The Two Opportunities for Marketers and Brands in Unsplash’s New Service

Analyzing the implications of their new paid offering

Thomas Smith
Dec 12, 2019 · 8 min read
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All photos courtesy of the author unless otherwise noted

Last month, I published an article about the massive brand reach (and hidden risks) of the free stock photo website Unsplash.

In the article, I speculated about how Unsplash makes money. My best guess was that brands were paying Unsplash to place photos featuring their products on the Unsplash website and to rank them highly in search.

When people use these images in blog posts, presentations, etc., I speculated, the companies working with Unsplash got valuable organic exposure for their products and brands.

Since Unsplash images receive billions of views per month (they’re already at 13 billion for December), the value for brands is clearly there. Put a photo on the site, pay a bit to boost it, and you could have thousands of potential customers seeing and using it every day.

Unsplash’s Model, Revealed

Well, it turns out I was right!

Today Unsplash revealed “Unsplash for Brands”, a new service that lets brands pay for exposure on the site. They were explicit about saying that this new feature is how they plan to make money; they even reference the internet’s “wild ideas” about their business model in their announcement.

Unsplash describes Unsplash for Brands like this:

Over the past few months, we’ve been working with a selection of companies…Each company shared branded images on Unsplash that capture their brand goals. The images then appear promoted in Unsplash feeds and under relevant searches, where they’re downloaded and used by creators reaching an audience of more than 300 million people each month. Each of these campaigns… pay to distribute their images on Unsplash.

It’s eerily close to my own speculation about their business model:

An increasing amount of sponsored content is appearing on Unsplash. These photos are still free to use, but show a brand’s product, usually in a favorable way. For a brand, the appeal of posting these photos is obvious. Unsplash’s massive audience comes along and uses them in droves, and all of a sudden your product…[is] adorning blogs and articles all over the Internet, building awareness. It’s likely that [brands] are working directly with Unsplash, paying a fee to have their products… appear in top positions in Unsplash’s search results.

You read it here first, folks!

Unsplash officially shared that Google, Harley-Davidson, Square, Boxed Water, Le Creuset, and Timberland are all customers, but it’s likely that even more brands are already using the service.

What Does it All Mean?

Besides giving me an opportunity to pat myself on the back, what does Unsplash’s announcement mean for marketers and brands?

Well, for starters, it means Unsplash’s images will remain free. That’s not really surprising, though. If your whole brand equity is based around the fact that you give something away for free, then you can’t very well start charging for it.

What’s more interesting about Unsplash’s business model announcement is that it creates a whole new opportunity for marketers to reach customers with their brands and products.

With traditional advertising, you’re paying to reach potential customers with an ad, and hoping they convert.

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Traditional ads scream out to the viewer and hope for conversions.

What Unsplash is offering is a bit different. Rather than trying to reach customers with ads, you’re giving then something of value (free pro-quality photos) in exchange for exposure and organic reach.

In that way, Unsplash’s new model is a bit like content marketing. Only in this case, the content isn’t articles, ebooks, webinars, and the normal fare, but rather well-produced, free shots of your product, that visitors can use for whatever they’d like.

What’s Old is New Again

Unsplash has an unprecedented reach and a massively engaged audience — perhaps the biggest for visual content anywhere in the world, at any point in history. But really, its just-announced business model is nothing new.

For more than 100 years, marketers in the entertainment industry have given away images for free in exchange for exposure and reach.

Music promoters, for example, have long sent high-quality glossy headshots of their artists and bands to newspapers and other media, hoping for coverage, and thus free publicity.

And film production companies have always done this, too — my company works with archives, and many of our newspaper archive collections have film stills going back to the 1940s or earlier. Studios would send these out to newspapers, hoping it would spark a review of the film and drive customers to the theaters.

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A promotional film still, 1950

Unsplash’s business model is very similar — companies pay them to distribute free content showing the company’s brands or products, with the hope that the images will get used, and the brand or product will find customers.

The only difference is that marketers have traditionally sent film stills and headshots to selected publishers and media companies, whereas Unsplash is sending them to, well… everybody.

Courageous Brands

That difference, in and of itself, is extremely important. Traditionally, marketers were very selective about how their publicity shots and film stills could be used. Many publicity photos — including the example above — have rights information printed right on the photo itself, with statements like “Cleared for newspaper use. No television.” When the images are licensed today, those original rights restrictions are still respected.

Some marketers would even go a step further and include language on the backs of their publicity shots demanding that users return the photo to them after it was used. For the most part, newspapers cheerfully ignored this and instead filed the photos in their own archives and morgues.

