If you didn't already have enough to think about submitting microstock work, taking new photos, organising your business or photography related affairs, then the work of setting up your own blog or website and trying to attract buyers to will probably not be something you would look forward to.

While the hobby microstocker can casually upload a few images now and again for the more serious microstock contributors (not necessarily full time) just uploading and then sitting back and waiting for buyers to come would be a big mistake.

This post in aimed at those photographers who already have some sort of an online presence in the form of a blog, gallery or website, mailing group, even a full blown site where they sell their images. Even if you are already using affiliate / referral marketing then this post is designed to guide you into making the most out of each of the microstock agencies.


What are these Schemes?

Affiliate marketing is a model of advertising where publishers (people with websites) include links to an advertisers website in return for some kind of financial reward if a visitor to the publishers website clicks the link and makes a purchase from the advertiser within a specified time.

Most reputable microstock agencies feature an affiliate or referral reward scheme to either attract new photographers to a growing agency or to attract new image buyers. Affiliate marketing is a powerful tool for microstock agencies because of the number of photographers each agency has. The agency in effect has an army of marketers creating links and promoting them. Such marketing efforts may further increase the likelihood of the microstock agency being listed high up google's ranking by improving the page rank "PR" of some of the agency's web pages. In the case of links direct to a photo page this can be a way of highlighting your own photos.


Microstock Referral Schemes

There here are two main types of microstock referral scheme (or affiliate program, both mean the same thing). Some sites pay commissions on referred buyers only, and some pay on both referred buyers and photographers.

Buyer referral - you earn a percentage commission from the amount of money any buyer you refer to an agency spends. This might be just their initial purchase, or a percentage of each purchase for a fixed period (first 6 months for example).

This is the system that most photographers try to earn from. They produce web site links, business cards, blogs or galleries to attract visitors to their work, and then redirect them to a microstock agency to make a sale. In this case it does not matter if the buyer purchases their work or someone else's. You earn a 'double bonus' if the buyer purchases your work because you earn a percentage of the sale from your photo, and also a percentage of the money the buyer spent to buy your photo. If they buy someone else's photo using one of your referral links then you only earn a percentage of the money they spent to buy that photo.

Photographer referral - you earn a percentage of the commission earned when a photographer you referred to the agency has their work downloaded. Typically you might earn 5-10% of their commission which is in turn 30-50% of the original image cost. You might not think that many photographers will be interested in looking at your work, but you'd be surprised how many people visiting your site are not the least bit interested in purchasing photography but are more interested in the style of photo or techniques used to make them (I'd call them photo geeks). Photographer referrals can be quite a lucrative income generator if you can capture the attention of the right kind of people, unfortunately not all agencies pay you for photographer referrals. Just take care not to confuse buyers if your site is primarily aimed as displaying your work for sale, buyers won't want to know all about the aperture you used or how much commission you earn selling photos via xyz.com.


Choosing the Right Links 

We have also produced an overview of microstock sites with affiliate programs, but on its own this list is only part of the bigger picture. It might be true (at time of writing) that crestock pay a higher commission percentage 50% compared to fotolias 15%, but crestock only pay for purchases in the first 6 months whereas Fotolia tell us they will pay commission for any sales in the first 5 years; so which is best? More earnings up front or the possible larger overall long tail? Each agency has its own payment model and price structure that you need to match to your visitors.

Targeting the right microstock site at your visitor demographic is most important, are they professional designers who might be interested in a shutterstock subscription? or are they cheapskates just looking for the lowest cost image above all else? Different demographic will respond to different agencies and to different styles of links. Each microstock agency has a unique selling plan which works better for a particular type of customer, and some sites make a better job at converting visitors you send into buyers.


Types of affiliate links and Where they work best...

Links to your portfolio: Most microstock sites provide this type of link, using the code they provide you can create a simple link something like "View more of my photography at xyz.com". These links are best suited to placement in your email or forum signature, or discrete inclusion anywhere on a website/blog that you might manage. Something like  "If you are interested in seeing more of my images then you can view my work at xyz-stock.com" works well. Some sites allow the links to be targeted to either your portfolio or the site homepage instead.

html link to photography profile


Banners and button code: Allows you to create a visual link to a microstock site similar to that above, if a visitor to your site/blog clicks it then you will earn a referral commission if they sign-up and buy an image. Banners and buttons for microstock sites are probably best used to fill unsold advertising space on a website, users are often 'banner blind' and ignore banners placed at the top of a web page. Square banners in the sidebar seem to work better than traditional rectangular ones. Choice of banner depends on the individual site and several should be tested before settling on a chosen type and location.

shutterstock banner

Some sites host banners for you, some allow you to create and download them to host yourself. If self hosting you will probably need to change or 'rotate' the banner on a regular basis as it will go out of date, or become stale as regular visitors start to become accustomed or 'blind' to it.


