Making Money For The Flickr Flock?
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Reporter's Notebook: Should Flickr, Yahoo's photo-sharing property, become an eBay for photos?
I wouldn't ask if a Flickr founder hadn't told me he was wondering the same thing.
I talked with both the founders, Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield, last week at a little fete in midtown Manhattan to celebrate the winners of the "blink of an eye" contest.
When they told me Flickr now has over 4 million users and 200 million uploaded photos, I imagined half of Manhattan crouched over flowers in the park, hoping for the right light.
That's a lot of "interestingness," the metric Flickr used to determine the popularity of pictures on the site.
But here's the problem. Flickr has money issues. In fact, so do most popular social media sites, even the popular ones such as YouTube.
They can't sell search ads because they don't do Web search.
And they can't sell brand advertising because there are Mentos candies and there are Diet Coke bottles and the brand manager's Bible decrees, "Thou shalt not combine them in videos near my precious product, lest ye plan to sell it to weirdos."
Butterfield himself told me Flickr's experiment with contextual advertising ended badly. Animal rights activists do not appreciate fur coat advertisements next to their protest photos. The ads came down.
Due to the limited options, social media sites end up with banner ads from nobody you've heard of, earning cents for each impression. And Yahoo didn't acquire Flickr to get into that kind of pennies-over-pennies business.
So how does Flickr pay the bills? Right now, Fake said, Flickr earns most of its money from premium subscriptions it sells to some of its members.
Fake couldn't say whether subscriptions were a part of Flickr's long-term monetization plans. But Butterfield could.
He called subscriptions one of the "core ways" Flickr will make money in the future.
He also said that there were other opportunities, such as brand advertising, contextual ads, search ads and, well, then he stopped short.
"We don't talk about upcoming initiatives," he said. "But I will say that even today, a lot of people buy photos from Flickr users. But people have to know the person, and send them a Flickr mail and they have to negotiate a price.
"It's a very high-friction process. Taking the friction out of that would be one of things Flickr could do to monetize," he said. "But we haven't made any announcements."
But he went into details.
First off, Butterfield said, Flickr photos wouldn't be the same product that photo buyers find on a stock photo site like Jupiterimages or even iStockphoto, which is a kind of Flickr for professionals known for its "crowd-sourcing."
Butterfield said those sites typically trade in typical business brochure-friendly photos. For instance, he added, they would sell an image of a group of ethnically diverse 40- and 30-somethings using computers or maybe of two men shaking hands.
Flickr photos would find a different niche on the marketplace, but still a viable one, he added. And then it begins to make sense. Flickr photos are typically more, personal, more artistic.
When I gave Butterfield my card, he saw that I worked for JupiterWeb, which shares a parent company with Jupiterimages.
"Ah," he said, "Jupiter, No. 3 in the business."
Before the interview ended, I pointed out that iStockphoto already has a good 23,000 contributing photographers.
That's when Butterfield reminded me of Flickr's 4 million.
Now that's a crowd to source, I thought.