What first began as a collection of photos by Unsplash co-founders Steph Liverani, Mikael Cho, and Luke Chesser has grown to a unique collection of almost 2.5 million photos from talented photographers around the globe — and a new ad revenue stream involving distinctive branded images.
In December 2019, Unsplash launched Unsplash for Brands, a native ads platform that gives companies like Google, Microsoft, Timberland, and Samsung new ways to present their products beyond traditional ads.
These native ads act as ‘stock photos’ that highlight promoted products in context, within the image, and which can be discovered via the Unsplash feed or relevant searches.
For instance, a search for “small business” returns a variety of business-related stock photos — including one of a merchant using a Square device. This image is promoted by Square and can be downloaded just like any other image on Unsplash. If the photo is then used publicly by the user, that’s increased visibility for Square around the Internet.
What’s so innovative about the ad unit is it’s a win-win-win. Users searching for photos may find these branded images relevant and valuable (Square, after all, conjures up the image of a small business); advertisers get visibility both on and off Unsplash’s site; and Unsplash has created a high-margin, user-friendly revenue stream.
We knew there had to be a better way to monetize visual media on the internet.
"We looked at what made Unsplash unique: we can drive more people to an image than any other platform. And we thought, ‘How could we turn this unique attribute into a business model? What we can do for any image, we can do for any brand.’"- Luke Chesser, Head of Product
We had a lot of the infrastructure there already as we built the stats system for contributors — but we’ve been gradually building the ad serving system over the past two years.
It took a couple months to build the first version of the ad platform.
We then did a full year of beta testing with brands, well-known and relatively unknown, across 12 verticals to validate the performance of our ad product.
"It’s always better to present in person, but to date, we’ve completed all our sales remotely. There’s a new comfort level, even for larger budget media sales, due in large part to the pandemic — and being able to sell well digitally gives you an advantage. It requires some different skills, but if you can master it, it will likely be useful and result in more sales than you expect."
- Mikael Cho, CEO"
We approach building new products the same way: What’s the version we can create that results in a differentiated solution with the least cost (time and money)?
"Unsplash for Brands started as an email pitch, which became a deck, which became a working ad product using most of our existing infrastructure. At each point, we didn’t build more until the current systems broke from too much demand."- "Steph Liverani, Chief Partnerships Officer
We aimed to define a new business model for imagery in the digital era — one that aligns with how people want access to images, how images are being created, and our mission.
The business model that aligned the best with all these was enabling brands to share their images on Unsplash.
Brands are after distribution. People are looking to use high quality images. And our mission is to push the impact of imagery further than ever before by giving everyone access to quality visuals so they can create.
One of the most interesting things is people download and use branded images at the same rate as the organic images posted on Unsplash.
We measure brand awareness with views and downloads. We measure brand perception using a variety of brand lift metrics, including favorability, associations, and purchase intent.
"Scale and differentiation will make everything ten times easier. Either alone won’t be enough but if you have both, you will stand out."- Mikael Cho
We will get better at allowing brands to better understand the impact of their visuals on the Internet, as well as more insights into topics they care about (i.e., if I’m Samsung, how am I doing organically? Are more people sharing images of Samsung — that's a signal for increased favorability and cultural relevance. And how many of the visuals for mobile phones are Samsung? Is it increasing or decreasing?).
Define your unique difference. Align everything about your ad product with that.
Our unique difference was we can get more people to see an image than any other platform. We aligned our positioning, pricing, product, everything around this.
Steph Liverani, Luke Chesser, and Mikael Cho are the founders of Unsplash. It wasn't supposed to be a company. Founded in 2013 as a Tumblr blog, Unsplash has since grown into the most-used image asset platform in the world. With more than 100 million image downloads and 20 billion views a month, Unsplash is used more than Flickr, Getty, and Shutterstock combined. The photos on Unsplash are contributed by a community of photographers, ranging from amateurs and professionals to organizations including NASA, Library of Congress, SpaceX, and United Nations.
Many thanks to Steph, Mikael, and Luke for sharing their time, insights, and advice.