The library of my agency (Index Stock), passed the one million image mark, late last year. At the time, it seemed a momentus occasion, well worth celebrating. After all, I recall when we put our first image on line (1992) and when we passed the 10,000 image mark (1993). I believe we hit 100,000 in 1996, so it took nine more years to add another zero to our image count!
I've recently read and seen announcements of stunning rates of image growth, from other players in the image distribution area. These didn't reduce my pride in our achievement, but they did make me wonder about how much value we would create by adding our next one million images. Have we reached the point as an industry, where we have saturated our market?
I did a simple study of seven major image distribution sites. I searched for eight terms on each site, and recorded how many images each site claimed for that term. Take a look at the results:
There is a little overlap between these sites. For instance, some of the images that are on the Getty Images' site are also on our site. Some of our images are on the PictureQuest and Alamy sites, and some artists may contribute the same images to iStockPhoto, Shutterstock, Alamy, and/or Flickr. However, even with a 10% deduction for overlap, the number of images available on these and most other subjects is overwhelming. How can any potential user of images carefull review and consider more than 3,000,000 people images? How would someone who was looking for a man shaking hands or a good shot of Paris, wade through 8,000 manly handshakes and 800,000 bistros and Eiffel Towers, without falling asleep!
I've only included seven sites on my list. There are hundreds of other good collections. For instance, our good friends at Design Pics in Canada, have 13,430 great people images. Our U.S. based contributors at VStock have 2,955 brand new people shots. Our industry probably has created more than 5,000,000 people images--and maybe has 10,000,000.
Notice also that even subjects as mundane as "toothpick," return more than 3,000 images. Exotic subjects are also heavily covered. The "puffin" is a cute seabird that lives in Iceland. There are more than 6,000 images of this odd bird, just on these seven sites. I doubt I could find any concept, race, place, animal, or thing for which there are not now at least 1,000 images available, commercially.
Alamy announced that it added more than 100,000 images in the past quarter. Shutterstock has gone from a few thousand images to almost 1,000,000 in two years. Major consumer photo-sharing sites such as Snapfish, dotPhoto (recently renamed Exclaim!), and Webshots, are adding hundreds of thousands of images to their sites, every day. A search for "people" on Google Images returns 4,560,000 of them.
In my humble opinion, I feel the above is proof that we have saturated the commercial image market. Is this a good thing or a bad one? I found a nice article on Sticky-Marketing.net that I think describes the potential downside of saturation. The article points out:
- Once a market reaches saturation, customers stop buying new images and are only trying to replace ones that have gotten old or overused. This leads to a drop in volume.
- Competition heats up, as providers realize there are relatively few new potential buyers to serve.
- Some sellers will try to convince customers that the products offered by other suppliers are obsolete or poor quality. There creates a shift from selling the positives of one's own product, to pointing out the negatives of the products from competitors.
Saying the market is saturated is not the same thing as saying images are a commodity. There are still huge differences between the quality of the images on each site and the accuracy of the keywording that produces these searche results. However, saturation can lead to commodity-type behavior, quite quickly. At present, I think many customers can tell the difference between what they get from a site like ours, and what they get from searching on a site that does not have solid editing and controls over how images are "tagged." However, those differences can be eroded over time by technology that ranking systems that push up the better images, and software that automatically improves or adjusts keywording.
I see no simple solution or magic strategy, for escaping from these issues. Index Stock will try to post new fresh images on its sites, so we can capture our share of the "replacement" market. We will continue to look for (and probably find) new customers and new market segments. And, we will refrain from focusing on the negatives of competing products and focus on our own positive aspects. Unfortunately, I suspect that other players in the image licensing market will find it hard to do the same.