Dan Heller's Photography Business Blog Industry analysis from www.danheller.com

The photography world -- the business, the culture, the art, the politics, the technology.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Off-topic: Gift Cards

[ Update: The New York Times wrote this column several days after I posted this entry. It's full of detailed industry data. ]

Though I never talk about it, I had a consulting contract a very long ago with a company that wanted to do something in the credit card business. I was involved for about a year, and the while the idea itself was great, it never got off the ground because of a critical "last puzzle piece" that couldn't be solved. I eventually did (and filed a patent), but it was after the company fizzled, and I had no desire to enter into the "payment" business. So, there it stays in my history pages.

But just today, I was talking with someone that said the following:

"I've heard that prepaid debit cards are really bad gift ideas..."

This prompted me to vent a long-standing issue I've had with credit card companies.

The main reason people don't like gift cards is because when the card gets down to about $10 or less, they become virtually unusable. Although you can go to a store and say, "charge the first $7.43 on this gift card and the rest on this regular credit card," it's very rare that people do this. And you certainly can't do that online. So, your $50 gift turns out to only be worth $42.67, and Visa/MC makes a handsome15% profit.

In this sense, gift cards to visa are the victim of their own success. People see the lack of value in the cards, and don't adopt them nearly as much as the card companies would like (or had expected).

The question is, what can card companies do to raise the rate of adoption while not giving up too much on the margins? Remember, the card companies *don't* want you to use up all your credit--otherwise, they give up the margins that makes them worthwhile (to the card company). And they don't suddenly gain new customers just because someone uses a gift card.

Now, one could argue that, as long as they make the same 1-3% margins on the gift cards as they do with regular cards (this 1-3% is the rate that the merchant pays on the total cost of your order), that should be good enough. Well, administration of the gift card program is a bit more expensive, and besides, there's plenty of room to optimize margins anyway. So, don't get me wrong: I don't fault the companies for using gift cards for profit motive at much higher rates. I fault them for not being more intelligent about this in ways to service both themselves and us, the consumers who could benefit from them. Their challenge is to increase overall revenue by finding the sweet spot in the increased adoption vs. the decrease in margins.

The way to do that is by making it easier to use that unused credit in high margin products or services, such as a visa-run online store where they sell products from co-marketing partners (where the co-marketing effort yields more revenue). This would be especially useful for non-physical goods, such as downloadable products, like music, games, movies, etc.

Or, allow gift card holders to apply unused dollars to their Visa Rewards program, which is pretty good, albeit under-appreciated, largely because most people opt for other programs with their visa cards, like airline miles (see below). This would do more to raise adoption rate of the program and potentially convert users to their "real" card. (That should ultimately be one of their prime motivations, yet it's not effectively promoted that way.)

Card companies should also consider developing helpful payment services that make it easier for online retailers to accept multiple card payments, or partner with paypal or google to allow users to register these cards in exchange for a portion of the margins.

Industry research shows that most "reward" programs usually yield the consumer about 1% of his money back, but getting that value is not entirely easy, nor is it immediate. It takes time. A research study I read in the NYTimes some years ago showed that the best programs are those that simply pay you cash back--even at 1%, this was best for consumers. Ironically, airline miles yield the least return, but people opt for them because having more unused miles gives other benefits like premier status that allows access to airline clubs at airports, and advanced positions when upgrading and other things -- all these require high mileage values creating a disincentive to ever "spend" your miles. This makes the "statistic" that credit card airline programs yield low rates of return a bit murky.

The point about reward programs as anyone in the consumer business knows, it garners much more revenue and profit than the 1% you give up to attract the users. Yet, gift card programs don't even attempt to tie into this. Such programs and co-marketing efforts could be more profitable if the card company was willing to make only 5-6% margins (instead of 15%) and offset that with a 10% increase in the rate of adoption, if they were only kinder to the consumer.

Ok, that's my vent. This is not a topic (or field) I will be watching at all, unless it happens to come across the mainstream press. I'm more than happy staying out of this business.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Time-Lapse of the Sky over Puglia, Italy

Once again, I have new time-lapse videos up on YouTube, and the latest is this series of scenes from Puglia, Italy (the southern "heel" of the boot):

If you don't see the video displayed above, see this link.