Links to an individual image: istockphoto and dreamstime (click the tools tab on the thumbnail page for code) allow you to link to an individual image, either one of your own or one from another photographer. This opens the possibility of creating a gallery of images for sale on your own site, each with a link to a microstock site to allow a purchase.


Red apple
© Photographer: Alexstar | Agency: Dreamstime.com


Most popular/recent Images: Several sites provide code that allows you to display a series of your most recent or most downloaded images, or random popular images from all photographers. Dreamstime amongst others offer this feature, and also allows you to display popular images on the site as a whole. This type of link is suited to sites for both buyers and photographers, and such constantly changing 'eyecandy' often increases click through rate. Photographers are often willing to click on an interesting looking image (but getting them to sign-up to a site is another story.)

dreamstime dynamic portfolio link code


Counters: dreamstime offer small buttons featuring the number of images you have uploaded or sales made, this is probably only useful if your site is targeting photographers who might be interested in the number of sales you have made, perhaps enough to go on and sign-up to sell themselves.

dreamstime counter button


Search Box: A search box allows visitors on your site to search the catalogue of one the microstock agencies, users are typically taken to the agency site to view the results. Shutterstock provide search box code with their referral program. Search boxes are very useful; buyers have an image in mind and are looking for something to buy, microstock sites with millions of images often have the solution for their needs. If your site already has a search feature then pasting searchbox code offers an easier (albeit less slick) way of allowing users to search your site or a microstock agency without the need for complex software integration. One idea is to include the search box on a 'sorry no results found page' and invite visitors to try the same search on a different site with 'millions' of images.

shutterstock search box



Advanced integrations (Microstock APIs)

Dreamstime, Fotolia and several other sites offer an API (application programming interface) which allows a website to interface to the image library of a microstock site. This is the most complex to set-up way to refer buyers, and definitely not for the beginner. For all but the most simple interface you will probably require the skills of a professional web developer.

A simple integration might be placing results from microstock sites into search results on your own site. This works well if you run your own gallery site or sell images from a site. If visitors can't find what they want in your collection then they could be shown results from another site, clicking on the results will transport them to the microstock site to make permanent and download. This is the 'next step' from the search box idea above, visitors can actually see the matching microstock images on your site, this makes for a quite powerful marketing tool.

Case study 1: Look at the way in which sxc.hu (stock xchng) integrates a series of images available to purchase into their search results. In this case the search results happen to be from the microstock site owned by the same company, but it gives a clear example of what an API integration could look like. It's not that people are tricked into clicking on paid these, but if visitors are shown exactly what they want then they can be converted into paying buyers even if they were looking at a site that exists for the purpose of offering images free or charge.

Case study 2: More advance API integrations include sites like pixmac.com (our overview) which allows visitors to browse, buy and download images from fotolia (as well as their own exclusive photos), all this is done without the buyer leaving the pixmac website. In contrast to case study 1, visitors have no idea that a different microstock library was serving the image to them behind the scenes.


What not to do

Just list all your agencies:

list of microstock agency links

While it's admirable that you submit your work to so many sites, it leaves a viewer/buyer wondering:

A: What are all these sites? it's not clear why the links are there, does the average buyer know what microstock is?
B: These images don't seem too exclusive or special if they are on all these sites?
C: Which one shall I buy from? Which one is best?

Buyers don't respond well to overpowering "this site is the best" sales language, but conversely they do not want to spend several minutes looking through each site to find one of  your images. If your site is about for example, cooking (it might be food photography related or just an interest of yours), then someone reading that site might respond to a link like "Find 1000's of great food photos at xyz.com". Visitors to your cooking site probably won't have a clue what dreamstime (et al) is, or what a link inviting them to have a look at "my microstock portfolio" is for.

