The top 4 things I learned from launching a photo library on our subscription service

Avoid big product launches, listen, measure to move and inspire

Photographer holding a cardboard camera by stokkete
Before I jump into the lessons, first, the obligatory explanation: Envato? What’s an Envato? You may not have heard of Envato, but if you work in the digital creative space, chances are you will have heard of our marketplaces: ThemeForest, VideoHive, and GraphicRiver, to name a few. Envato is the leading marketplace for creative digital assets — including WordPress themes, code, photos, video, audio, and more.
Envato Elements is our subscription service. It includes top quality content from across our marketplaces, now, including photos!

Lesson 1: Big bang product launches can go bang. Avoid them if you can.

Hand Holding Rocket Spaceship on Yellow Background by Rawpixel

For the sake of time I won’t go into the reasons why, but, the situation dictated a big bang launch. All or nothing.

The photos project had been running for over a year at Envato. Multiple teams across multiple departments have been devising a strategy, curating a photo library, building tech and formulating a marketing plan destined for millions of people.

To add fuel to that fire, the photos project was built on a brand spanking new tech stack*. It hadn’t experienced any load, let alone the hundreds of thousands of people that were about to trample all over it.

I’d been in the team for a month and I was tasked with co-managing the launch of Photos with my Development Manager, Lindsay. I was, figuratively, crapping myself.

But, I had (and still have) a great partner in crime with Lindsay. He, also figuratively crapping himself, suggested that in lieu of an MVP approach, we could release incrementally.

Our first release was to the ~300 staff at Envato. Our main objective was to watch the tech stack, looking for any signs that it might fall over. It didn’t! We also found that people from all over the company had become emotionally connected to our product. When they were given early access and asked for their opinions, it made them feel like they were a part of it. People from all over the business truly wanted our project to succeed and went out of their way to help make that happen.

Then we released to 5% of users, then a day later we went to 20%, then… we found a problem! A serious problem. I won’t go into the specifics, but, if we didn’t find it there and then, there was a good chance that the entire site could have gone down. It was an easy fix, but an incredibly important one.

Once that was sorted out, we steadied our nerves and went to 50%. Then, just over a week after our first internal release, we took a deep breath and we went for it.

SUCCESS!

Through this I learned that where possible, you should segment your product, minimum viable product style. Where you can’t, you should segment your release, Brett and Lindsay style**.

*Not sure what a ‘tech stack’ is? Skip to the end for a tech-jargon cheatsheet.

**Incremental releases are a standard approach. It was not invented by myself nor Lindsay. It has never before and in all probability will never again will be referred to as “Brett and Lindsay Style”. You may be laughed at if you use that term in public.

Lesson 2: Listen.

listening music by Determined

We recently sent a survey to 15,000 customers who had browsed our new photo library, both subscribers and potential subscribers. From the results, one obvious yet bold truth rang the loudest: if we help people find the photo they’re after, they’re more likely to subscribe or to continue subscribing.

25% of unsubscribed users who didn’t find the photo/s they were after would be willing to subscribe in the future; 75% of users who found the photo/s they were after said that they were very likely to subscribe in the future.

I have a long list of insanely cool features that I’d love to prioritise for photos. But, first and foremost, our mission must be solving our user’s core problem. In our case, that’s helping photo buyers find the photos they’re looking for.

From this I was humbly reminded to listen to our users. Research, research, research. And to focus on understanding and solving the problems that really matter, first.

Lesson 3: Measure to move.

Man Running in Winter Woods by sportpoint74

Understanding what you want to achieve from a project right from the start is fundamental. It helps shape the business case. But, it’s integral that we don’t stop thinking about success metrics there.

In agile software delivery, we learn about the product as we’re building it and we feed that understanding back into the design.

As a project is built, it evolves.

We craft each user interaction with the intention of increasing overall conversion and retention. As these interactions are fleshed out during the build, we make assumptions as to how these interactions will perform. Measuring the success of these interactions takes us from assuming what choices led to overall success, to knowing. It gives us the power to iterate with confidence.

When I arrived on the team, the requirements detailing the data to be recorded were long since finalised. They included churn, the number of subscribers downloading photos, etc. It didn’t, however, capture recording the interactions mentioned above. And I, madly focused on on executing the plan, didn’t think to adapt the plan.

I’m now working with our Analytics teams to retrofit capturing some key metrics. It would have been easier to bake these in prior to launch, and I would already have a month’s worth of data.

From this I learned two main things:

  1. Don’t join a team one month away from shipping a huge project (that one was a joke).
  2. Plans are meant to be written in pencil. Not pen. Respond to change over following a plan.

Lesson 4: Photo buyers do come to buy photos, but they also come to be inspired.

Fog in mountains by Galyna_Andrushko

This is my favourite Elements lesson so far. An assumption was made early on that Elements would mainly be used by digital creatives at the end of a project. The thinking was that people would take their projects as far as they could, then look elsewhere to fill the gaps. As it turns out, more often than not, that isn’t the case. Of the customers interviewed, we found that the majority used Elements at the beginning of their projects.

When we asked customers why they used Envato Elements at the start of a project, the majority replied “to find inspiration”. Adding photos has increased this. Even more customers are choosing to use Elements earlier in their projects.

It makes a lot of sense in hindsight. The ability to download multiple photos without fear of choosing the wrong one and experiment with those photos in the context of your own project, all before choosing which photo to licence, is empowering.

When I first joined the team I spent a lot of time looking at competitors. I remember being shocked that it wasn’t uncommon to find sub par photos on other stock photo sites being sold for upwards of $50 with conditional licensing! That’s a lot of pressure to get it right on the first go.

Side note: Elements is only $29 a month and all items come with one, simple licence. Do the math. Unlimited photos plus all other unlimited assets. Get on it.

This understanding has shaped the design of subsequent features and iterations. Not everyone knows exactly what photo they want when they start looking. Often, they have no idea at all. They’re looking for us to help them. They’re looking for inspiration.

This was a healthy reminder to identify and challenge assumptions. No matter how long held and solid they look, assumptions need to be called out, and, where possible, tested.

The End.