Patrick Grant is a Santa Barbara carpenter and hobbyist photographer who built an Instagram following with landscape photos taken on his iPhone during his travels. Through a friend, he was invited to be a beta tester for Snapwire, a startup focused on connecting mobile, social photographers with photo buyers looking for specific images that they can't find through traditional stock photo services. In April, he gathered a few friends at a park in order to submit to a Snapwire request from a Canadian pharmaceutical company looking for a photo of people having a piggyback race—and after his photo was selected from among 52 submissions, the company ended up paying him $6,000 for five years of exclusivity.
The payday was an outlier, to be sure—most Snapwire requests pay anywhere from $3 to $1,000. But as smartphone camera quality and in-the-moment social photography soars, so do the opportunities to monetize photos posted to Instagram, Twitter, and other social media feeds. How they're collected and used determines whether brands, photographers, intermediary companies, or all three benefit financially. Among the new business models cropping up to leverage these opportunities, an important variable is the degree to which the picture-snapping content creators are considered creative professionals or social participants.
For brands, art directors, and publishers, the appeal of using social photography for commercial purposes is enormous: the variety of potential photos is nearly infinite, the visuals often have a personality or authenticity that traditional stock photos lack, and there's a lot of opportunity for valuable engagement with fans and customers through social marketing—often including the collection of free, user-generated assets for campaigns. The growing demand means that any mobile camera user, many of whom would never have pursued photography professionally, can find a moment in the spotlight, and in some cases, a new source of revenue.
Snapwire, which came out of private beta in March and releases its version 2.0 platform today, is approaching this new social photography landscape by innovating on the traditional stock photo business model. It offers both a curated image library and a custom-request platform that allows buyers to ask for exactly what they want from photographers up for a guided challenge. On the request platform, the photographer keeps 70% of the licensing fee paid for each photo, with the rest going to Snapwire. Photographers take a 50% cut when their images are sold in the library marketplace. Founder Chad Newell also founded stock photo agency Media Bakery in 2001, so Snapwire was built on his knowledge of the evolving needs of photo buyers.
"About four years ago, when we downloaded Instagram for the first time, we saw that the content these mobile photographers were producing was a perfect match for our image buyers' needs, but the photos were too small," says Newell. "Quickly, the devices evolved, and about a year and a half ago, when the iPhone 5S came out, we knew it was time to launch the new company."
Another company seizing on the boom in social photography is Olapic, focused not on a marketplace model, but on new brand marketing and ecommerce opportunities through customer social engagement. "The smartphone was a hardware revolution where anyone could have a camera with them at all times," says Olapic founder Pau Sabria, who launched the company—which in its original incarnation was a wedding-photo app—in 2010 while a student at Columbia Business School. "What we were seeing was that our Facebook feeds were filling up with pictures. We realized that as users communicated more visually, brands would have to provide that visual communication as well."
The result was a crowdsourcing platform for brands that collects photographs submitted by users through social media or email, curates submissions for brands to choose from, displays the photos in a variety of ways on brand websites, and measures the photos' traffic and engagement, and whether they convert to sales.
"Companies come to us thinking 'How we can provide more information to the end consumer so that they have a better sense of what they are buying?'" says Sabria. "User photos can display the product in many, many situations that would otherwise be extremely costly to arrange—it would be very complicated to imagine all of the different possibilities, say, of how these shoes look with a skirt. They see Olapic as an opportunity to crowdsource these pictures, and often times they call them 'wild' pictures, because they're kind of in the wild."
For example, clothing company Madewell has a #Totewell section of its website, organized around a gallery of user-submitted photos of how consumers are using and filling their Madewell totebags, each of which link to a shopping page. Users who submit an Instagram photo can have their photo credited on the site, and are entered to win a Madewell shopping spree.
Another Olapic client, Hard Rock Café, is using the platform essentially to corral its 10 million fans across social media accounts back to a social section of the company's website and ecommerce platform. "We have a great deal of user-generated content across our social channels because fans want to share with us the good times they had at a Hard Rock," says Kim Matlock, Hard Rock Café's senior director of digital marketing and customer relationship management. "But the challenge is that the content within different platforms is separate. Everyone keeps changing the rules, and there's a shiny new object like Snapchat. We wanted to bring everyone back to the brand, back to HardRock.com, to interact with us at a place we can curate and control—showcase it in a way that's interactive but also gives fame and glory to fans." And, of course, integrate these fan-photographed experiences and products with the brand's Rock Shop and hotel e-commerce sites.
None of Olapic's campaigns, says Sabria, have led to the paid use of a consumer or fan photo. "It's usually something that the brands ask for as a favor, and the users are usually very happy to participate, and brag about it," he says. "It wouldn't surprise me if brands start putting some sort of rewards program together, paying in kind with gift cards or rewards points, before we actually start paying for them." He says Olapic does ensure that brands are abiding by each social media platform's terms of service regarding user credit and source links, and that if the brand decides to use a photo for another purpose—say, a Times Square display—the Olapic platform provides for the rights management to obtain that additional permission. "But in the use case that companies come to us for, it's not something that's usually super necessary."
