My instinctive reaction to free stock photo website Unsplash (really, really good photos btw) was, "Ew. That feels exploitative." Free photos, but there's a "we're hiring" section. So… somebody's getting paid, right? I clicked around and found that it's a side project for freelance developer platform Crew.* And I found this post about how and why they came to start Unsplash.
Nutshell: it's marketing for them (driving traffic to Crew, which is interesting since there's no direct link) and marketing for the photographers. Yes, that dreaded word: EXPOOOSURE. (You hear the doom-laden intonation, right?) But… in this case it makes sense. Various business lessons here.
1. They don't explain the business model; they tell a story. Unsplash started with Crew giving away photos they'd paid for and didn't need. And then the photographer emailed them that his portfolio was getting a lot of attention. And Crew was getting attention too… Telling the story won me over in a way that explaining the reasoning wouldn't have.
2. Conventional marketing doesn't work. You need to create value.
Jay [Bauer] states that you must create “marketing so useful, people would pay for it.”
This doesn’t mean you need to charge people for access to your marketing. It means that your marketing should be so good that people would gladly pay for it if they were asked.
In the craft world of course this commonly takes the form of free patterns, or tutorials. It's very far from being a new idea. There is a trap here: it's not clear how great the overlap is between the market for free patterns, and the market for paid patterns. (I imagine this goes at least double for the photographic market.) That is, many people hoard free patterns wherever they find them, but will these people be willing to buy more patterns from you? Are they your right customers? Some of them probably will be – a lot of people will pay, but like free if it's available. (And if you're not well-known, a freebie is a good way to show the quality of your work – so make sure it is up to the standard of your paid patterns.) It's a numbers game. The more people see your free stuff, the greater the chance of reaching paying customers. This is one of the things that makes Knitty a great option for designers with a portfolio of paid patterns. (Plus, of course, Knitty does pay.)
3. Side projects are a familiar addiction for everyone involved in creating stuff. You're making extra stuff anyway, because making is like breathing for you – so put it to work. This is not about doing something for somebody who isn't paying you (but exposure!); it's doing something, then letting people use it, and discover you in the process. You're working for yourself, not them.
Top deadpan points to them for using Jessica Hische's flowchart as an example of side project marketing. (Totally fair. Lots of other great stuff on her site, go check it out.)
Side projects, they point out, work far better than blogging in driving traffic to your site, and can take less time. (Interesting, no? Making something might take a few hours, and a blog post might take just 20 minutes**… but one blog post is useless. You have to put time in constantly to keep your blog active and attract new readers. A tool you've made available is reusable and keeps on working for you.)
4. If you have a bunch of extra stuff you're offering besides your core product, give it a life of its own. Put it on its own domain. This doesn't work for free patterns, but what else are you making? A separate website with its own name (and, we hope, high traffic) is easy to remember, easy to search for and great for SEO.
Conclusions? Well, obviously I'm sold on Unsplash itself. Which is convenient for me, since I really like their photos and would like to use more pretty pictures myself. (I have so many thoughts on making blogs pinnable, etc etc, but that's a subject for a whole other post.) It's also a good reminder that I'd like to submit to Knitty again. And it has given me a rather different way of thinking about some other stuff I'm working on. Maybe you've got something new to chew on too.
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* I have a bit of side-eye for that too, actually. They boast about "valuing quality over competing on the lowest price", but far less prominently than they promise "charging 4X less". Analysing that would require engaging with the platform far more fully than I have time for, though. At least until I need a better website…
** Or a lot more. This particular post took a couple of hours all told.