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Unsplash is building an ad business around branded stock photos

Unsplash has built up a library of 1 million stock photographs, all available to use for free. Now it’s ready to start making money — and to help its photographers earn additional income in the process.

Don’t worry: The company isn’t about to start charging for its photos, which CEO Mikael Cho said risks “stalling creativity.”

Nor is it going to slap banner ads on every page of its website. Yes, it’s unveiling a digital advertising business, but Unsplash is taking a specific approach — working with companies to create branded photos, which will then appear on desirable searches.

Square, for example, could upload photos of the Square Register, which will then show up when Unsplash users search for “cash register” and other terms.

Brands working with Unsplash will get prominent placement in relevant searches, as well as their own brand channel, but Cho said the real impact only begins on the Unsplash website.

“This stuff doesn’t just live in a centralized place,” he told me. “More and more advertising platforms, it’s a walled garden. [With Unsplash], the purpose is to get it to spread: People use it in their presentations, it’ll end up on blog posts.”

With Square, for example, if someone’s writing an article about “the future of the cash register,” the Square Register suddenly becomes an obvious choice for the lead image.

“Square is known for its iconic ‘little white card reader,’ but our hardware has evolved into an ecosystem of products that helps business owners of all sizes,” said Square’s brand marketing manager Leann Livingston in a statement. “By featuring photography of Square hardware across restaurants, salons, and retail stores, we were able to expand our brand through organic imagery.”

Cho also said that in about half the campaigns so far, the brand is also commissioning Unsplash photographers to do the work. For example, Boxed Water commissioned photos of its product in some fun contexts.

“Through commissioning some of our favorite photographers, we’re setting a new norm of sustainability, allowing creatives everywhere to have access to images free from plastic bottles harming our planet,” said Boxed Water is Better CMO Rob Koenen in a statement.

Unsplash for Brands is currently invite-only. The company also says that research from Kantar Millward Brown has shown that its brand images can reach “mass scale” while outperforming TV and digital advertising benchmarks by up to five times.

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