Unsplash's Monetization Strategy

New ways to generate revenue for Unsplash?

If you’ve used free images and videos from the web, especially open-licensed ones, you probably wondered what keeps them going! How do they ever earn? Who pays them when all they do is give things for free? Well, today’s when I answer all these questions for you.

Unsplash, the beloved free image/video platform, stands at a crossroads. With millions of users and over 3 million (and still growing) high-quality images, it faces the unique challenge of monetizing a free library.

Today, we’ll explore new monetization ways for Unsplash to generate revenue without sacrificing its core value proposition and alienating its loyal community. Let's dissect this case study.

The Birth of Unsplash

The story of Unsplash's birth wasn't a planned venture, but rather a happy accident fueled by frustration and generosity. Here's how it unfolded…

In 2013, Mikael Cho, founder of Crew (a freelance marketplace), struggled to find the perfect image for his company's website. Existing stock photo sites offered either low-quality options or restrictive licenses with annoying watermarks.

Mikael Cho

Frustrated, he hired a photographer for a photoshoot.

The photoshoot yielded more images than needed. Instead of letting them gather dust, Cho decided to share them for free. He uploaded 10 high-resolution photos to a simple Tumblr blog, calling it "Unsplash" and offering them for anyone to use, for any purpose, without attribution or cost.

Fun Fact ⚡️ 

The name "Unsplash" originated from a typo while searching for keywords related to "beautiful free photos.". The orginal word is still a mystery.

The Viral Spark

Within hours, the photos attracted thousands of downloads. News spread on Hacker News, propelling Unsplash to the top of the platform. Suddenly, Cho was faced with a new problem: where to find more photos?

Click to expand

Cho added a "Submit a Photo" button to the Tumblr blog, not expecting much. To his surprise, talented photographers around the world started uploading their work. Unsplash transformed from a personal project into a vibrant community platform.

Fueled by the community's contributions and Cho's dedication, Unsplash grew rapidly. The platform switched to a dedicated website, the photo collection expanded, and features like collections and curated lists were added.

Today, Unsplash boasts over 3 million images, 2 million contributors, and millions of users worldwide.

Enhancing Unsplash’s Existing Monetization Models

Let’s take a deeper look at Unsplash’s existing revenue streams, and how we can improve them to generate more revenue.

1. Expand Premium Subscriptions

Currently, Unsplash offers a premium subscription called Unsplash+. The benefits they currently provide are:

  • Members-only content added monthly

  • Unlimited royalty-free downloads

  • Enhanced legal protections

More value I think they can offer:

  • Exclusive Content: 
    Offer members-only collections curated by renowned photographers, early access to newly uploaded images, or access to a library of premium templates and mockups.

  • Advanced Curation Tools: 
    Create tiered subscription plans with progressively more powerful tools for organization, collaboration, and sharing collections.

  • Direct Photographer Support:
    Connect Plus members directly with photographers for commissioned work or personalized image recommendations.

  • Educational Resources: 
    Provide exclusive tutorials, workshops, or discounts on courses related to photography and visual storytelling.

2. Expand Custom Licensing

Their existing licensing is currently provided for online platform usage and consumption.

How Unsplash can enhance its licensing:

  • Industry-Specific Collections:
    Curate image collections specific to different industries (e.g., fashion, tech, travel) and offer them at higher licensing fees.

  • Targeted Marketing:
    Partner with marketing platforms to showcase curated collections directly to relevant brands and agencies.

  • Direct Connection Platform:
    Develop a marketplace where brands and businesses can browse photographer portfolios and commission work directly.

  • Advanced Licensing Options:
    Offer extended licenses with broader usage rights, like merchandise printing or advertising campaigns.

3. Implement API Usage Fees

Guess what? Their API is 100% open and free to use! However, it’s only for apps/software that meet certain of their terms. The default rate limit is 50 requests per hour, which is known as a Demo status.

Ways to grow revenue from Unsplash’s API:

  • Tiered Usage Plans: 
    Offer free and paid tiers based on the number of API requests, with higher tiers unlocking advanced features and faster download speeds.

  • Volume Discounts: 
    Provide discounts for businesses with consistently high usage.

  • Enterprise Solutions: 
    Develop custom API solutions for large companies with specific needs.

  • Data Insights: 
    Offer paid access to anonymized user data and download trends for businesses to optimize their strategies.

4. Refine Targeted Advertising

Unsplash’s targeting is already quite impressive. However, there’s always scope for improvement.

  • Contextual Targeting: 
    Use AI to analyze user behavior and display ads relevant to their searches and downloads.

  • Brand Partnerships: 
    Partner with relevant brands to display non-intrusive sponsored content within the platform.

  • Interactive Ads: 
    Experiment with interactive ad formats like playable ads or shoppable galleries.

  • Data-Driven Optimization: 
    Continuously analyze ad performance and user feedback to fine-tune targeting and messaging.

