If you haven’t heard the name Austin Distel, you’re probably familiar with his face. Distel’s image has dominated the business search results on stock image site Unsplash since he ran an experiment in 2018.
Distel’s 92 photos, available on his Unsplash account, have been downloaded over 5.5 million times and viewed over 600 million times. He’s one of Unsplash’s 50 most downloaded contributors with the photos used worldwide in presentations, blogs and publications, websites, advertising, design mockups and the personal projects of creative professionals. I caught up with Distel to explore how every type of brand could replicate his campaign for similar results.
Unsplash was launched in 2013 as a Tumblr blog with ten images and has grown into a huge source of free images, with more than 100 million downloaded each month.
Headed up by CEO Mikael Cho and recently acquired by Getty Images, Unsplash invites photographers and artists to submit photos for inclusion in its search results. When individuals or businesses download the image for free, they are shown a popup message encouraging them to thank the author by tweet or other social media mention. The user is then permitted to use the royalty-free image as they see fit, in a choice of sizes.
Users who upload photos do so on the basis that crediting is optional, not mandatory. Unsplash creates exposure for artists, creatives and brands alike, and lets users mark whether or not they are available for hire, to secure paid work.
Distel is the chief marketing officer of startup, Proof, currently part of the Y-Combinator tech accelerator programme. In 2018, he was coordinating an ad campaign targeting digital marketers. When he searched for free stock photos to use in the ad campaign, he couldn’t find any that felt authentic and matched his brand. That’s when he decided to do a photoshoot himself.
The first few of Distel’s images were taken in one shoot and depict a digital marketer in a trendy setting. Distel was already staying in the Airbnb that would become the shoot venue. He used no fancy lighting and the images were only lightly edited in post-production. Some were taken on an iPhone, some using a DSLR camera. Distel wanted the images to appear clean and trustworthy and to use his brand’s colours, but that was where the planning ended.
After the campaign, which performed well for Proof, Distel thought, “If I couldn’t find decent stock photos for digital marketing, I bet others have the same challenge.” He decided to upload his images to Unsplash royalty-free for anyone to use and “kind of forgot about them until a few months later when [he] got a text from a friend.”
The text asked, “Mate, is this you?” and Distel saw his image used in a Tony Robbins tweet. Logging back into his Unsplash account he saw they had been downloaded over a million times. Reverse image searching the images on Google showed they had been used on Forbes, Inc, FastCo, Entrepreneur and more, even in dental advertisements.
Distel’s Unsplash experiment, executed with founder of Proof, Dave Rogenmoser, was born from there. It involved shooting and supplying the stock image crowdsourcing site with further attractive images in order to secure backlinks to their websites. They planned photoshoots in swanky bars, offices in their building and even their team’s headquarters. Distel got his team involved in the images to add variety and they held a shooting day, much to everyone’s amusement.
Becoming #1 for business stock photos
When uploading the images to Unsplash, Distel added tags and ensured each description was full of relevant keywords. He made a list of keywords that he wanted to rank for, including “entrepreneur, digital marketing, social media ads, bitcoin, remote working, Zoom calls, etc…” and then had photos taken that captured the essence of the keywords.
Later, he added more terms with high search volumes, which increased his reach. These included heavyweight phrases such as “millennial, male smiling, men’s style.” While they didn’t fit his business goal, they dramatically increased the views and downloads of his images and opened up new niches. Distel created folders and collections within Unsplash for these keywords.
Next came the follow up. Using Google’s reverse image search, Distel found where the images had been used, which tended to be large publications, and went down the list reaching out to journalists to ask for a backlink to his site. Depending on the picture, Distel asked users to attribute credit to distel.com or useproof.com. His backlink hit rate was approximately one in 250, which over 5.5 million downloads is no small outcome. He was also tweeted thank you messages by many of the users, resulting in his social media profiles growing.
Distel, author of book Subscription Secrets, said the experiment brought benefits beyond search engine optimisation. The photos taken during these photoshoots have been used at Sydney Airport, in Tony Robbins’ tweets, as memes, social media posts and at conferences. He thinks that, including social sharing and impressions on the news sites using the images, his 92 pictures have been seen over one billion times. “If this was a ‘brand awareness’ campaign on Facebook it could have cost roughly $500,000 to get this many impressions.”
How brands can use Unsplash
Timberland boots conducted a similar experiment, shooting images for keywords such as hiking, adventuring, walking and climbing, and ensuring Timberland boots featured heavily in the images users saw. It’s a form of SEO and digital PR, on a growing platform, with the potential for the brand to become more embedded within its niche.
Distel also grew his company’s podcast Scale or Die using Unsplash. During a podcast recording in its studio, he took a photo of a phone with the podcast app open to show Scale or Die alongside The Joe Rogan Experience and the Gary Vee Show, two other top shows. This kind of product placement secured massive distribution and strategic market positioning for his podcast’s brand. “It’s all a bit of fun,” he smiles.
For a brand looking to stand out, every platform can be leveraged for exposure. Distel spotted an opportunity and went for it, and that’s only for one set of keywords. He believes that every brand could become famous through using Unsplash in the right way. Product placement was once reserved for film or television-size budgets, but Unsplash has levelled the playing field.
The work is front-end loaded. It requires setting up a photoshoot, hiring or borrowing models, capturing and editing the images for Unsplash on the basis that nothing might come from it. Brands need to be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort, but not necessarily cash, in return for nothing back. The images must be high quality, professional, and aspirational; writers and journalists have to want to use them. They must be easy to find; listed on Unsplash using keyword-rich descriptions and tags. After uploading, Unsplash does the rest, and brands can leave their images to be found and used.
Distel believes that one brand in each space could own Unsplash for their name, and that this is a relatively new medium that even tiny brands can investigate.
What can go wrong?
When meeting new people, often they will peer curiously at Distel and say he looks familiar, but not know where from. He’ll often be recognised at digital marketing conferences and entrepreneurial networking events. Whilst that’s amusing, Unsplash fame does have its downsides. Distel admitted that some people have created fake social media accounts using his likeness, including one who followed his friends online and sent them direct messages asking them for money. BarStool Sports shared a picture where his image was used on a fake dating profile, with an unflattering description.
He sometimes has comments from disgruntled photographers, who believe that photographers shouldn’t use Unsplash because it cheapens their work. Distel believes Unsplash marks a huge opportunity for photographers to become known and hired, by using the images that were only going to be deleted. His images would always credit the photographer, but comments still come through. Either way, he knows it’s all small compared to the upside.
Overall, this experiment takes all the best bits of marketing and combines them for big impact in terms of awareness, reach and backlinks. A great idea, an under-exploited medium, a marketing professional acting quickly and creating great content that others share because it’s in their best interest to do so. The potential for brands and individuals is huge.