings in thousands and thousands (25,000 from one Getty contributor company) of apparently un-inspected images into the Vetta collection. This collection, which contributors used to be proud to be a part of and is currently almost being mocked in advertising as “Hand picked by our top photo editors for exquisite art direction, intelligently executed concepts and rarity.” and “When looking for unique images a cut above, the Vetta collection is your best bet. Vetta just got bigger and better: http://istockpho.to/17y6SLx“, includes content that is uploaded in the wrong orientation, or content that wouldn’t have been accepted into the main collection in 2005, let alone the Vetta collection in 2013:
Many of those files aren’t up to minimum standards for inclusion, period, let alone Vetta. Many are very poor quality photos, and many should be rejected as being duplicates. Why are you devaluing the collection like this, iStock? I have busted my butt in the past to get select files into Vetta, and you turn around and insult me by letting this stuff in? Then you inform the buyers who come to the site that this stuff is a cut above. It’s a lie. That’s so… well, it’s wrong. – a contributor
- a constant battle with the ever-changing and ethereal “Best Match” sort. The default iStockphoto sort algorithm can change on a daily basis, sometimes favor old files, sometimes new, sometimes this or that collection. New uploads invariably get lost in the mess, and contributors grow despondent and withhold new uploads until some undetermined future time.
- Search “lifestyle” and the first images are not very representative. Lots from 2004 and 2005 with less than 40 sales. Go to the very last page and there are all the great wow iStock images. What has happened? – a contributor
- Even without the scientific approach as other did on the last 2 pages of this thread I can see that exclusive images are lost in the BM. I have images from 2003 to 2013 and I am exclusive and nothing is selling now. – a contributor
- I just did a search for illustrations of “mobile phones” and found plenty of images of out-dated cellphones from 2004- 2008 on the first pages. Some of them strongly resemble old models from Nokia, Ericsson or Motorola. I wouldn’t call this fresh and I don’t think that customers are very happy with these results. – a contributor
- the loss of the ability to self-curate high production cost content to a premium collection. While content can still be nominated to Vetta, reports are that editors are putting the majority of new exclusive content into the Signature collection (all independent content goes into Main.) One contributor posted that out of the last 25,000 exclusive images, the following was the collection distribution breakdown:
- Main: 0
- S: 21340
- S+: 12
- Vetta: 2224 (but 2130 was from one external contributor)
Contributors are right to be angry and disillusioned with a poorly thought out process that takes away their benefits and confuses the buyer.
Confusing the Buyer
As described above, the reason for the buyer was to “to help different customers with different needs find the content they are looking for at the price that reflects the quality of the image“. However, buyers are finding the exact opposite of that.
From the examples above, they are clearly finding substandard, overpriced content in the previously premiere Vetta collection. Due to the Best Match sorting issues, the real gems are buried in the midst of now hundreds of pages of content, and studies show buyers don’t go past the first few pages. They are not finding a correlation at all between the image “quality” and its price. Contributors are pointing out images inappropriately placed in the Signature+ and Vetta collections that buyers are not likely to pay a premium for, with similar and even sister content at lower prices. Contributors are losing sales to lower priced comparative images. Buyers are now having to waste time trying to figure out if they are getting the best value for their money.
Buyers are also confused at (what appears to be) constant price increases due to these changes. It has been said that these collections will be constantly re-evaluated. Not just manually, but it appears that every so many months, images will be moved based on their sales performance to find the “sweet spot” as mentioned above. From social media:
- Why/when do prices change? http://www.istockphoto.com/stock-photo-20065877-sportsman-kicking-a-soccer-ball.php … went up from 7 credits to 20 since Mon. Not good for giving clients estimates.
- Wow. iStockphoto is now prohibitively expensive. Thanks for wrecking a great service, Getty.
Where did the Value Collection go???? I cannot find any value priced photos on your site anymore.
Additionally, the new pricing filter can be confusing to buyers:
The filter is not so much a price filter, as contributors have pointed out, but a collection filter. $, $$, $$$, $$$$ = Main, Signature, Signature+, Vetta . This can be an issue for contributors, and buyers as well, because, for example, a XL Signature+ image costs more than a S Vetta image. Buyers who may not be so concerned about size could be missing out on upper collection images that meet their needs, because of the price slider workflow. Also, some people are inferring that $ means $1-9, $$ means $10-$99, and so on, up to $1000, which is obviously not the case.
The buyer has to use the slider though, because as far as I can see, there is now no visual indication of pricing collection on the search return page, nor is there on the image details page (except for Vetta on the details page).
I don’t really have a conclusion today, except that pricing and collections will, for the foreseeable future, be in flux at iStockphoto. It’s an FYI. Something to watch out for.
I’ll cover “exclusive, not exclusive” another day.