Wednesday, July 29, 2009...9:30 am

Worth 1,000 words?

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Some more evidence that digital creation and distribution of content will keep transforming the media – Getty Images has bought iStockphoto for a reported $50 million.
The web and digital technology have transformed the business of photography. But what at first made picture researchers’ lives easier has now made it much more difficult to make a living – after all, if they can search digital archives online from the comfort of their armchair, so can anyone else.
By the same token, it has also put immense pressure on photographers. Now anyone with a decent digital camera (which means most people with a digital camera) can not only take passable photos but also distribute them globally.
But it’s also put pressure on photo agencies. Let’s face it, almost no one sitting on the production desk of a low-budget print or web publication will pay much at all for stock images. Which is why iStockphoto has been such a runaway success.
Part of this is its simplicity – no phoning up the picture agency, or drawn-out verification process, just click and buy. And it’s pretty cheap – a small image costs about £3, a really big one less than £18.
It’s understandable that Getty wants to get a piece of this low-rent action. Yes, the pricing model undercuts the established agencies, but there’s not much they can do about that. So it makes a lot of sense to embrace the change than try to make a futile stand against it.
One interesting thing about the so-cheap-they’re-almost-free photo resources is that their prices seem to have actually been creeping up lately. Longer-term users may have noticed this already.
It’s interesting because it shows that people are prepared to pay something for digital content online. It also opens up the question of whether this has implications for other kinds of digital content, such as journalism.
I’m very sceptical that users will pay much, if anything, for access to journalism as we have traditionally known it online. But people are willing to pay some money for stock photography.
It’s not just business users – if the alternative is trawling through Flickr for hours to find a suitable image for no money, some individuals are prepared to pay a few dollars or pounds to save time and guarantee a better or more appropriate image for their website or whatever.
Getty clearly hopes that its existing high-end library will survive the arrival of ubiquitous digital imagery. But in case it doesn’t, it seems to understand that a big slice of the market is now in low-cost user-submitted material.
The key to success seems to be offering a product that offers some clear benefits:

  • Saves time
  • Increases choice
  • Is perceived as good value
  • Offers products people actually want

The parallels with journalism are not exact of course, but there’s a lesson here that’s still worth learning.

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