The demonetization of digital photos doesn’t mean that we no longer devalue beautiful, high-quality photography. Technological advances and the abundance of digital images is simply disrupting the photography industry. If photos are demonetizing so fast, how could there be any kind of monetization on Unsplash?
Unsplash could be creating an unprecedented shift. A business model shift that takes into account the fact that everyone is a photographer today. But, as with startups that receive funding and are focused on growth, everyone always wonders how will they become profitable?
How will Unsplash monetize and become profitable? It’s not of huge concern right now, but it’s a question asked in almost every article posted on Medium by someone that is a user of the platform.
I’m always confused why I never hear anyone ask how contributors could be supported beyond mind-blowing exposure of their images. Maybe I just miss those comments. Usually, I’ve only seen negative comments from a photographer that is a romantic how the photography industry has always been. People contributing free photos to Unsplash are ruining it for them.
Monetization on Unsplash
Unsplash is the one free stock photo site that doesn’t have a button to support the photographer. Other, let’s call them copycat sites, have integrated a button to send a donation to the photographer or buy them a coffee. I’ve received multiple donations and, while nice, it’s rare.
This doesn’t mean Unsplash doesn’t want to support the contributors to the platform. Having worked at Unsplash, I know for a fact they are a team that loves their community and contributors. The Unsplash Book profits were split up and given to the contributors in the book. Again, I didn’t buy that dream Lambo, but it showed they want to support photographers.
Unsplash could monetize with a button to support photographers via donations or tips and skim a small amount, but I don’t feel coming. I could be wrong, but whatever. They could also add a button for people to potentially hire the photographer for a project like 500px has done recently. I know a few Unsplash Contributors, Samuel Zeller, and Patrick Tomasso, have been hired for paid projects because of their free images on Unsplash. I’ve recently booked work because of my Unsplash photos too. It happens but I don’t think it’s consistent.
Other people have mentioned ideas that are pretty typical like sell prints and the ability for photographers to have portfolios, etc. These ideas are the same as ever. Unsplash could do these ideas, but I believe their eyes are on a way bigger monetization strategy that would take them all the way to the bank.
I’m talking life changing shit.
Monetizing the Demonetized
In a recent talk given by Luke, a co-founder of Unsplash, he responded to the question of money with the likelihood of Native Advertising as a strong monetization strategy for them. Typical me, I was like WTF does that mean? He mentioned how these ads could be easily integrated into the search function of the platform. Okay, yeah! These are highly targeted searches. I started to understand a little bit.
Would a native advertising monetization strategy only help Unsplash, Inc. to make bank?
In Luke’s talk, there wasn’t much more discussed on this topic. No worries, it was a short talk and I wouldn’t get into everything at that point either.
While a lot of people continue to get freaked out about the demonetization of photography and the complete disruption of the industry, my mind lit up.
Wait. Wait. Wait.
What if Unsplash initiated the ability for contributors to opt into an ad revenue sharing option?
My imagination went to town, totally inspired.
How could this work?
Ad Revenue Sharing for Photo Contributors
I don’t really know anything about ad revenue sharing, native advertising or anything of this sort. I’ve made $1.50 on YouTube and nothing on Vidme (although they don’t have this setup yet).
My imagination ran, but maybe that’s all this could be: a figment of my imagination.
Could Unsplash work out some kind of algorithm to determine ad revenue for contributors based on their photo views and photo download? Maybe photo likes would be incorporated into the algorithm too.
Whatever the case may be, with highly targeted native advertising built into the site, could a revenue share happen with contributors? Could we see something like we see for content creators on YouTube, but with photos?
I don’t know how it could be technically worked out, but that Unsplash Team is smart or they’ll find the talent to make it happen.
I even imagined the article announcing everything to the public and blowing a lot of minds.
Again, I couldn’t help wonder if this could be a way for contributors to monetize their own freely given photos. I dove deeper.
How could this be possible?
Let’s pretend Herschel Supply Co. is hip to Unsplash and want’s to see what goes on with some advertising on their platform. We’ve already thought about the fact that the revenue share would come from photo stats (like YouTube video stats or track plays on Spotify). Where and how could ads be integrated?