On a separate note, I'm also offering a 50% discount on print orders, and an additional 10% off on book orders through Christmas. Use the discount code "xmas" when placing an order.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why there's no one-stop shop for photo buyers

I got an interesting email today from someone that prompted me to address a question on many people's minds: why hasn't a single website emerged as the "primary" place to license images? As those in the photo industry know, Getty sells quite a bit, and microstocks fall behind them, followed in turn by a smattering of pro photographers and others who do well as individuals. But, with the trillions of photos on the web, and with the sheer magnitude of opportunity, what's really the barrier to growth?

Here's an excerpt from his email:

do you think that there could be an issue with just straight up too much content for buyers (all buyers)? Say for example - there was a website that everyone knew was the place to buy and sell images for any sort of use (commercial, etc.)? Couldn't there still be too many shots of a 'dog'? ... if all the buyers/sellers universally knew this was the place for images - wouldn't the back-end functionality of a site like this take an army of programmers to design? I have to wonder why something like this doesn't already exist or is in development by a major player like google?

Saying that there's too many photos out there is like saying that Google can't index the web because there are too many sites. And thinking that there could be a single go-to site for buyers and sellers is like saying that there's could be single go-to site to buy electronics. There aren't because there's competition, etc. But, the reason why there's a viable, stable market for electronics (unlike photos) is because there are mechanisms in place that help establish price points, distributors, manufacturers, and so on. In short, it's a mature industry.

The same cannot be said of the photo industry for a variety of reasons.

To begin, it's not that there's "too much content" it's that there's no reliable mechanism for sifting through it. Go to images.google.com and type "two men shaking hands" -- a common image search for business purposes. Though the matches are generally accurate, the results are also entirely arbitrary. We have no idea if these are popular images, or they are shot by famous people, or if they are "current", or even whether the source (website) is ranked highly.

The same is true for every website that displays photos--buyer website or not. "Arbitrary results" is why buyers have trouble finding what they want quickly and easily. Yet, despite the huge number of sites that talk about "swine flu", a quick search on that topic usually gets you exactly what you want on the first page. You can even misspell it -- say, "swing flu" and still do well.

So the first problem that people have to solve is search. And this is irrespective of where people go. Now, people can argue about whether real buyers go to search engines or to stock agency sites, but the technology barrier exists nonetheless. Who's going to solve it? It cannot--by definition--be a stock agency. Why? Because they will not (and cannot) return results that are photos they cannot represent.

Whether now or in the future, search engines will be how most people (yes, buyers) find photos.

Now that's not to say that companies like Getty couldn't solve the problem. In fact, they should. To do so, however, they would change their business model from being an exclusive seller to one that acts as a proxy for others -- a grand middle-man, much like how Visa and Mastercard merely enable transactions with an infrastructure. They don't actually participate in the transaction itself.

The reason why Getty won't be coming to the table here is that they suffer from two basic errors in their understanding of the photo industry: first and foremost, they don't see the market outside of their existing world of traditional ad/media buyers. Yes, that's a big industry, and Getty services them adequately. But it's tiny in the broader world of image licensing transactions. And this leads to their second grave misunderstanding: the belief that the best way to service buyers is to have limited content that's hand-edited by seasoned photo editors.

This is not in keeping with the internet today. As we have all learned in the past decade, Web 2.0 means that the "crowd" is the editor, and order among the crowd is achieved by applying intelligent ranking algorithms, tracking their behaviors, and mining user preferences to glean predictability. Getty doesn't do this. No one does this. (Well, google does with their regular text search for non-image content.)

Getty's model of knowing and understanding what buyers want is fine if you have one-to-one relationships with them, and that's what Getty's good at. I'm not suggesting that Getty doesn't keep what they have in-house. It's what they don't have -- what needs to be built -- that they lack, and what the industry needs.