For a brand, placing photos on Unsplash is very different. As I’ve discussed before, Unsplash places almost no restrictions on how images are used. Visitors to the site can use them in essentially any kind of media, for editorial or commercial purposes.

This means that brands who choose to place content on Unsplash need to be very courageous, and very confident in their products. That nice, glossy shot of a Chromebook, likely placed on Unsplash by Google?

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Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

It could go at the top of a millennial-centered blog post about aspirational travel. Or it could go at the top of a negative review bashing the product.

Likewise, content from cosmetics brands could easily be circulated on makeup blogs. But it could also be used in an expose about animal testing, toxic ingredients, or the dangers of setting societal norms around beauty.

Brands on Unsplash — like the photographers that post the bulk of the site’s materials — have zero control over how their collateral is used. They can put the content out there, but the site’s users have the right to use it however they see fit — even in ways that might damage the brand.

In this way, Unsplash for Brands is a bit like influencer marketing. You send your product to a well-known Instagram influencer, or perhaps even pay them to create content about it. You can dictate the terms of the engagement a bit, but in many ways, they’re free to say whatever they want about you, your brand, and the product itself.

That’s not necessarily a problem. Some brands might relish controversy and the viral attention it delivers. Or they might trust their products and users so much that they’re not afraid of receiving negative responses. Or they might hope their legal team can find a way to bury any uses they don’t like.

Either way, though, putting sponsored content on Unsplash takes courage. If you’re a marketer considering using the new platform, make sure you’re comfortable defending your choices when unflattering or critical uses of the images appear. And make sure your superiors are comfortable defending those choices, too.

You could end up with fantastic reach, and incredible, organic content around your brand. But there are risks too — again, don’t cross the road blindfolded.

Getting on Board

If you think like Unsplash for Brands is a fit for your organization, what’s the next step? You can reach out to Unsplash and set up a partnership. That’s clearly the best choice for big brands.

But here’s the really interesting thing about the platform: since anyone can post photos to the site, you don’t actually need their permission to create your own version of Unsplash for Brands right now — even if you’re a small company, a niche brand, or a nonprofit.

Take your products, think about your brand goals, and find a photographer whose work you like. Hire them as a freelancer to shoot your brand or product in a way that matches your goals. You could even browse through Unsplash to find your photographer, since it provides a really easy way to view lots of peoples’ work. If it fits with your brand, you could take some shots yourself on a cell phone.

Make sure that your product’s origins are really obvious in the images — remember that Unsplash often doesn’t include any descriptions with their images, so your photos have to stand alone without any text or other copy explaining what’s in them. Products with logos, iconic locations, a well-known container or design are all a great fit.

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

A man working out while holding a Red Bull would be great.

A Redbull and vodka in a highball glass, without the actual Redbull can present, wouldn’t get its point across.

Then, upload your content to the site, and let the views and uses roll in. Sure, you won’t get the higher search rankings and guaranteed uses that Unsplash for Brands provides.

But remember, a typical photo on the site is already viewed and downloaded thousands or even millions of times. Just by hiring a pro to shoot your photos, you’ll likely find a bigger audience than Unsplash’s average image, since your production quality will be better.

It’s an irony of the platform that they’ve built a business around giving photographers massive reach for free, but now their business plan calls for pitching access to this massive reach as a pay-to-play opportunity. Again, if you’re a major brand, go for it, and enjoy your prime search placement.

But even if you’re not, there’s nothing stopping you from uploading your own branded content to the site and taking advantage of the huge reach it provides to all its contributors. You can leverage this to promote your brand, even if you’re a tiny company or a nonprofit.

As I’ve said before, Unsplash and other free content sites are here to stay. And with today’s announcement, they’re introducing a new way to reach customers with your brand — or at least resurrecting one from the old media world which hasn’t been fully realized in the Internet age.

If you have the courage and the budget, join up with their new initiative. And if you just have the courage, find a photographer, do a shoot, and put the content on there yourself.

Unsplash’s reach is massive, and while there are no guarantees about how your content will be used, there’s potential to reach billions of eyeballs by working with (or working through) the platform — and every marketer should take note of that.

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Thomas Smith

Written by

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. Subscribe: https://bit.ly/33xx752 Email: tom@gadoimages.com

Better Marketing

Marketing advice & case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and efficiently.

Thomas Smith

Written by

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. Subscribe: https://bit.ly/33xx752 Email: tom@gadoimages.com

Better Marketing

Marketing advice & case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and efficiently.

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