A brand or creative agency that came to Snapwire would probably not be looking to buy hundreds of photos of people using its products, but rather, for example, one or two perfect photos of someone using a product or performing a certain activity for an ad. In this way, the company is similar to a traditional stock photo service, and photographers must be approved for quality by Snapwire's editors to include their photos in the library marketplace. But Snapwire challenges, which are requests made by the company directly to identify photos for the library and award prizes, are open to anyone. And many of the photographers approved for the marketplace are not professionals, but rather skilled and creative mobile shooters who previously had done no more with their photos than build a following on Instagram. The idea is to create a market for photos by anyone who, as Newell puts it, looks at their Instagram feed and thinks, "'This is a great picture, could this sell?'"
Newell says that Snapwire's request feature is particularly important in lowering the entry barrier for photographers. "Buyers were like, 'I love this content, I can't find this in stock,' and photographers were like, 'This gives me opportunity to do more than just sharing and liking my photos," he says. "After doing some market research and initial testing, it became really clear that photographers wanted a purpose to send to a stock photography buyer, which is really different right now—a stock photographer has to keyword their photography before they submit it to a gallery, but they don't know when it's going to sell. They just upload it without purpose." This is something that hobbyist Instagram photographers are not likely to spend time and resources doing.
At the same time, he says, "buyers want to have this socially authentic content and stuff that doesn't look like stock. It's already painful to find the right stock photo, but the kind of content that is socially authentic and trending and creative is really difficult to find." Current requests on the site include everything from "man in a blindfold" for a book cover, to "Arm out of an open car window" for a banking client, to "Cornetto ice creams in different places around the world" for the frozen novelty brand.
For Scott Bradford of Ontario-based Commotion Communications, who bought Patrick Grant's piggyback photo for his pharmaceutical client, Snapwire solved a variety of creative and financial challenges. "We wanted a photo of people running through a park, but couldn't find anything great," he says. "We had a crazy winter and we couldn't shoot here, and the client didn't have a budget for us to fly to Arizona and shoot, so we went to stock, which sometimes you have to do, and you just have to take what you can find."
After receiving a promo email from Snapwire, Bradford realized he could submit a very specific request and name his price. He listed the detailed request for a photograph of people having a piggyback race at $1,000, figuring it would take some effort because the client had a very specific vision for everything from setting to age range of subjects to shirt colors. "Some people missed it entirely," says Bradford, but Grant took the time and produced the right result. The client then kicked in $5,000 more when it decided to buy exclusive rights to Grant's photo for five years.
"Even the photographers who didn't get it were really congratulatory," says Bradford. "It reminds me of when I played ultimate Frisbee, where everyone is really supportive of each other. It's a really great new model, and allows people to see beautiful things they wouldn't see otherwise. It might not be the best resolution, but it's kind of impressionistic, and sometimes you have to spend a lot for that happy snap look."
Melanie Riccardi joined Snapwire as a beta tester just as she was trying to transition from a job in merchandizing for Apple to life as a full-time photographer, encouraged by her experiences on Instagram and Tumblr. Initially she checked Snapwire's requests every day, and the photos she sold were instrumental in building her portfolio and connecting with other photographers in the community. Now, she says, commissioned work is taking up more of her time—but she's still active on Snapwire, where she has reached the service's Pro level, giving her more direct access to work with buyers (Snapwire awards points to photographers for having photos nominated or purchased, and leveling up gives photographers greater promotion on the site, such as being a featured photographer).
"For photographers who are doing it for fun and on the side, it's a great tool," says Riccardi. "For someone who is full-time, it's more of a side thing, like entering a contest—either I have that photo already, or I really want to try that and see if I can make it work."
Patrick Grant is one of those photographers still doing it only on the side of his carpentry work, but his even semi-professional success makes his hobby that much more rewarding. "I try to do it in off hours, sometimes I'll take a day after work and set up a shoot," he says. "I'm really enjoying where it is right now. If it goes on to allow me to do part-time photography, that would be really cool, but I'm not really holding my breath."
Of course as social photography is still considered "in the wild," the value per photo to brands and publishers remains low overall. Grant's $6,000 payday notwithstanding, he has also submitted to a request that paid $3 because it was easy to set up. With exceptions depending on difficulty, most requests on Snapwire pay less than $100, only to the winning photographer, and most photos from the stock library go for $49. And as successful social media campaigns like Olapic's demonstrate, there are countless Internet users who are happy to contribute their social photography for the sake of exposure and community.
For Chad Newell, the function of a service like Snapwire is not to discourage people from sharing their photos online for free, but to identify the points where copyright ownership, which every person who snaps a photo with their smartphone has, intersects with very real commercial needs.
"The one fundamental thing that never changes is that image buyers buy out of quality, but they always buy out of necessity first," says Newell. "They set the price that they can afford to pay for the project that they actually need it for, and we hope they will contextualize the specific need of that particular image, mapped against the difficulty of actually getting it shot."