For the industry to become "mature", there must exist two main functions: (1) a search and ranking system that returns reliably accurate results beyond any measure we see today, and (2) a predictable and viable pricing model that represents a true market-maker commodity market.

Granted, these are not simple problems to solve, but there is precedent for similar algorithms. For instance, Google took quite a few years before they came up with just the right mix of variables and weightings to determine which web pages match a given user's search criteria. A similar list of factors can be derived to determine quality image searches in a variety of contexts.

In the photo world, everyone looks to metadata (such as keywords) as the primary factor, but that's quickly morphing into something else. It's a longer discussion to have, but it sums up this way: google stopped looking at web pages' "keywords" field in metadata because it became unreliable--the system can be gamed, and bad players were ruining the reliability of google results by lying about the content of their web pages. Google solved this problem by no longer looking at web pages' keywords settings, and did their own semantic analysis of web pages to determine what keywords should really be associated with them.

It's not that "keywords" themselves will go away in images, but the future of image search will go well beyond user-editable metadata. Factors like "age" (current-ness), supplier, number of views, frequency of (published) use, and automated programmatic analysis about images to assess various conceptual attributes as well. Hard? You betcha. Yet, just as it took google years to come up with their "hundreds of variables" that determine a web site's ranking for any given search term, so too will effort have to go into determining the relevancy of any given photo search.

There are various image recognition algorithms that can begin to move in this direction, but once you get into the science of it, the field is much broader than people think. There are proximity algorithms to determine if two images are the same, there are content algorithms to determine image characteristics (color, textures, emptiness, focus, etc.), and pattern recognition (faces, emotions, objects, and other patterns). Underneath every image recognition algorithm must be a hierarchical database of seed information to spin the world into motion so that trillions of images can be automatically processed from web crawlers continuously.

And this science isn't just to determine search relevancy: it would also be used by an auction-based system to set pricing for a trading system, exactly like how google prices keywords for its advertising system. This is not simple college algebra, but it's also not science fiction. Similar models have been built to create efficiencies for more complex markets than photo licensing. (Personally, I envision a structure similar to the formulas used for pricing stock options. Here, rather than having a big/ask market of quotes, prices are derived from external data based on aggregating a weighting of historical pricing patterns for images with similar characteristics.)

So, who's going to do it? Therein lies the $64,000 question.

Here, there are two problems: As just described, there's a lot of technology here, ranging from all the various image-search algorithms to the pricing analytics. This by itself is already way beyond what any one company has done. So, whoever's going to attempt this must likely be large enough to go on a bit of a buying spree.

Secondly, there needs to be a general realization that there's money to be made. This is difficult when the cultural behaviors around photos is to share, steal, or do whatever you want. Most investors don't really see the "vision" of a viable worldwide market with these sorts of things become further embedded in our online social fabric. This, despite the fact that research shows that photo licensing is still a $25B industry anyway. Comprised mostly of peer-to-peer transactions, it is now precisely how the online advertising industry was before Google.

More reading on the true size of the photo industry can be found here.

Google could solve both problems outlined above, but that would introduce another problem: They are in the advertising business. If they were to enter a business that monetized content on the web, it would bring into question the objectivity of their search/ranking algorithms, which is the only reason people trust their advertising model. That is, buyers and advertisers believe the pricing model because Google currently has no financial interest in monetizing the content on any given site.

What the world needs is a search engine from a company whose business model is not to sell advertising. Yahoo is becoming a much more likely candidate for something like this (as I'd noted in this blog post), but the catch-22 here is that if they were that visionary, they'd have started this kind of development with their Flickr property years ago. Yes, Flickr could be a good launch pad for such an endeavor, but Flickr's too busy with other things to bother with such fantasies.

Then there's Microsoft: they have the money and the infrastructure to actually accomplish this feat, especially given their efforts to build a good search engine. Their physical and political proximity to Corbis (started by Bill Gates) could also be a substantial contributor to the transaction and pricing models that will be needed.

But I dont' have faith that we'll be seeing headlines in these areas anytime soon. That may change with the evolution of Web 3.0... For that, see this post:


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