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Dec 08, 2005
Case Study

How a Top Photo-Sharing Site Gained Traffic & Revenues: 12-Month Attack Plan

SUMMARY: The problem with publishing a general interest content site -- one that appeals to a wide swathe of the population -- is how the heck do you publicize and monetize it without going broke? Marketers, search engines, and sponsors want highly targeted demographics and content online. And consumers themselves won't purchase site memberships unless they find the content extremely *personally* compelling. Over the past 12 months, the management team at Webshots (a division of CNET Networks) has focused on a four-part business plan to overcome these challenges. Here's their story:
“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Amy McDonough, Director of Services for Webshots.

“Our users definitely have a connection to our content, which gives us a huge advantage, but it is also very weighty. People are very conscious of what they are putting up there. They want to make sure they can share it easily, that it will work, and that it will be there the next time they come back because there is that personal connection.”

Webshots got its start about 10 years ago as an “extreme sports” screensavers club. But after CNET Networks acquired it in August 2004, Webshots had evolved into a massive photo-sharing site with millions of uploaded photos.

“Webshots was a strong site, had loyal users, and a great user base,” describes McDonough.

But the user base was also broad – in age, in interests and in the way they used the site. There was a fast-growing demographic of 18-24-year-olds who were chronicling their college years. These were avid photo uploaders. But there also was a solid base of soccer moms sharing baby photos and grandparents who liked downloading screensavers for their desktops. And, about 20% of the user base was international (non-US).

McDonough and her team realized that a growing community-based membership site lives or dies based on whether it can:

#1. Sustain the interest of users, build loyalty and help them make strong connections to the content and with other members. #2. Grow revenue streams from paid memberships and advertising sponsorships.

With millions of photos being uploaded each month, there was no time to waste for the Webshots team to make enhancements. They focused on four critical areas:

Focus #1. Traffic building techniques

Driving traffic to the site – from both search engines and from current members – would generate more opportunities for advertising (page views and other statistics that advertisers love) plus create additional opportunities to convert free members to paying subscribers.

-- Search engine optimization (SEO)

The SEO challenge for Webshots was a double whammy: Content was consumer generated (uploaded by the members). Content was photos (images don’t have the advantages of text heavy pages when being indexed and ranked by search engines).

How do you get around those obstacles?

“We found that our users are really committed and spend a lot of time captioning and working on their photos,” says McDonough. So, Webshots created a simple series of input screens that would encourage members to add more information about their photos when uploading (like putting them in a category, adding a caption and adding some relevant keywords). This process would make their online photo albums more search engine friendly, putting text in all the right places around the image. (Link to sample below.)

-- Emails to members

“Our emails to members are ‘you get what you ask for,’ and are primarily used to drive traffic back to the site,” describes McDonough. While the emails might contain a marketing message (such as an announcement about a new feature on the site), they rarely contain outside advertising. Webshots developed an array of opt-in emails for free and paid members based on tools and features of the site. (Link to samples below.)

o Webshots Weekly – This feature gives a summary of new daily photos uploaded. Thumbnails of the images are included to encourage members to click and return to the site to view in full size.

o Weekly statistics of photo album – This gives the member data on how many people have downloaded their photos.

o Favorite members - Those who have chosen “favorite members” are alerted when these members have uploaded new photos to their albums.

o New guest book entries – If a member opted for a guest book on their photo album, they are alerted when another member has posted a comment.

-- RSS (Really Simple Syndication)

“For us, RSS is another way to give access to our photographs and invite members to come back and view the site more,” says McDonough. The RSS feeds contain no ads and only offer one thumbnail photo from an album (which lures members to return to the site to view the full album).

To encourage more participation in RSS, McDonough decided to educate the user. “A lot of people don’t know what RSS means, but they may have a My Yahoo Page or a blog that could use RSS, but they aren’t aware of it.” To help make it easier for members to adopt RSS, Webshots added a link to CNET’s “Learn all about RSS” page (see link at end of this article for sample).

Focus #2. Content enhancements

Webshots invested a lot of time figuring out how to arrange millions and millions of photos in a way that users could fully enjoy them. The key steps were:

-- Arm the editors with user statistics

“We make sure our editors get the right data,” says McDonough. Because many of Webshots' editors are professional photographers, they naturally have an eye for good photos. But they are also required to be good at looking at web statistics to aid in determining what members want. User statistics provide key insight on what members like, don’t like, and how they use the content.

-- Get members to recommend content ideas

In May 2005, Webshots launched a blog. Here the Webshots team (editors, product managers, site architects, etc.) made announcements of the new features and site developments and then solicited users' comments and concerns.

Polls to members were also launched to get a sense of how photos could be better categorized. (See link to sample below.)

Focus #3. Converting free members to paid subscribers

Given the broad diversity of the user base and the way they used the site (some were heavy uploaders, some heavy downloaders and others a mixture of both), it was critical that the incentive for a free member to convert to paid should be based on offering multiple-user benefits, rather than access to just one or two specific items.

“A free membership allows most of what premium can do, but just not to the same extent. All of our free members are able to enjoy and use the site,” states McDonough. Example, a free member might be able to download five photos a day and store 240, but a paid member could do unlimited downloads and store up to 3,000 photos.

The key for converting to paid membership rested in reminder messages to the free members at the time they are reaching their limits.

Example: after a free member downloads the fourth photo for the day, he is reminded that he has one left and could download more if he upgrades to a paid membership. “If you only downloaded five and found a sixth one you like, it may be enough to get you to purchase a premium membership,” McDonough describes.

The team also experimented with several subscription offer tests, including monthly vs annual billing.

Focus #4. Advertising sponsorships

In addition to traditional Web banner ad sales across the site, Webshots saw a lot of potential in selling sponsorships to photo contests. Events users would be asked to upload a photo surrounding a certain theme with hopes of winning a prize.

Effective promotion of the contests would need to be done through emails to members. Since the general policy was not to run advertising in the emails, the sponsorship promo would need to ask the user for a specific call to action. “We want to make sure that what a member is receiving (by email) is relevant to the content – that they aren’t getting a big display ad that doesn’t make sense.” (See link below for a sample of the Milk-Bone photo contest entries promo.)

Today, Webshots has more than 300 million publicly available and searchable photos, representing a 30% increase in photo uploads from a year ago. About one million new photos are added a day by free and paid members.

In the last year, Webshots has realized a 41% increase in unique visitors to the site, and page views are up by about 1.5 times. These stats make convincing presentations for increasing ad sales.

Webshots' footprint in the search engines continues to grow as 85% of the member photo albums are made public (the user has a choice to make an album private or public).

The user-friendly upload process making photo album pages more search-engine friendly seems to be working. Particularly helpful is the user statistics report. This encourages users to put relevant keywords in captions so more people will find and download their photos. “The users love the statistics. They are really excited to see how many people have downloaded their photos,” says McDonough.

Subscription offer tests

The winner here was the annual billing option. “That’s what most members signed up for,” states McDonough. “It’s also much easier to manage than monthly. With monthly, we had to email users when they were near capacity for photos, and we didn’t want them to lose their photos. It was very time-consuming to do this.” Plus, McDonough mentions that the transaction fees for monthly micropayments can be expensive.


When asked how a publisher can make money with RSS, McDonough replied: “The jury is still out on that. We monetize it by having people come back to the site more frequently.”

McDonough estimates that percentage of traffic to the site from RSS is in the single digits, and that there is a certain demographic that will use RSS. “We want to make it available for all users. We want your grandmother and the college student to be able to use Webshots.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples – sample photo upload page, emails to members, RSS education pages, member polls, and photo contest promo:


See Also:

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