How Unsplash Launched Its Ad Product - and Why Advertisers Love It

Jane O'Hara
Jane O'Hara
How Unsplash Launched Its Ad Product - and Why Advertisers Love It

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.

Example of Unsplash for Brands images for Square

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.

I recently connected with Unsplash’s co-founders to discuss their new ad platform. Together, Steph, Mikael, and Luke share what inspired them to build Unsplash for Brands — plus advice for others considering a native ad product.

What first inspired you to create Unsplash for Brands?

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

How long did it take to build your native ad platform? Any unforeseen challenges and/or pleasant surprises?

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.

Unforeseen challenges
  • The number of people involved in these brand decisions. In most cases, you need to get at least 5–10 stakeholders on board.
  • Finding the right stakeholders to share the opportunity. Unsplash advertising doesn’t fit neatly in a predetermined box like social or search.
  • Many of the brands and agencies we approached knew about Unsplash, but when we first started talking about sharing brands on Unsplash, some thought we meant having brands use Unsplash to download images, not using Unsplash to post branded images.
  • The importance of sales people coming with an existing network and proving it in the hiring process.
Pleasant surprises
  • The resonance with our offering. When we found the right stakeholders, they immediately got what was unique about Unsplash — it’s not about reaching the Unsplash audience, it’s about reaching the combined audience of the Internet. This was a different model from anything they had seen before so we were fast tracked into a lot of plans.
  • The major advertisers that signed on in the first year, including Microsoft, Samsung, Chewy, Dell, and Progressive Insurance.
  • We did all of our ad sales remotely.
"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

Example of Unsplash for Brands images for Jimmy Dean sausage

(A search for “food” brings up an images sponsored by Jimmy Dean, with Jimmy Dean sausages included)

How did this build compare to other platforms you’ve worked on?

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

You launched with a number of well-known brands, citing that Google, Harley-Davidson, and others wanted to change the mainstream perception of their products. Can you tell us more about how these native ads benefit brands, your contributors, your users — and, ultimately, your business model and mission?

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.

Have you received any surprising responses from brands, contributors, and/or users?

One of the most interesting things is people download and use branded images at the same rate as the organic images posted on Unsplash.

Example of Unsplash for Brands images for Boxed Water

(Boxed Water appears for a search of “water”)

What metrics do you use to determine the success of these native ad campaigns?

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.

What would you tell readers that may be considering a native ad product?

"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

How do you see the Unsplash ad product portfolio evolving over the next 2-5 years?

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?).

What advice would you offer product teams looking to build innovative ad platforms?

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.

Jane O'Hara
Jane O'Hara

Jane is the Senior Marketing Manager at Kevel. She enjoys discovering user-first ad platforms and articulating the value of Kevel's ad serving APIs.