At the start of 2004, we decided to try a new way of recruiting images from our artists. We called it the Artist Preference Program. We offered it to those artists who had been submitting regularly to our stock photo agency (Index Stock). 99 artists signed up.
Each participating artist was allowed to submit up to 20 images for the Program. Normally, our editors review each new image we get, and reject those they don't like. Because our editors are either picky or have good taste (depending on your viewpoint!) they reject about 90% of the images we receive. The other 10% go into our collection.
The images submitted under the Artist Preference Program got a special pass. In theory, we accepted all of them into our collection. (I say in theory, because we still required either a decent quality analog original or a good quality scan, insisted on model and property releases, and made sure that nothing indecent or infringing slipped through into our file.) We knew that other agents had similar programs, and that they charged their artists a per image fee for participating in those programs. We decided we would make our program free--and cover any scanning and keywording costs, ourselves.
As I mentioned, a fair selection of our 1,600 artists participated in the program and we eventually received about 1,800 images. (You can see the full set of images, here.) Eighteen months later, these images have been distributed to our agents in 70 countries and thoroughly picked through and examined by the hundreds of thousands of people who visit our sites and look at our images. I felt it was time to take a look and see how these images had performed.
The chart below compares the per image earnings (per year) for the Artist Preference Program images, compared to a set of 4,733 rights managed images that were contributed separately during that time by 247 of our other artists. Because this set went through our normal editing process, they should be enhanced by all of the wisdom and learning of our editing team. I am sure that team will be relieved to see that their babies produced more revenue per year on average, than those images selected by our artists!
I also found it interesting (in fact, pretty amazing!) that more than 13% of both groups of images were licensed, during this period. This is much better than most of the averages I have heard elsewhere in the industry (1% of all images licensed, 5%?). I believe it is due to a combination of our artists creating great images and our sales and marketing team doing a good job of distributing them thoroughly and energetically to prospective licensors.
During this same period, we accepted about 9,000 images from ten large royalty free production houses. While these images went through our editing process, we were not as critical as we would be with rights managed images. We assumed these production houses had already done a good job of weeding out poor quality images, and they had already scanned, captioned, and keyworded the images for us. It is interesting to see that the average earnings on these images was well below both those for our carefully selected rights managed images and for those images contributed through the Artist Preference Program.
Certain categories of images did better under the Program than others. Below are the top five categories, in terms of earnings per image per year. Note besides the presence of "Concepts," that this is a different ranking than for our collection overall. I suspect that many of our artists have special knowledge of an area that we do not--and were able to give us images that filled holes in our file that we did not know we had!
Our industry may be moving towards what a recent Wired article described as "crowd sourcing." However, I would not take the relatively small percentage difference in returns described above, as proof that this approach is a good approach. I think our Artist Preference Program did well for a few special reasons:
1. We offered it to the most active artists in our file. These individuals have had frequent contact with our editors and recent feedback on their submissions. Via this input, we have educated them about our marketplace and its needs.
2. We limited how many images each artist could submit. By forcing artists to winnow down their set of images, we encouraged them to remove duplicates and think about each selection.
3. We did a good job of scanning, cleaning, keywording, and managing the rights issues of these images. These images got the makeup and prep work needed, to turn them into stars. That kind of attention is still lacking in most of the crowd-type image supply sites.
We are thinking about doing this Program again--and perhaps making it an ongoing process. I would be interested to hear any suggestions about how to improve these types of artist-driven programs.