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The Death of Stock Photos

When Twentieth Century Fox partnered with Getty Images earlier this year to promote the Vince Vaughn comedy Unfinished Business they created a silly set of stock photographs whose campy hilarity underscores everything that’s wrong with stock photos—that they’re disingenuous, stilted, and evoke no noticeable emotional response.

This campaign has, unknowingly, highlighted both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of stock photos. Their strength is that they are available. You can get a photo that mostly works, most of the time.

The weakness of stock photos is the utter lack of authenticity.

The Alternative To Stock Is In Your Pocket

Thanks to the unstoppable momentum of smartphones—shipments of which topped one billion in 2014 for the first time in history—and the rise of Instagram and other photo-sharing platforms, user-generated photos are now being snapped by the billions. Nearly one trillion photos were taken in 2014, or 25% of all the pictures taken in the first 170 years of the medium’s existence. Presently, Instagram’s 300 million active users post 70 million photos per day, and 350 million photos are uploaded daily to Facebook. As the smartphone tsunami continues unabated—with experts predicting that they’ll account for two-thirds of the world’s nine billion mobile connections by 2020—users will continue generating billions more photos.

This so-called “selfie revolution” has created an entirely unprecedented opportunity for marketers, brands, and others who today license stock photos to turn to user-generated content (UGC) to drive sales and build authentic brand equity at a lower cost that stock photos can ever deliver.

Simply put, user-generated photos are the most authentic, compelling and affordable brand assets available today, and are poised to largely replace stock photographs in the future.

Quantifying How UGC Beats Stock

As the leader in visual marketing, Olapic was the first company to bet on the premise that UGC photos are decidedly more “shoppable” than the often-uninspired stock images that shoppers had until recently come to expect as the norm. We’ve helped companies from a range of industries collect and curate user-generated photos from Instagram, Facebook and other sources and integrate them into their websites, email campaigns, and advertising in a host of creative ways—and just as importantly, we’ve quantified the impact of this UGC on conversions and engagement.

What have we learned in the process? First, shoppers use and trust customer photos: In fact, 63% of U.S. consumers trust them more than brand or retailer images, while 54% have postponed or decided against a purchase due to unhelpful product photos. Furthermore, we’ve definitively concluded that visual UGC convert browsers into buyers. On average, Olapic clients see a 4.6% conversion rate when customer photos are displayed on a product detail page, which jumps to 9.6% when visitors interact with these photos (nine per visit on average)—meaning interaction nearly doubles conversion.

Lifeless Photos Don’t Have Much Life Left

Not surprisingly, stock photography is scrambling to evolve by taking cues from the countless images flooding social media—as evidenced by myriad stock photography trend forecasts for 2015 that all speak to the notion of authenticity. In a February post, for example, Gaby Jalbert, quality team leader at PhotoDune, noted, “Customers need real people doing real things in real environments…they should feel as genuine as possible, and even spontaneous.” And in a recent interview in Adweek in which she discusses the Unfinished Business campaign, Rebecca Swift, director of creative planning at iStock by Getty Images, explains that the agency has tried to emulate visual UGC since its founding: “That’s why we provide images taken from the ‘inside’—i.e., people who are in the moment—showcasing real emotions, real body language and a broader range of people. These increasingly popular images bring an authenticity that resonates with the viewer.”

While admirably candid, Swift’s comments nonetheless beg the question: why should brands pay for photos that imitate UGC, when the real thing is infinitely more available and affordable? Though the crisp clarity of high-quality professional photography will likely remain a mainstay across most marketing channels for the foreseeable future, the fact is we’re entering a new era in visual marketing with UGC squarely at its center, as traditional stock photography slowly fades into the ether.

This reality is reflected in the ongoing struggles of the major stock photography players. After grappling for years with stagnant revenues and falling demand, earlier this year Getty announced that CEO Jonathan Klein was stepping down, less than a month after the company told creditors that it burned through a third of its cash in the last quarter of 2014 amid a price war that’s squeezing profits, according to a recent Bloomberg story. And in a December article in Selling Stock, an online newsletter that covers the stock photography industry, editor Jim Pickerell predicts “major shifts in the stock photography business as the three major players – Getty Images, Shutterstock and Adobe/Fotolia – jockey for position in a market that is experiencing very little, if any growth.” While Shutterstock’s revenues have increased consistently since 2010 (and 39% in 2014), Pickerell notes in another story that the company’s growth has been largely at the expense of Getty Images, and not due to new customers entering the market. Bottom line: the stock-photo pie arguably isn’t getting any bigger anytime soon, so the remaining agencies will simply continue to battle for the largest slice.

Real Photos Work Really Well

Meanwhile, the growth of visuals on the web is fueling exciting new industries in this dawning, UGC-driven age. As consumers habits inevitably change—perhaps most notably marked by a gradual shift from text to image-based search—visual search engines, already making headlines and attracting more and more venture funding, will rise, as big players like Google continue to invest heavily in image recognition. In turn, brands will be incentivized to produce an enormous amount of relevant visual content to ensure that they have a seat at the table, relying on technology to create as much visual content as possible since traditional methods of photo creation will be unable to scale to the overwhelming demand.

In the midst of this seismic shift, having a compelling approach to visual marketing will emerge as a vital strategic pillar of a chief marketing officer’s agenda. And while the glory days of stock photography are long gone, there are dazzling developments ahead for marketing with real photos.

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