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Why The PhotoShelter Collection Failed

September 12th, 2008 · No Comments

Earlier this week PhotoShelter announced that they are closing The PhotoShelter Collection, a service that allowed its members to license their images as stock. This was sad new, but not a surprise. While it was no doubt created with the best of intentions, The PhotoShelter Collection was based on a series of optimistic but ultimately false assumptions.

Those assumptions were:
- What’s good for the photographer is good for the picture buyer:
PhotoShelter is a very photographer-friendly organization and The PhotoShelter Collection was a very photographer-friendly way to sell images. They didn’t restrict which images photographers could offer and paid them a generous 70% of each sale. The result was an offering with a wide variety of quality, much of it marginal, and no cohesive voice or brand. Buyers couldn’t care less how much the photographer makes, especially if they can’t find the images they need, quickly.

- If you build it they will come:
One of the reasons PhotoShelter offered photographers such a generous share of the revenue is that they wanted to encourage participation in The Photo Shelter Collection. The more photographers participating, the greater the number of images they could offer, and the more photo buyers they would attract. But attracting qualified photo buyers is a tough, expensive business not for faint of heart. It takes a lot of money and a long-term commitment to building up a brand or brands that potential photo buyers are exposed to on a consistent basis over a long period of time. This is particularly true if you are attempting to address the broad market and not just a niche area.

- The old stock agency model can be incrementally improved:
PhotoShelter tried to do something innovative. They allowed members to offer their images directly to buyers. But for the buyer, the experience was much like going to any other stock site. And for every fresh, innovative non-traditional stock image there were many more mediocre images that buyers didn’t want to sort through. Photo buyers aren’t looking for pictures, they are trying to solve a problem. And unless a service can make things “better, faster, cheaper” for the buyer it will be just another player in an over-saturated market fighting for the same customers as everyone else.

Perhaps PhotosShelter could have succeeded with a platform like the PhotoShelter Collection if they promoted it as a hosted service through which their members could sell their images as stock through their own dedicated area. But instead of branding it as The PhotoShelter Collection, with the expectation that PhotoShelter would draw buyers to the site, they could have provided their members with the tools and services needed to market their work to specific groups of buyers. These tools & services, such as mailing lists, email campaign services and research tools could have been used by each member to attract buyers to their own particular “stock site.”

The bottom line is that The PhotoShelter Collection failed because the stock photo business is all about the photo buyer, not the photographer. The key to success is developing a strong relationship with qualified buyers. And while PhotoShelter offered some innovations, they were innovations that benefited the photographer, not the customer

PhotoShelter is an admirable organization and the The PhotoShelter Collection, even though it failed, was ultimately a positive move for them. They showed they are committed to the cause of helping photographers solve their problems. This should help bolster their core photo archiving business. Unfortunately to succeed in the stock business, you need to show that you are dedicated to solving the problems of buyer, not photographers.

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