Unsplash is already set up pretty amazingly for them to be nicely integrated. I know they would want to do it thoughtfully and beautifully though. There could be a few new elements to the site for more options and reach. For example, I believe the ability of following Collections would need to be available and then probably integrated into the following feed or something.
Here’s a few ideas and considerations to make money:
- Within search – Luke mentioned this in his talk and it’s the first obvious thought. Let’s say that Herschel Supply Co. decides they want to advertise in some way when visitors search for “backpack.” There are 307 photos that come up in search for “backpack.” The searching visitors are exposed to an ad of some sort for Herschel Supply Co.’s amazing backpacks (brand awareness or a call to action) and they also view and/or download some of the photos. These contributors make some pennies over time as part of the ad revenue sharing model, maybe.
- Within Branded Collections – Now, there could be a few ways with collections. First, let’s go with Branded Collections. Herschel Supply Co. would create a few branded collections using their own photos or they curate the photos around themes that are highly associated with them. This would be much like what you see with branded playlists on Spotify. Herschel Supply Co. might create collections around themes like Wanderlust, Tropical Vibes, Urban Exploration, and Summer Fever. Users on the site could follow HSCO or follow the collection for continued brand awareness and relationship. How Unsplash would charge for this, I don’t know. Impressions of the collection page?
- Within User Collections – Instead of curated collections by Hershel Supply Co., their ads would be placed in those themed collections already created by Users related to their targets: Within all the collections for Adventure type imagery users have created and are totally into.
- Off Site or via the API – I couldn’t figure out how it would all work out using the Unsplash API and outside the Unsplash site at this point. Good thing Luke seems to have this area on the mind. Product placement could be where this comes into play? I don’t know if the use of tags or some kind of recognition software would be used along with the API. These images could be created by the brand or picked up if there are any on Unsplash already. For example, I’ve shared a number of images of my Herschel backpack with a pineapple. If it’s used around the web or in apps, it spreads brand awareness like wildfire. All those stats are collected with the views, downloads, etc. I just don’t know how you’d arrange anything with the brand. I don’t know if this all sounds crazy impossible.
- Sponsored Smart Collections (not mentioned in my wack vlog) – New Smart Collections (for lack of a better word) could be developed and specific images would be pulled into them. They would be smart and not static because Unsplash would want everyone to continually check them out and/or follow! And a cool new way to discover new more of the photo overall. Ideas for Smart Collections could range but something like Upcoming, Trending, Popular this week/month/year/all time. Here comes the ability for these Smart Collections to be sponsored by brands, etc. Again, I’m looking at Spotify for inspiration related to their Sponsored Playlists.
- I’m sure there are more!
Thinking Much Bigger? Acquired by Google?
People never began giving photos away for free because of any monetary benefit on Unsplash. Ask most contributors and they’ll tell you how their photos sat dormant on hard drives. With tech advancement and ideas like Unsplash, photos are given new life in a world of abundance.
Content creators on YouTube probably started because they enjoyed making videos and sharing them. Once they were able to monetize their videos for ad revenue, we’ve heard how it’s changed their lives and blessed them with the ability to create on all new levels. I can’t help but see the possibility with photos on Unsplash.
Maybe I’m lost in my imagination though.
Maybe I’m too big of a dreamer as I want to find a way to give all my photography away for free. I’m so in love with the process of shooting photos and giving them away for people to build off.
What do you think?
Unsplash could definitely implement native advertising as their monetization strategy and become a hugely profitable company. Would it be possible to do what I’ve described for contributors though?
If Unsplash doesn’t do any contributor monetization like this, maybe they could get acquired by Google and Google would implement the ad revenue sharing for contributors.
Either way, I’ll continue to give my photos away for free and have a blast doing it.
“It’s important to have a future that is inspiring”
— Elon Musk
Please drop a comment (here or on my Vidme Vlog) about what you think. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
PPS. Cross-posted to Medium as well! Feel free to give some love or replies there if more comfortable.