Exploring New Ways Of Monetization for Unsplash

Now that we have seen possible ways to enhance existing revenue models, let’s also explore either some new sources of monetization or, ways to trigger, it.

1. Freemium Content

While there exists Unsplash+ exclusive content, we can explore ways to offer freemium content.

  • Limited Free Downloads: 
    Offer a set number of free downloads per month, encouraging upgrades for higher limits. This strategy is usually looked down upon by users, and should be used very wisely. It is better to stay away from it 😅.

    PS: I mentioned it because we’re thinking of all the ways, and not necessarily have to implement them.

  • Rotating Free Selection: 
    Update the free selection regularly, incentivizing users to check back frequently and potentially convert to paid access.

  • Watermarked Free Images:
    Offer free images with a small, hidden watermark for non-commercial use, promoting paid versions for clean visuals.

  • Time-Limited Exclusives: 
    Provide free access to new content for a limited period before moving it to the premium section.

2. Creator-Specific Subscriptions

This strategy can help photographers/content creators on Unsplash gain special recognition for their work.

  • Tiered Subscriptions: 
    Offer different subscription tiers with access to varying levels of exclusive content, early access, and personalized interactions.

  • Direct Communication: 
    Allow subscribers to interact directly with the photographer through Q&A sessions, live streams, or exclusive forums.

  • Community Building: 
    Encourage creators to build their communities within the platform through subscriber-only challenges, contests, or mentorship programs.

  • Revenue Sharing: 
    Ensure fair compensation for creators by sharing a significant portion of subscription revenue directly with them.

3. Curated Collections

These can be considered good-to-haves. These strategies are more aligned towards building the brand strength of Unsplash and gaining an edge among its competitors like Pexels.

  • Partner with Experts: 
    Collaborate with industry professionals, influencers, or tastemakers to curate collections for specific niches and audiences.

  • Theme-Based Collections: 
    Offer collections centered around popular themes, trends, or events, partnering with relevant brands for sponsored content.

  • AI-Powered Recommendations: 
    Utilize AI to personalize collections based on user preferences and search history, potentially offering premium curated lists.

  • Collection Licensing: 
    License curated collections for commercial use by brands and agencies, generating additional revenue for creators and Unsplash.

4. Print-on-Demand Services

Unsplash’s content is highly used online across the internet. These strategies are designed to extend Unsplash’s use cases offline.

  • High-Quality Printing Partners: 
    Integrate with reputable print-on-demand services offering various product options and affordable prices.

  • Profit Sharing with Photographers: 
    Ensure photographers receive a fair share of profits from print sales, promoting their work and incentivizing content creation.

  • Customization Options: 
    Allow users to personalize prints with text, filters, or layouts, encouraging higher engagement and purchase value.

  • Curated Print Collections: 
    Offer pre-designed print collections based on curated themes or collaborations, providing convenient buying options.

5. Educational Resources

Unsplash can become a thought-leader in the Photography and Videography space by launching workshops and certifications.

  • Tutorials and Workshops: 
    Partner with established photographers or educators to offer premium online courses and workshops on various photography skills.

  • Certification Programs: 
    Develop certificate programs recognized by industry professionals, providing value to aspiring photographers and generating recurring revenue.

  • Community-Driven Learning: 
    Encourage experienced photographers to share their knowledge through interactive forums, mentorship programs, or peer-to-peer learning initiatives.

  • Exclusive Content in Courses: 
    Offer access to exclusive Unsplash content as part of premium educational resources, further incentivizing paid subscriptions.

Recommended Action Plans for Product Managers

(from learnings from Unsplash’s monetization study)

1. Deep User Understanding

  • Conduct user research and surveys to understand user needs, preferences, and pain points regarding paid features.

  • Analyze user behavior data to identify potential user segments for targeted monetization strategies.

  • Continuously gather feedback and iterate based on user responses to ensure a positive experience.

2. Community-Centric Approach

  • Involve the community in the ideation and testing of new monetization features.

  • Offer transparent communication about changes and the rationale behind them.

  • Ensure fairness and value for both users and creators in any implemented models.

  • Foster a sense of ownership and contribution within the community through potential revenue-sharing programs.

3. Data-Driven Decisions

  • Track key metrics like conversion rates, revenue generated, and user engagement for each monetization feature.

  • Utilize A/B testing to compare different approaches and optimize for best results.

  • Leverage data insights to personalize user experience and target marketing efforts effectively.

4. Experimentation and Flexibility

  • Be willing to experiment with different monetization models and adapt based on learnings.

  • Stay agile and responsive to market trends and user feedback.

  • Embrace failure as a learning opportunity and iterate quickly to improve.

5. Ethical Considerations

  • Prioritize user privacy and data security in any implemented solutions.

  • Ensure fair compensation for creators and respect their intellectual property rights.

  • Maintain a transparent and ethical approach to advertising and sponsored content.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Lao Tzu
Thank U Reaction GIF by Mauro Gatti

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