Alamy: “We Can Cannibalise Microstock” [By Selling Photos Even Cheaper]

Raw deal: available from iStockphoto for $430...or Alamy Premium for $49.

When does stock photography become microstock photography? Can it be cheaper than microstock? And what happens when a supposedly non-microstock agency offers the same images as a microstock site, but for less?

Stock agency Alamy found themselves facing a forum firestorm last week when a leaked marketing email revealed the existence of a previously unknown Alamy product called Premium. Contributors were infuriated not just by the fact that they only heard about Premium through a leak rather than an Alamy announcement, but also by Premium’s terms – $49 for virtually unlimited commercial usage for 10 years.

Although the language employed was not as colourful, the row had echoes of last year’s iStockphoto riot when contributors to the microstock agency were outraged at a change in their royalty percentages. As at iStockphoto, contributors took to the forums to denounce the Premium deal: Alamy staff made several attempts to calm the situation, but these seemed only to add fuel to the fire. Eventually Alamy CEO James West stepped forward with an attempt at a definitive statement on the company position and Premium.

But West’s statement prompts at least as many questions as it provides answers:

  • He stressed that advertising use was excluded from Premium, but does the deal include the far more common editorial usage?
  • Although described as a test, West claimed that some Premium clients had already upgraded to high ticket advertising licenses: so had the newly revealed Premium secretly been on the market for some time?
  • Premium was described as only one of a number of tests, some at a higher price point: but are there any at a lower price point?
  • It was stressed that there is no opt-out from Premium, but contributors quickly found a loophole: by placing a single restriction on images those were removed from Premium offerings. So would Alamy move to prevent contributors placing restrictions on their images?
  • Some larger Alamy contributors’ material seemed absent from Premium: so had those contributors been given the option to opt-out in advance?

James West
These questions are a bit tricky... Alamy CEO James West
When these questions were put to West on Friday he declined to answer, meaning that – at least in theory – all the above are possible. His only comment:  “I don’t have anything further to add other than to remind readers that these price experiments will account for less than 1% of our revenue this year.”

But the most intriguing question – which West also declined to answer – is prompted by his most startling claim: “Our trials have shown that we can cannibalise microstock market share at a much higher price point.”

That’s a pretty daring claim on two points. Firstly, it’s generally accepted that microstock buyers are primarily motivated by price: the idea you can get them to pay much more sounds like quite a challenge. But it’s the second point that’s more interesting: West’s assertion that Premium really is more expensive than microstock.

People unfamiliar with the microstock market will instinctively buy that: popular belief is that typical microstock prices are no more than a couple of dollars. But that’s really not the case: those dollar deal prices only ever apply when clients both buy huge amounts of microstock “currency” – so-called credits – toward future purchases and also make limited use of the images they eventually license. Once a client buys and uses a microstock image in the way Alamy are pitching Premium – maximum size, no subscriptions and virtually unlimited usage – microstock prices rise dramatically.

And now maths? This is really hard...
How dramatically? For a direct comparison take the casino image above. It’s available Royalty Free at Alamy in its largest size for $365. But it’s also available from iStockphoto, the microstock market leader, at the same size and usage for $213.75, $65.25 or $54, depending on whether it’s bought Pay As You Go, or on a corporate or subscription account. However that’s not the whole iStockphoto story: those prices rely on the purchaser buying a massive number of credits toward other images. To get even the PAYG $213.75 price you first have to buy 20,000 credits at, gulp, $19,000. If you simply wander in the iStockphoto door today and just want to buy this image alone as a one-off it will cost you $430. But here’s the real figure that counts: the same image is now available at Alamy Premium – for $49.

This is not an isolated example carefully chosen to browbeat Alamy. As at other microstock outlets, prices at iStockphoto are dictated by three factors: the price band of the image chosen; the usage; and the way credits are bought. Istockphoto have five price bands; the equivalent license to Premium is XXLarge-Extended License-Multiseat-Unlimited Reproduction; credit prices run from $0.24 to $1.63 each. The very cheapest you can buy a Premium-equivalent license at iStockphoto is $52.40; but that requires a subscription account and an investment of tens of thousands of dollars in credits. At the other extreme, buying the most expensive image in the most expensive way, the price rockets to $800.

In Alamy Premium your advertising sales will be THIS big...
In practice most prices will be somewhere between those two extremes. But one thing is clear: on the publicly available figures it is impossible to buy a Premium-equivalent licence at iStockphoto for as low as Alamy’s Premium price tag of $49. Alamy will have run their own figures, but unless they’ve seriously stacked the deck it’s very hard to see how they conclude that Premium has a higher price point than microstock. On the contrary, Premium isn’t just a microstock product: it has a sub-microstock price.

There is of course one key difference between Premium and microstock licenses: the latter include advertising and the former don’t. During last week’s damage limitation exercise Alamy made great play of this, claiming that Premium customers “upgrade” to big-ticket ad rates. But this is the photo agency as lottery: make your images available at a bargain price and you might hit the jackpot of an advertising sale. Given the sheer number of Premium images available – some 25 million – the odds of any single one being upgraded is infinitesimally tiny: the truth is that most $49 Premium licenses will remain just that.

Last week’s row developed a comic sub-plot when one Alamy contributor by the name of Dingdong posted comments he attributed to West:

“The simple answer for our contributors is move with the times or get out. We are a business not a charity to our contributors. We have serious contributors whom we have contacted and agree in principle to the need to change.”

Although the post was obviously a hoax that didn’t stop it reappearing on About The Image and elsewhere as a genuine quote from West. Unsurprisingly the Alamy CEO was unimpressed by this display of Internet juvenilia, describing it as “comments that I would never have made.” But the truth is when the chips were down West’s own message was little different:

“There is no opt in/opt out available for this. You can, of course, opt out of Alamy whenever you like. We provide the marketplace and set the ground rules, but it is entirely your decision as to whether you want to participate or not.”

So the lessons are clear for punters who want to try their luck in the Alamy Premium casino. The management sets the rules – and the house always wins.