Spamming: including your affiliate code in any sort of spam email or comment spamming allows anyone who takes offence at the spam an easy way to track you down. Microstock sites take a very dim view of their brand being associated with anti-social 'marketing' and will quickly terminate your account.

Paste some code and sit back: You might strike lucky, but more often you your first ideas will not turn out to be the best. Affiliate marketing is somewhat of a black art. You might have to 'pre-sell' a microstock site with some text so that the buyer is primed to signup and buy even before you send them to the site. Try a few different combinations of the above link types to see which works best for your scenario, monitor the results depending on the link type, agency and the location of the link on your site.

Target the wrong people: If you run a website about you and your photography then it's fairly pointless to include links to your microstock images unless your readers are also photo buyers. If your target audience is typically other photographers then show them things that they will be interested in. e.g. photographer signup referral links and articles about the success you had last month with a new image style or concept. It seems obvious that photographer links are for photographers and image/portfolio links are for buyers but it's surprising how many people forget that and market their work at other photographers, people who very rarely buy stock images!



Typical conversion ratios

I can't answer that one. Lots of people say they receive nothing, I'd suggest that might be due to them placing their links in the wrong place, not getting enough traffic, or targeting the wrong demographic. Stock photo buyers rarely read the blogs of stock photographers who post about noise reduction etc, so placing sales (buy) links instead of photographer recruitment links in those places is likely to generate a lower conversion.

Income from referrals depends on the target audience of your site and marketing strategy, giving cards to buyers or sending out direct marketing will likely cost more but also have a higher conversion rate, conversely placing links with images on a photo gallery, that attracts a lot of 'non buying' visitors who just want to look at photos will result in less response. Of course 0.1% of lots of visitors can be much better than 20% of only a few people.

As example, at crestock of approx 13000 visitors I referred (not from microstockinsider I hasten to add) 243 signed up to the site, do the maths and that's 1 in 56 visitors who clicked on the site actually signed up, and of them approx 50% went on to buy, a pretty good rate from my experience. To contrast, of 1560 visitors I sent to 123rf, just 2 went on to purchase an image, and the value of those sales was a lot smaller! These results are somewhat counter intuitive, the links were placed on a site offering free stock images (low quality) and logic would suggest that such an audience would be more willing to pay low prices of 123rf compared to the higher prices of crestock. Leaving me with one tip from all my experience, trial a few things and see which works best.


But I Already sell Stock via my own Website

You can't please all of the people all of the time. If they can't find a solution to their need for an image from your site then you can do a lot worse than to send them to a microstock site where they should be able to find something to cover all but the most esoteric requirements, the larger the collection the more likely they are to find what they want and make a sale.


Comparison and links to all agencies featured in this guide

At a glance: microstock site referral programs

Microstock API access reference



Chris's picture

Banner Ads

Chris (not verified) on Wed, 2011-01-05 12:53
I have placed afew banner ads down the side of my website with absolutely zero success. It's a difficult one to get right as if your website is primarly somewhere you are selling your photographic services why would anyone be interested in your generic stock photography too? I found the only success I had was when I wrote a review of Isyndica for them (before they shut down RIP :() saying how useful it had been to me. I think the best way (to capture fellow photographers) of the options you've stated above is to specifically write about a microstock site and how you're doing there. Anyone coming across that blog post would most probably a photographer looking for advice about the site and after reading about your successes there will most likely follow through one of your links to signup. Good article and a lot of thought provoking ideas. Thanks.
Steve Gibson's picture

Articles that pre-sell work

Steve Gibson on Fri, 2011-01-07 00:13

Articles that pre-sell work better than banners as you have seen. One thing I did not mention in this guide is traffic volume. With clicks often at less than 1% it means that per 1000 pages views you will only get a handful of click through from a simple banner, and only a fraction of those will go on to sign-up and then upload or buy images.

Do the maths are you are looking at 1000s of visitors to get a single affiliate sale or earnings from a photographer. and the ratio varies wildly depending on the content of the site and who it is attracting. Worthwhile as companion selling to your photo related site, often not cost effective to create bespoke content to 'pre-sell'.

For me this site is about learning/networking/sharing and the money from a few affiliate programs comes as a nice little bonus on the site rather than a viable business on it's own. You can soon spot a site full of articles just written for affiliate marketing purposes.

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