How Keywording Can Grow You a Long Tail

As my old journalism lecturer once pointed out, the first word in news is new. It’s a point not lost on celebrity/news photo libraries which put great energy into selling the latest images at the highest possible prices.

However in doing so they may be ignoring a strategy to make them a significant profit and turn their archives from a liability into an asset, something only recently learned by their cousins in the music industry.

In 2004 Chris Anderson wrote an influential article in Wired magazine about The Long Tail. In a nutshell, he argued that as the cost of producing and holding products in the digital age became very low it was possible to make money from the least popular items.

His primary example was the change which had occurred in the music business as more and more titles were available through the likes of ITunes: back catalogues, obscure artists, “unpopular” genres.

For an industry obsessed with making money from chart-topping songs , the most astounding thing was that the number of sales of the less popular material was significant, in fact threatening to eclipse the money being made from the big hits.
Anderson illustrated this “New Marketplace” like this:

The Long Tail was the section of the graph which illustrated that the more products you could afford to offer, the more sales you made overall, to the extent that sales from the tail probably never reached zero. So whilst sales of the most popular songs at the head were impressive, because the long tail went on virtually endlessly they could end up being the most important part of the graph.

Anderson pointed out that in the days of the record store, when adding space required building stores at great cost, stores which could serve only a limited local population, the tail was stubby and relatively unimportant. No savvy music store owner would give up shelf space to an obscure folk band when the same space could be taken up by the latest hit record by Elton John or the Eagles. With the internet all that changed, making the Long Tail a reality. With the digital age it became wise to offer as many choices as possible, and watch the money roll in.

The editorial photo business shares many similarities with the music industry in regards to the Long Tail story: focus on the newest images and the biggest names, large back catalogues of content, the change from physical items (transparencies) to digital (jpegs).

The trick, of course, is to enable buyers to find the content they want as easily as possible. For the music industry this is relatively easy given that even a major artist might produce only a dozen albums, maybe 120 songs, in a lifetime.

At a single photo library that same major artist, Madonna say, can “generate” dozens of images or more per day.

To keep our music industry glasses on for a little longer, imagine if Madonna had produced 10,000 songs and as a buyer there was only one you wanted. Imagine also that the search engine at I-Tunes restricted searches to the name of the artist, and results were returned in random order, 24 on each page. How many people would spend the time or have the stamina to go through all 10,000 songs to find the right one?

It sounds far-fetched, but this is the equivalent of what many celebrity photo libraries ask their clients to do, because the available research tools deliver results based almost completely around the name of the celebrity, (usually from the caption field) and not much else.

Imagine the same hunt for a Madonna song where you could just put the name of the song straight in, or if you didn’t know the name of it perhaps the type of song it was, what year it came from, its subject or part of the title.

That’s what can be achieved if a celebrity/editorial archive is infused with quality keywording – a much better searching experience and the opportunity of up-selling or cross-selling.

The even better news is that the same keywording can improve sales of new and recent images by providing searchability ahead of competitors and even allowing researchers to find the big money shot that somehow got lost in the other 20,000 images of Madonna sitting on the server.
To start making money from the Long Tail, photo libraries can take a few approaches depending on their circumstances: keywording the archive en masse, strategically keywording the parts of the archive thought most valuable (although this to some extent contrary to the idea of the Long Tail), or adopting a conveyor-belt approach. The conveyor belt is where a photo library elects at a certain point to keyword all new production, thus gaining the benefit of searchability for new and old alike, constantly adding value to the archive and turning it from a dormant liability taking up space on servers , into a growing revenue earner.

For some, this may require a change of thinking about the importance of research and how to make it easier.

For the bigger photo libraries it is now commonplace to limit the number of results from research to say the first 2,000 pictures. On the web that has some operational advantages, but is really an indictment on the keywording/research strategy, as such limits prune the Long Tail and reduce revenue. Much better to be able to refine a search to get a manageable number of results and see all the images which are relevant.

It is likely that the photo libraries which manage to utilise the Long Tail will be the survivors in the content wars of the 21st Century – not just because of the direct sales made, but because of the overall convenience to picture buyers wanting to limit the number of libraries they visit amongst the multitudes.

In the music industry, the success of I-Tunes’ huge searchable selection has made it a market leader. In the picture business some would argue that Getty Images and a few others are on the same track, something which should give every photo library owner pause for thought.